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Views differ on the rise of civic groups

By Korea Herald

Published : Nov. 3, 2011 - 16:33

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(Yonhap News) (Yonhap News)
Some regard Park’s mayoral election as threat to civil activism, while others an evolution


Upon the election of liberal activist Park Won-soon as Seoul mayor, civic groups stepped forward into the political arena out of their conventional role as watchdogs, raising both expectations and concerns at the same time.

The Seoul mayor, the first elected as an independent and also as an activist, is dubbed the living witness to the history of civil activism in Korea.

One of the founding members of the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a leading liberal watchdog, he also kicked off and led the Beautiful Foundation and the Hope Institute, building reputation as progressive figure.

“I intend to work for the citizens’ interest only, without being affected by inter-party disputes,” Park said upon officially announcing his candidacy in September.

Throughout the electoral campaign period, Park’s support rate was visibly higher than that of his rival Na Kyung-won of the ruling conservative Grand National Party, especially so after Professor Ahn Cheol-soo renounced candidacy, pledging to support him.

Park’s sudden rise brought a sense of alarm not only upon the ruling party but also upon the main opposition Democratic Party, as it reflected the public’s general distrust of political parties.

As he won the liberal bloc’s sole candidacy, the DP added momentum to its efforts to integrate left-wing parties to gain matching status to the ruling party in next year’s general and presidential elections.

Conventionally, such political mergers would have involved parties only, but this time, civic groups stepped out to take a leading role in the processes.

Eyes were turned to “Innovation and Integration,” a council largely led by the Roh Moo-hyun Foundation chairman Moon Jae-in and backed by liberal civic group figures.

The group, which originally kicked off as a body to select the liberal bloc’s unified candidate, is now regarded as an intermediate stage between civil activism and politics.

Some considered such changes as an evolution of civic movements, others as challenges or even mutations.

“Civil groups’ independence, neutrality and ability to offer constructive criticism have long helped our society mature and advance,” said Yoon Pyung-joong, political philosophy professor at Hanshin University.

However, some could question their identity as they step into the realm of real politics, he also said.

“Modern history has been shored up by a triad balance of three major factors -- government, market and civil society,” Yoon said.

“Civic groups may any time face blame, should they lose their independence from the state or the market.”

Especially in Korea, which underwent military dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1980s, democracy has largely been symbolized by civic groups or star activists, he said.

Hyun Taek-soo, sociology professor at Korea University, also said that civic groups are to focus on keeping their roles as a level-headed observer over state affairs, not to lose the public’s long-built trust.

“Park’s involvement in the mayoral race was an act of participatory democracy but may paradoxically endanger the core spirit of civil activism,” he said.

Aware of such concerns, civic groups set out to drawing a line between themselves and the newly elected mayor.

“Park is no longer a civic activist but the city’s mayor so should refrain from involving the civil society in his administration activities,” the Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice, a representative right-wing civic group, said through a statement, the day after the by-elections.

The PSPD also pledged to watch over Park’s mayoral performance, keeping an appropriate distance from the metropolitan government.

“Park’s election left civic groups with two major tasks,” said the PSPD.

“One is to support Park for him to become a success model and the other to maintain a neutral and critical view of him all the while.”

By Bae Hyun-jung
(tellme@heraldcorp.com)