The Challenge of Korea's Narrow Political Culture

This week, South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s second candidate for prime minister, Moon Chang-keuk, pulled his name from consideration, following outrage over comments he made about imperial Japan’s occupation of Korea. This follows the collapse of the candidacy of Ahn Dai-hee, a former judge who made an income of $1.6 million after his return to the private sector late last month.

For the president, the loss of two candidates for prime minister has hit hard. Polls show that approval ratings for the president have declined sharply over the past few weeks, and are at their lowest point since Park assumed office. The loss of political capital so early in the administration portends significant difficulties in the coming years for Korea’s government.

But beyond the polls, the withdrawals of both candidates illustrates a growing problem in Korea: the exacting expectations of political candidates for office. This is a real challenge, both for Korea as well as for many established democracies like the United States. Due to the rallying effect of the Internet as well as an aggressively adversarial political culture, candidates are now put under an unbelievable amount of scrutiny.

That scrutiny would seem useful; after all, politicians holding ministry portfolios or senior government positions are entrusted with powers that few others in society wield. But as the bar has moved higher for candidates, the number of candidates that might have a shot of making it through the political system has narrowed.

The United States has not been immune to these kinds of political purity tests. We can see this effect most keenly on the Supreme Court, where jurists who hope to one day be nominated by a president avoid stating a controversial opinion on, well, anything. Take Elena Kagan for instance. Despite being the dean of Harvard Law School, she had written a grand total of 19 publications in her entire career according to her confirmation papers, with many of these outside of legal argument.

However, Kagan’s generation of jurists was prepared for this environment. Kagan received her JD in 1986, just one year before the infamous confirmation hearings that derailed the appointment of Robert Bork to the Supreme Court. It is not hard to see how she and others of her generation adapted to this heightened scrutiny by reducing their publications and narrowing their fields of inquiry.

This problem is particularly acute in Korea, because its societal norms around candidates have changed so quickly that there hasn’t even been a generational shift in the politicians to adapt to these new standards. The kinds of activities and behavior that were acceptable in the political class just a decade ago are now completely forbidden. That means that almost any candidate who could potentially be a candidate likely has some baggage associated with them, whether it is cozy business-government relations, past comments, making money after government service, illegal school registration, tax avoidance, and the list goes on.

My concern runs deeper though, as the rise of social networks and the Internet’s indelible memory could make this situation even worse in the future. What happens to the next generation of politicians who have college party pictures used against them, or their words in a high school newspaper?

Are we converging on a system that puts only the most boring, unsuccessful, uninteresting, and ultimately useless people in power? What does it say when the United States can’t put one of its top humanitarians, Paul Farmer, in charge of its primary international development agency because he can’t get through the vetting process. As Nicolas Kristof wrote at the time: “if a saint like Farmer can’t get through, who can?”

I joked on Twitter that Korea’s third prime minister candidate is likely to be a charm. But by charm, I meant exactly the opposite. I half expect a person in a coma, as that is likely to be the only candidate that has a chance of making it through the gauntlet.

In order for democratic societies to function, we as citizens, whether in the United States, Korea, or anywhere else, need to create more space for people to engage in politics, even if they don’t necessarily have a sterling record. While in office, integrity is keen, and failure to maintain a high standard should be met with swift punishment. But let’s tone down the animosity to every chink in the armor of a candidate’s past, and instead engage them more substantively on the issues they hope to address. We need to build a better politics.