Monday, March 5, 2012

Returning Progressivism to Its Roots

“Progressive” is a word used a great deal in South Korean political circles. The Democratic United Party is “progressive,” the United Progressive Party and its constituent members are “progressive,” and Seoul Mayor Park Won Sun and Kyunghyang Shinmun are also “progressive.” It is a word used with pride by young and old alike, people who fought for years against a right wing military dictatorship that once freely trampled over the rights of the people in its pursuit of breakneck economic growth. It is held to be a good word.

But what does it mean, this word? According to the Merriam-Webster English Dictionary, a “progressive” is “one believing in moderate political change and especially social improvement by government action.” What does this notion lead one to imagine? Among other things, it leads to thoughts of steadily improving social welfare provision, tough regulation to bring down levels of environmental degradation and reduce carbon footprints, and a graded scale of taxation that leaves as much money as possible in the pockets of those on the lowest rungs of society. It also leads to thoughts of participation in the global fight for social justice. All these notions, I had long thought, were universal constants held to be indivisible from the word “progressive” itself.

Yet it has become abundantly clear that in South Korea the word “progressive” is not this universal constant that I had naively imagined it to be. For if it were, then how could South Korean “progressives” possibly ignore the plight of the North Korean people, whom the constitution of the Republic of Korea describes as its citizens? For if it were, how could one understand the deafening silence of the United Progressive Party on the issue of the forced repatriation of defectors? For if it were, how could one understand the Democratic United Party working tirelessly to ensure that no legislation on North Korean human rights makes it onto the South Korean statute books at all?

If it were, then none of these things would make any sense.

Certainly, “South Korea must not incite North Korea” is an oft-heard justification at times like these, but alas it is demonstrably nonsense. A multitude of experts from left and right have proven that North Korea is its own master, one that follows closely the Sun Tzu maxim, “He who knows when he can fight and when he cannot will be victorious.” Pyongyang, we know, will continue to follow its own path no matter what those in South Korea say or do. The man who says he must sit quietly to avoid awakening a sleeping tiger is merely making an excuse for inaction born of fear. It is a policy that looks attractive in the short term, but it solves nothing.

A progressive surely cannot ignore the difficulties faced by the North Korean people. No, he or she doesn’t have to prioritize the issue over all else, doesn’t have to go on a hunger strike outside the Chinese embassy or spend every waking hour campaigning for North Korean human rights, but it is surely a South Korean lawmaker’s duty to work for the human rights of the nation’s people, no matter who, or where, they are. And it is surely the duty of the South Korean voter to put their cross in the box of a progressive who is prepared to do that. 

Thankfully, today I am hopeful. Because when I saw on Sunday night that Ahn Cheol Soo, the dean of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology and a possible progressive presidential candidate, had visited the site of protests against the forced repatriation of defectors being held outside the Chinese embassy, I at last caught had reason to think that my dictionary was right after all.

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