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[Lee Jae-min] National Assembly failed to break old habits

Due process, mutual respect and civil debates. When do we get to see them in our parliament? Or, rather, will we ever see them? That question has echoed through the nation for the past five days.

The long-forgotten “physical” politics has roared back to life in Yeouido – live, kicking and ever more hostile. In what has been five days of pushing, shoving and shouting, to put it mildly, the National Assembly has shown how far it is removed from the aspirations of its constituents.

Legislators from different political parties collided over the “fast-tracking” of the deliberation and passage of two key reform bills: One is for election system reform and the other to introduce a new investigative agency for the crimes of high-ranking officials. Let’s set aside the merits of these bills. Which side is more responsible for the incident? Let’s look past that for now.

But whatever the reason, why verbal abuse, thuggery and violence? Have we not grown out of it?

In today’s Korea just about anyone in any company or organization who behaves the way the lawmakers did the other night would unlikely be spared. There is no reason the National Assembly should not be measured against the same, if not higher, standards.

The real concern is what this standoff bodes for the near future -- the next 12 months, to be precise. As the general election is drawing near, parties and political camps will dig in their heels and bare their teeth. So, the past five days may be just a preview of what is to come for the next year. Nothing could be more disastrous. Economically, politically and diplomatically, this period will be a critical moment for all of us. We simply do not have the luxury of consuming ourselves with the twisted plots and physical drama of the National Assembly. Not this time.

There are many reasons we have come this far in the National Assembly. In my view, one of which is the conventional (and erroneous) tolerance of verbal abuse and uncivil language in the National Assembly. Different views are inevitable and heated debates are essential in democracy. Often times, however, what is heard from our legislature via newspapers and broadcast is harsh and uncontrolled. Again, something we would hardly hear at work or in professional meetings.

Perhaps these are the seeds that foster an environment that condones violent reactions upon a tipping point. Words are not just words. Something must be done about how lawmakers treat fellow lawmakers and parliamentary colleagues.

Indeed there is a law that prohibits verbal and physical abuse in the National Assembly. But apparently the law has lost its place in the land of politics.

Coincidentally, on the same day of the start of the scuffle, the Bank of Korea announced that in the first quarter of 2019 the national economy registered its lowest performance in almost 10 years. Not only the economy, pressing national issues are piling up everywhere, and the legislature’s leadership is absolutely critical. This is a really bad time for the sort of confrontation we saw over the past several days.

At least for now, political parties need to take a step back. When the dust settles this time, they should try to restore the tortured relationship. They have to revive the spirit of compromise before things explode in our face. It will be tough, but that seems to be the only way forward.

Quite coincidentally again, the day the scuffle began was also the Law Day of 2019 (April 25). What an unseemly way of observing it.

Lee Jae-min
Lee Jae-min is a professor of law at Seoul National University. He can be reached at -- Ed.