March 2, 2017 10:00 am JST

Editorial: South Korea must avoid the dangers of populism

Amid political chaos, the temptation to pander to public opinion will be strong

Four years have passed since South Korean President Park Geun-hye was inaugurated, but a term that started out on a hopeful note looks set to end in disgrace. The country's first female president has been suspended from office since late last year when the National Assembly passed an impeachment motion against her over a sweeping bribery scandal. With the country in turmoil and solid political leadership lacking, where is South Korea headed now?

IDEALS ABANDONED "I stand before you today determined to open a new era of hope," Park said in her inaugural speech, delivered on Feb. 25, 2013. But economic conditions -- a top concern for the South Korean people -- have continued to stagnate, with growth in 2016 coming in at the 2% mark for a second consecutive year. Little progress has been made in narrowing the gap between the rich and the poor, leaving many in South Korean society feeling trapped.

Park's self-righteous attitude toward both the people and the political world, coupled with her reluctance to communicate with either, had already eroded her popularity. Then allegations surfaced that her longtime friend, Choi Soon-sil, had meddled in state affairs, sending the president's approval rating plummeting. Park's political future is now in the hands of the country's Constitutional Court, which will rule on whether the impeachment motion is valid and she should be removed from office. Whatever the court's decision, observers say it will be hard for her to fully serve the remaining year of her term.

The scandal over Park's bizarre relationship with Choi has put the spotlight on the cozy ties between South Korea's political and business worlds. Suspected involvement in the case led to the arrest of Lee Jae-yong, vice chairman of Samsung Electronics -- the de facto leader of the Samsung group, the country's biggest conglomerate -- on bribery charges.

Collusion between politicians and business leaders is a long-standing evil in South Korea, and there is a deep-rooted public distrust especially toward the large, family-run conglomerates, known as chaebol. In a country where the gap between the haves and have-nots is a massive one, these conglomerates have been seen as the winners and just about everybody else the losers. Park had pledged to reform the chaebol in her presidential campaign, but her administration has not been as genuine about tackling the issue as it could be. Ironically, it is her own scandal that has brought an opportunity to take the scalpel to these companies.

Hopefully this bribery case will work as a catalyst for reforming South Korean conglomerates' corporate governance and increasing transparency in business-government relations.

TOO FAR? It is not impossible, however, that people involved in efforts to root out corruption might go beyond reasonable bounds out of an eagerness to curry favor with an angry public demanding change. Some experts overseas have expressed concerns that South Korea's domestic politics and diplomacy may be increasingly swayed by public opinion, even to a dangerous extent, in the coming years. U.S. Defense Secretary James Mattis chose to visit Seoul on his first trip abroad since taking office, a sign, perhaps, that he shares these concerns.

In South Korea, political debate over the next presidential election is already in full swing. Riding a wave of public support, the opposition camp is gaining strength. Opposition parties are generally positive toward a more conciliatory approach to North Korea. But, as demonstrated by a string of ballistic missile tests and the recent murder of Kim Jong Nam, the half brother of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, Pyongyang poses a serious threat. To cope with it, South Korea, in cooperation with the U.S. and Japan, needs to step up pressure on Kim's regime.

Some people in the opposition camp are even calling for a rethink of the planned deployment of a U.S. anti-missile defense system -- the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense system -- in South Korea and of the agreement with Tokyo to settle the wartime issue of Korean "comfort women." These are irresponsible assertions.

On domestic reforms, as well as foreign affairs, we hope that policy debate will be conducted with cool heads and without losing sight of South Korea's national interests. In discussing chaebol reforms, for example, politicians must consider how to achieve that goal without threatening their ability to function as a pillar of the South Korean economy.

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