Chung Sye-kyun became speaker of the National Assembly when his Democratic Party of Korea swept to victory in the June elections last year. The conservative Saenuri Party had taken a tremendous fall because of the fading appeal of its neoliberal policies.
Since then, Chung, a senior figure in Korean politics with a passion for institution-building, has emerged as a central political figure in Korea during the impeachment proceedings of President Park Geun-hye.
Chung recently spoke with Emanuel Pastreich about Korea’s current political crisis and his perspective on the challenges, and possibilities, that lie ahead. As a man in the eye of the storm, Chung is perhaps best positioned to give an accurate assessment.Enjoying this article? Click here to subscribe for full access. Just $5 a month.
Emanuel Pastreich: Recently, there have been massive demonstrations in Seoul every weekend, which have attracted the attention of people around the world. The participation of ordinary citizens in these peaceful candlelight demonstrations suggests to many that there is a vitality in Korean democracy which is rare, not only in Asia, but around the world. What are your thoughts about the recent demonstrations?
Chung Sye-kyun: Although the citizens of Korea held multiple demonstrations on a massive scale, there were no incidents or accidents and they carried out all their actions peacefully and respectfully. And the demonstrations even included cultural activities — that part surprised even me. I am certain that observers around the world were equally impressed by Korea’s deep commitment to the democratic process.
In fact, the proactive attitude of Korea’s citizens toward democracy was so great that it offset for me the embarrassment that I previously felt about the Choi Soon-sil scandal itself. Korea has at last come of age in our politics and taken center stage in the pursuit of due process and democratic accountability.
I take pride in what our citizens have accomplished and I feel like boasting about it to our friends elsewhere in Asia, or around the world. That is how great the historical significance of these protests is for us.
I said to my colleagues in the National Assembly, “Look at what is happening in the Gwanghwamun Plaza! The citizens have reached the highest level of commitment to democracy to be found anywhere. How can the National Assembly continue to be second rate, or even third rate in its politics? Shouldn’t the National Assembly follow the model set by our citizens, at the very least?”
We must put to good use the stunning energy, the enthusiasm unleashed at those demonstrations so as to solve the many problems that we face and there are many from youth unemployment to growing income disparity. We can turn this movement of the citizens into the engine which will drive reform in Korea and give our people hope for the future.
Korea will elect its new leader at this historic crossroads in its historical development. What virtues will be demanded of the leader of the country under these most critical circumstances?
I think our leader must have a deep understanding of the full implications of the new era that we are entering. He or she must grasp the impact that the fourth industrial revolution will have on our society, for example. I believe that the leader should embrace a vision, and a strategy, that will take our country to the next level. We have done well over the last 50 years. But the world is constantly changing and we must have the imagination and bravery to create new methods to respond.
We must strive to identify new trends early and respond to them quickly. And it is absolutely imperative that we focus on the problems faced by our youth. The low birth rate and the onset of an aging society in Korea impact them directly. They face tremendous challenges when they look for work and they are finding that the cost of housing places a home far out of their reach. We need a leader who has new ideas, new solutions, to address these problems and is ready to implement them.
Drawing on your considerable political experience, how do you interpret the stunning global shocks of last year? Certainly the approval of Brexit and the victory of Trump are developments for which Koreans were not prepared. How can Korea make the paradigm shift necessary to meet such changing geopolitical conditions?
There is an enormous amount we need to do still to meet these challenges. It will not be easy. We refer to Korea as a “small, open economy” and we have an imperative to cooperate closely with our partners. I would say that, ultimately, the greatest asset of Korea, the secret of its competitiveness, is its people. We call this concept of looking for ultimate strength within “jagang.” If we Koreans cannot find that inner strength within ourselves, it will be hard to maintain our achievements in this turbulent world. New challenges are emerging on every front. That is why Koreans should never lose sight of that strength within us.
We must take steps to further bolster the national strength we have acquired so far, in fields like science and technology. The effective utilization of our innate strengths will be the key to Korea’s growth in the coming period of disruption in international relations. Koreans should not only make good use of our innovations, we should embrace our tradition of perseverance and of passion for work to drive us forward.
This transition will be easiest if we have a strong and committed leader. We must focus on electing the right person this year, someone who is well-respected in the international community and who can rally together the nations of the world to cooperate with Korea for peaceful coexistence and mutual prosperity.
The next administration in the United States under Donald Trump will be focused on Korea’s trade policies, and perhaps may make some unprecedented demands. What do you think would be the wisest approach for Korea in dealing with trade in this unpredictable environment? What stance should Korea adopt in its negotiations with the new U.S. administration?
My personal belief is that the economy, encompassing world trade, will be decided based on the principle of economy.
There are political approaches that can achieve certain effects for the short term. But in the end, over the long term, economic factors will be decisive. For this reason, if we can maintain Korea’s economic competitiveness, Korea can maintain its position in global trade for the future regardless of the ideas of any one foreign leader.
These challenges cannot be solved solely through politics or diplomacy. We must devote our efforts to our economy and maintain our competitiveness to respond to those challenges. For example, if the mark “made in Korea” denotes products that are of the highest quality at a competitive price, American consumers will continue to buy those products regardless of President Trump’s opinion.
There may be ways to purchase products directly, or there may be U.S. companies that may purchase those products and pass them on to American consumers. We do not have to focus constantly on what exactly the United States president is saying each moment.
The situation in Northeast Asia, and above all on the Korean Peninsula has grown tense recently. Tension between North and South is mounting because of North Korea’s nuclear program and the consequent UN sanctions imposed on North Korea. How do you see the North Korea problem?
The people of North Korea are watching closely the changing political dynamics in South Korea. This nuclear issue should be solved, not only for the sake of South Korea, but also for the sake of North Korea as well. Pyongyang’s development of nuclear weapon has not been good for North Korea either. We need to work hard to convince North Korea to eliminate its nuclear weapons. But the way we approach this problem should not rely solely on international economic sanctions. What we need above all is a dialogue.
We should seek out a two-track approach with North Korea that combines possible economic sanctions with engagement through dialogue. Economic sanctions are only effective as a means of drawing the North into a dialogue. Sanctions by themselves should not be our goal.
If our actions, such as economic sanctions, make the situation difficult for the government of North Korea, we do so only because we want to solve the nuclear issue. We do not impose sanctions because we resent the citizens of North Korea, or because we want to cause them to suffer. It is for this reason that I believe that any sanctions must be combined with an ongoing dialogue.
The current government seems to be in a rush to deploy the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile defense system. What are your thoughts on this matter?
I have spoken out about the THAAD missile defense system deployment previously. I stated repeatedly that if the THAAD missile system is truly necessary for Korean security, the proposal must be approved through a debate in the National Assembly and we must consult fully with citizens who live near the possible locations for deployment of THAAD about their concerns and their needs. Also, the concerns of surrounding nations who will be affected by the deployment of this system must be carefully considered in our discussions. All these steps are required to make sure that there are no serious problems that will result from a decision to deploy the system.
Specifically, I argued that we must follow a democratic process while we pursue this policy of deploying THAAD.
I ran into tremendous opposition from the ruling party concerning this point.
I believe that even more important than the question of whether we should proceed with, or not, plans for deployment, is the nature of the process that we follow. If the procedure is democratic in nature, whether we agree with the conclusion or not, we must recognize it. Consequently, there will be a political consensus. The process for considering and approving the policy decision must be democratic.
Government policy requires that THAAD must obtain approval in the National Assembly. This administration, however, has made the decision to deploy on its own without the required approval of the National Assembly. That approach is clearly a mistake.
All treaties with foreign powers and other important policy decisions require the approval of the National Assembly. Among the policy decisions that require the approval of the National Assembly is the question of the financial burden resulting from policies.
This purchase and deployment of THAAD must be paid for with the tax revenue from taxes paid for by our citizens. The constitution stipulates that projects that require the commitment of tax revenue require the approval of the National Assembly for the simple reason that citizens will bear the burden of the costs. So far, although such approval of costs is required, the current administration has claimed that “instead of giving cash to purchase the land that will be used for deployment of THAAD, the government will rather offer a swap with other land that the government already possesses.”
Well, it might seem at first glance that the land is being obtained without the transfer of cash, but the truth is that government’s property would be transferred to some person, or corporation. That is the same as using the people’s taxes for this purpose and therefore the approval of the National Assembly is required. If the National Assembly has not approved this project, it should be stopped.
Recently, an agreement was signed for sharing of military intelligence between Korea and Japan known as the GSOMIA (General Security of Military Information Agreement). The reaction from the Korean public to this agreement is divided. Critics point out that this decision was rushed just like the decision to deploy THAAD. What are your thoughts?
The GSOMIA agreement with Japan has significant ramifications, but it does not come close to the THAAD missile defense deployment in terms of the resulting ripple effect for Korea’s security policy.
However, the fact is that Japan and its military have committed serious wrongdoings in the past, and yet Japan refuses to acknowledge the truth, let alone to make a sincere apology. For this reason, even relatively small misdeeds on the Japanese will be subject to speculation and will take on tremendous proportions as a result of the emotions released in Korea.
And that is not the only problem involved here. The current administration rushed this proposal through in haste, allowing no time for appropriate discussion or for due process. This case is similar to that of the deployment of THAAD in that respect.
In the case of the GSOMIA agreement with Japan, we must consider both the emotional response of our citizens and the procedural missteps. But another problem is the possible unintended consequences of this hastily constructed agreement. There may be still some side effects that that were not anticipated. Perhaps, with the passage of time, some of the problems related to the GSOMIA agreement may cease to draw such attention. Nonetheless, we must make sure that we avoid such inappropriate approaches to governance.
China has increased restrictions on the import of Korean products and the distribution of culture contents as a response to Seoul’s agreement to deploy THAAD. At the same time, the Trump administration is promising to push forward with an “America first” policy that might transform American diplomacy. It seems that Korea and its diplomacy faces a long and winding road ahead with challenges at every turn. How is the National Assembly preparing to respond to these challenges at this moment?
I believe that the best response for Korea is to abide by higher principles. The United States is our only ally and at the same time we have the biggest economic relationship with China. It follows that both countries are incredibly important to Korea. We must think very carefully about what is correct, what is rational, and then meticulously make our policy decisions. We must hold up our principles and not be swayed by political power.
If a policy decision is the correct one, we should go forward and earnestly, passionately, explain our reasoning and ask for understanding. We have no choice but to follow the proper and appropriate direction. If we do not do that, we have no way of satisfying both sides. It is critical that we show the maximum of sincerity and good will and that we follow the proper course as defined by national interests, international norms and common sense reasoning.
That is a very inspiring vision. The question is, do you think the people in Korea are ready for that sort of large vision of what is possible in Korea?
Before the Choi Soon-sil scandal, around 60 percent of Koreans supported constitutional revision, 30 percent thought it was unnecessary and ten percent had no opinion. But since that scandal broke out, many more citizens, especially intellectuals, have come forth to address the problems in the constitution. Citizens are saying now, “This is exactly the reason why we should not have an imperial presidential system.” Or, “This is not a problem with politicians, but rather a problem in the system itself.” We need to fix the system.
The candle vigils of our citizens helped to create a mood in which we could hold Choi Soon-sil accountable. But the final goal of these citizen’s movements is not only to have the president to resign, but also to create an environment in which we are offered new options as we set out to change the system of government.
If it is the will of the people, we need to change the nature of the National Assembly, the prosecutor’s office, and we must pursue a broad range of reforms across the board in order to create a new Republic of Korea. In addition, I think that the mood for constitutional reform is quite ripe for serious action. Many ordinary citizens have come to see that constitutional revision should be at the core of our response.
Emanuel Pastreich is Director of the Asia Institute.