There was a talk today in the Sigur Center by a visiting South Korean sociologist, Ilpyo Hong, who looks at social movements and their effect on the South Korean government. Dr. Hong had some interesting points about social movements in South Korea. They are powerful, and credible, held in higher respect in many cases than the bureaucracy or politicians. They are often seen as more moral and more effective. Dr. Hong seemed also to think that they were the most effective way, and a necessary way, for the Korean people to express their wishes to the government. He especially emphasized the use of petitions as methods of instituting policy and changing laws. These methods place an emphasis on the media's role in promoting political movements, in other words, what issues are publicized are those that people are motivated on.
He discussed the movements for democracy, emphasizing the broad-based demand for democracy, expressed through a number of organizations that often utilized extreme tactics (he showed a picture of a man self-immolating and, I think, falling off a roof, and another of Lee Han-yeol, mentioned here as a martyr for the democracy cause). Another aspect of interest for our class is that most Korean social movements are national in scope and focus. They do not attempt to modify local policies, seem not to be motivated by local politics (as they often are in the US) but rather by national issues. They have focused on different issues over time, starting with labor and gender issues, and moving, today, to what Dr. Hong called "political" issues, such as matters of institutional reform, corruption, the "purity" of candidates, party reform, and other governance topics.
While Dr. Hong was a very determined supporter of the social movements, he did point out one flaw, that they seriously and consistently weakened the party structure. He pointed to the "black list movement" of judging politicians and attempting to prevent those deemed improper candidates from being elected, as a cause of a siginifcant recent increase in the number of bills put forth by legislators, a change from a large number previously put forth by social movements and citizens movements. To me, this perhaps signifies that peopel are beginning to trust legislators and politicians more, and are allowing them to do their job as legislators, but I do not know enough about the topic to say for certain. Dr. Hong also stated that all of this activity has not only brought forth the progressive groups, but also solidified the conservatives into a functional coalition.
My major questions, in terms of the function of South Korean democracy (however effective you believe it is) is something that I know is driven by my American understanding: that bills and other legislation is originated directly from the people through petition, which is then brought up for discussion just like any other bill. That was my understanding from the talk today, and if I am misunderstanding, I would appreciate any explanation. Given this understanding, to me, this seems odd, Dr. Hong pointed out that this sidelines politicians, emphasizes the media, and national issues. Is it possible that this style of democracy is part of what is driving the centrality of nationalist and historical issues in South Korean politics?
I have many more notes from this talk, so if anyone has any questions or comments, please ask!