Revisiting June 29 in 1987
Twenty-five years ago today, Roh Tae-woo, the handpicked successor to President Chun Doo-hwan, announced a sweeping democratization proposal, including the adoption of direct presidential elections and an amnesty for Kim Dae-jung who was under house arrest.
It was a drama which citizens had initially welcomed, ending three weeks of street demonstrations, which had started on June 9 when Yonsei University student Lee Han-yeol was injured by a teargas canister that penetrated his skull. He became the symbol of the ensuing nationwide protests, which peaked at 1.5 million people on June 26 in 37 cities. On June 10, President Chun Doo-hwan handpicked Roh as his successor.
Neck-tied white collar workers returned to work. Street honking ended as gas grenades disappeared. Police restored power. Many restaurants and coffee shops provided free meals and beverages in jubilation over the victory of the people’s power. Just days before the declaration, talks of martial laws and disbanding of the National Assembly haunted the country.
In hindsight, it was a conspiracy between Chun and Roh to prolong power by dividing the opposition — Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. The two coup leaders had no choice but to accept the popular demands ahead of the historic Seoul Olympics a year later. Roh won the presidential election in December, the first direct election in 15 years since the late Park Chung-hee introduced the October Yushin (Revitalizing Reform) in 1972.
The June 29 Declaration, however, put the country on the irreversible path toward democracy. Two theories exist on the historiography of the nation’s democratization. The first view is that the ruling elite made a calculated compromise for a step-by-step transition to democracy. The more plausible theory is that illegitimate leaders bowed to popular demand.
Korea now enjoys press freedom. Abuses of human rights have disappeared. Political prisoners no longer exist. Local and educational autonomy have been put in place.
Over the past 25 years, Korea has shown to the world that parallel development of the economy and democracy is possible. Korea joined the OECD. Per-capita income rose above $20,000. Presidential and general elections were held in a democratic and transparent manner. Western countries regard Korea as a model case for advancing democracy and economic prosperity simultaneously.
Are Koreans happier now than 25 years ago? Koreans should be happy and feel a sense of pride for their achievements they realized through pain and struggle.
The reality is that Korea is more complex and tension-ridden now than in 1987. At that time, no such words as polarization, high jobless rate, high suicide rate and ideological clashes appeared in daily newspapers. Manufacturing, the backbone of the economy, has shrunken as a percentage of GDP in a noticeable way over two-and-a half decades.
In view of the current escalating ideological conflict, regional animosity, which had peaked in the 1990s, seems romantic and nostalgic. North Korea became a monster capable of annihilating South Korea with its nuclear bombs. The Cold War confrontation between the two Koreas appears to be at an all-time high.
Household debt has reached peak almost to the point of bursting. The economy has become bipolar with chaebol growing at an unprecedented pace. Small-and medium-sized companies are struggling although they account for 99 percent of the number of companies and 88 percent of the number of employees. Any trickle-down effect is elusive. The popular call for increasing welfare has been growing, but the national debt as a percentage of GDP has been growing the fastest in the OECD. A patriotic can-do spirit among policymakers is rarely noticeable. Ominous is the possibility that the nation might follow the path of Japan’s long-term economic stagnation. Pessimistic economists say Korea will face the Japan-style Lost Decades unless it adopts preemptive steps now.
Local and educational autonomy are undergoing deep trial and error. The political climate is still far away from dialogue and compromise. Democracy sometimes means unbridled freedom without responsibility. Frustrating ordinary citizens is the persistency of corruption. A winner-takes-all mentality still sets a high mental barrier between the eastern and western parts of South Korea.
George Orwell said in his famous essay on Politics and the English Language, ``(The) decline of a language must have political and economic causes.’’ ``(The) enemy of clear language is insincerity.’’ ``Language reflects existing social conditions.’’
The Korean language is more corrupt now than 25 years ago. Anonymous vulgar and debased commentary is widespread, especially in the cyber world. It means thoughts corrupt language; and language also corrupts thoughts. Politicians habitually use silly words and expressions. Instead of promoting understanding, their language amplifies misunderstanding.
Now Korea needs June 29 Declaration 2.0. The country needs a new version of social reform for national harmony between the haves and the have-nots, and conservatives and liberals. Inter-Korean relations need a new paradigm for peaceful coexistence and reconciliation.
Despite progress in press freedom and in human rights, eavesdropping and surveillance of citizens have yet to disappear. Unionists at broadcasting companies are striking over the government’s meddling. Prosecutors and judges are still objects of public cynicism as they are soft on the powerful and the wealthy.
A five-year single-term presidency through direct voting was instrumental in blocking the emergence of military leaders. Korea has outgrown the Constitution, and a constitutional revision has become inevitable. Either the two-term four-year presidential system or the hybrid form of power sharing between the president and the National Assembly is necessary. Under the current presidential system, Korea would continue to be deadlocked in its move toward political compromise, economic takeoff and social disharmony. Democracy has blossomed but has yet to mature fully in Korea.
Lee Chang-sup is the executive managing director of The Korea Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.>