The Trouble with Democracy

June 17th, 2011

Thucydides’ History of the Peloponnesian War gives us one of the earliest accounts of the follies of democracy.  In the wake of a series of defeats on the Peloponnese, the charismatic and popular Athenian general, Alcibiades, called for a campaign against Sicily.  For several reasons the campaign was a bad idea, but the Athenians were yearning for a quick victory and a chance to feel good about being Athenian. Within the course of a single speech, Alcibiades gave the people what they wanted, and the assembly enthusiastically embraced his proposal for war and a chance to redeem Athens’ image. The Assembly then voted in favor of a strategically imprudent campaign, which ultimately led to the downfall of Athens.

As was the case then, the pressures of the domestic voice are heavily influencing South Korea’s decision makers’ policy, while leading its politicians into the murky waters of duplicity. Following the North’s claim that members of the South Korean Government secretly met for talks with their representatives in China, South Korea’s media has erupted in a rash of accusations between members of President Lee Myung-bak’s Grand National Party and members of the Democratic Party.  The conclusions that each of the parties came to about the other are what you might expect.  Kim Jin Pyo, the minority whip for the Democratic Party in the National Assembly lashed out at the President, referring to his administration as two-faced and inconsistent.  That is, given that Lee Myung-bak’s policy has been to refuse talks and deny state-sponsored food aid until the North apologizes for its role in the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, it seems painfully inconsistent that his government had been holding secret talks with the North in Beijing.

The North’s enthusiasm in defaming the South for the secret talks, never mind that both sides agreed to the meeting, is potentially complicating the situation.  Not only has the GNP been called out and admonished by its political rival, it has also been disgraced by the North’s claims that the GNP ‘begged’ for talks.  If the recordings are indeed released, the GNP will be reluctant to engage in diplomatic meetings, clandestine or otherwise, for fear of further undermining its image.  Although a lack of dialogue is in nobody’s best interest, it is unlikely that the Koreas will be mending the issue anytime soon.

The commotion is indicative of the troubles sometimes associated democracy, and one of the reasons why the terms read out by the North enjoy considerable staying power in negotiations. Namely, because the North is not obliged to listen to the ballot.  Lee’s hard-nosed stance against the North has been apparent since day one of his presidential campaign.  His position was a counter to the last remnants of the Democratic Party’s Sunshine Policy, which had been criticized as ineffective and wasteful by both members of the GNP and increasing numbers of voters.  With many of Lee’s supporters angry with the North for its recent attacks, it only made sense for Lee to lead the way in chastising the North.  Yet keeping his neighbor at arm’s length has become increasingly difficult as a food crisis looms and calls for humanitarian aid crescendo from both domestic and international platforms.  Is has become increasingly difficult to engage in talks with the North, a frustrating but necessary endeavor in any case, forcing Lee to look for ways to have his cake and eat it too.

This is not, however, unique to South Korea.  Domestic constituents in both the U.S. and Japan push and pull politicians into weak or sometimes ineffective policies vis-a-vis the DPRK.  For years, the memories of the kidnapping of Japanese citizens became so politicized and vivid at home that Tokyo’s representatives at the Six-Party Talks had no choice but to dig in their heels, creating considerable obstacles for progress.  For other reasons, the same has been true of U.S. officials.[1]

The irony is that the nature of democracy is giving the DPRK the upper hand in negotiations, due to its absence of upcoming elections.  Furthermore, Pyongyang is aware of the difficulties associated with organizing an effective resistance without food or channels for communication.  Even if the citizens are unhappy with their government in the North, they will be hard-pressed to vent their frustrations, leaving the Government to carry on as it pleases.

Now it appears that the least constructive outcome is becoming increasingly more likely.  The North is threatening to engage in no further talks for the remainder of Lee’s tenure, while the conservative press in the South is showing support for the President’s standoffish policy by keeping relatively quiet on the issue.  For Lee Myung-bak, abandoning his my-way or the high-way policy, if nothing more, could pave the way for a greater assurance of peace on the Korean peninsula.  But doing so would undoubtedly risk alienating those many voters in the South who feel hard done by their Northern neighbor’s detestable, albeit predictable, behavior.

[1] US Special Envoy Robert King and the EU’s food aid teams are an additional example of how the pressures of domestic legislatures and constituent opinions are impacting needs assessments

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Konrad Mathesius