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[Seoulitics] Breaking Free from Clique Politics: The Urgent Need for Political Reform in South Korea

Confronting the Shadows: Challenging Clique Dominance in South Korea's Political Arena

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Breaking Free from Clique Politics: The Urgent Need for Political Reform in South Korea


By Byung Kee Park


Seoul, Korea  In the dynamic landscape of South Korean politics, a pressing issue has emerged that demands immediate attention and resolution: the pervasive influence of clique politics. This phenomenon, akin to 'closed-door' or 'exclusive' politics, is characterized by a concentration of power in the hands of a select few, often sidelining the broader interests and voices of the populace. This issue is not unique to politics; it extends its roots into various sectors such as business, government, societal organizations, and educational institutions.


A closer look at the current South Korean political scene reveals that major parties like the People Power Party and the Democratic Party are deeply entrenched in this form of politics. The People Power Party showcases this through a clique centered around President Yoon Suk Yeol's core supporters, while pro-Lee Jae-Myung factions heavily influence the Democratic Party. The defining traits of clique politics include decision-making by a limited group, opacity in the decision-making process, and a tendency to prioritize the interests of the few over the many. This approach to governance leads to several critical issues:


Erosion of Fairness and Justice: In the intricate tapestry of South Korean politics, a concerning trend of concentrated power undermines the principles of fairness and justice. This trend, where the majority's interests and opinions are overshadowed or marginalized by the whims of a powerful few, poses a significant threat to societal balance.


This issue was brought into sharp focus when the People Power Party, one of the country's leading political forces, ousted its young leader, Lee Jun Seok, a move that marked the rise of clique politics. The party's strategy to elevate Kim Ki-hyun to leadership, ensuring non-interference from existing leaders, further highlights this troubling trend.


Hong Joon-pyo, a former leader of the People Power Party and the current Mayor of Daegu, has been openly critical of this shift. He lamented the loss of legacy politics grounded in loyalty and conviction, prevalent since the 'Three Kims' era - Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-pil. He says what remains now is a form of factional politics where cliques dominate the scene.


The opposition party, the Democratic Party, is not immune to similar dynamics. It is increasingly influenced by a strong fanbase supportive of Lee Jae-myung, especially a group known as 'Gaettal' ('Daughters of Reform'). This faction's influence has led the Democratic Party down a path emblematic of clique politics. Representative Lee Sang-min, known for his critical stance against Lee Jae-myung, has reportedly faced a barrage of personal attacks and derogatory messages from this group, as he revealed in a recent interview.


Such developments in both major political parties indicate a worrying shift away from democratic principles, where the few suppress the voice of the many. This trend compromises the integrity of the political process and threatens the core values of fairness and justice in South Korean society.


The stifling of Diversity and Creativity: The detrimental impact of disregarding diverse perspectives and creative solutions in South Korean politics is becoming increasingly evident. This issue, which stifles societal and economic advancement, is rooted in the overemphasis on a narrow set of views to the exclusion of a broader, more inventive discourse.


A stark example of this problem was evident in the lead-up to the Gangseo District by-election. Former People Power Party leader Lee Jun Seok predicted a significant defeat for the party's candidate, foreseeing a loss margin of 18%. In response, Kim Byung Min, a senior party member, dismissed Lee as a "pseudo-commentator." The election results, with the party suffering an 17% loss, proved Lee's forecast alarmingly accurate. Kim's criticism represented a reluctance to acknowledge unfavorable predictions and signified a broader trend of silencing dissent within the party.


Despite Lee's data-driven analysis, the People Power Party ignored his insights. In a bid for change, the party appointed John Linton, an American-Korean, as the head of their innovation committee. However, the entrenched attitude of disregarding minority viewpoints rendered his recommendations ineffective, leading to the near failure of the committee's initiatives.


The situation was further exacerbated when party factions and pro-Yoon supporters criticized figures like Lee for being too outspoken or disrespectful. In a particularly poignant moment, Lee, in a press conference, tearfully appealed to President Yoon to break the "Be silent, No critique" of the ruling party, highlighting the ostracization faced by those who dare to critique the party or the President.


Similarly, the Democratic Party faces its challenges with diversity. Former senior member of the Democratic Party Kim Hae-young, known for his forthrightness, pointed out the party's struggle with entrenched privilege, lack of diversity, and uniformity in an interview with Seoul Newspaper. He noted that a culture of conformity within the party had overshadowed its need for diverse voices, which he believes are essential for its vitality and policymaking.


These instances across major political parties in South Korea underscore a concerning trend: the suppression of diverse and creative thought, which is crucial for robust democratic discourse and the nation's progress. This pattern not only hampers political innovation but also threatens the democratic fabric of South Korean society.


Intensification of Social Conflict: South Korean politics is currently facing an escalation of social conflict, primarily fueled by the prevalence of clique politics. This phenomenon is not merely a political inconvenience but a catalyst for significant social instability, as it fosters social divisions.


The core of this issue lies in the factions that dominate the political landscape, such as pro-Yoon and pro-Lee factions within the major parties. While these groups appear to offer a semblance of unity and solidarity within their respective parties, the reality is starkly different. Instead of fostering cohesion, these cliques have deepened the rifts, leading to heightened social unrest.


One of the fundamental principles of democracy is the thriving of society through vigorous debate and the synthesis of opposing viewpoints. However, the current practice of top-down decision-making, where a select few dictate the course and the masses are expected to follow merely, is antithetical to this ideal. This approach not only stifles democratic discourse but also paves the way for conflict and anxiety rather than unity and harmony.


In essence, the consequence of such a political structure is a society riddled with divisions and tensions. These divisions are not limited to political ideologies but permeate various aspects of social life, leading to a broader sense of unease and instability. The need for a shift towards more inclusive and participatory political practices is evident if South Korea is to navigate away from this path of division and towards a more stable and cohesive society.

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