In the U.S., members of Congress visit their districts on weekends whenever they have time. They have to do so because they always have heavy schedules piled up in their districts. It is common that their congressional activities during weekdays follow easier schedules than their busy, non-stop schedules in districts on weekends. It is not imaginable to protest on the street in Washington for more than 50 days without returning to their districts, as some members of the National Assembly have been doing in Korea.
It would be hard for American people to understand why congressmen should set up tents and protest on the street. They would think that if the congressmen have something to say, they can speak in Congress where they have the privilege of exemption from liability for their speeches.
Of course, there might be a desperate reason for the protesting members of the National Assembly to think that directly appealing to the people is more effective. However, the members of the U.S. Congress would think that they can persuade the people more effectively by speaking on the floor of Congress in front of live TV cameras. Public opinion in Korea does not seem to support the street protest by the Democratic Party very much either.
The members of the National Assembly, the legislative branch of Korea, spent the biggest holiday, Chuseok, in tents to make their case. The majority party puts high political pressure on them to return to the National Assembly to deal with pressing national problems for poor people. All of this probably seems hypocritical to the people.
A political commentator said that the President did not give anything for the minority party to justify its return to the National Assembly in a three-party talk held by the President and the chairmen of the two parties. It seemed somewhat awkward to think that the opposition party needs an excuse to return. If the party wants to return, it can just do so.
In the U.S., congressmen do not come out to protest just because their party leader says so. They only follow the will of the people in their districts as the representatives of those people. If the chairman of a party told them to participate in a street protest for 50 days, none of them would attend, citing busy district schedules as a reason.
But things are different in Korea. Above all, proportional representatives will join the protest. They don’t have other places to go anyway, since they don’t have districts. Next, first-term members will participate. They have to do so, fearing that they may not get nomination for the next election if they fall out of favor with the party leadership. The party leaderships cannot help joining the protest as the chairman of their party stays in a tent on the street. All of these are political traditions for protest that cannot be found in the U.S.
The members of the National Assembly represent not their parties but their districts. For this reason, I think that the Democratic Party members of the National Assembly should directly asked people in their districts whether they should return to the National Assembly or continue their “out-of-congress fight.” In the U.S. Congress, it is a long tradition for its members to ask for the opinions of people in their districts on important issues.
A political party is an organization of people who share a common ideology. It should not be an organization of power. As political parties hold the power to nominate candidates for the National Assembly and even for mayoral and gubernatorial offices, it is not an exaggeration to say that the leadership of a party holds the political career of each member of the party.
In American politics, the right to nominate candidates belongs not to political parties but to the local residents of each district. Hence, the chairman of a party is not in a position to summon the members of the party at will. Rather, in reality, the chairman goes to the members of the party in Congress in person to ask for support. I have never heard of a three-party meeting of the President and the chairmen of the two parties in U.S. politics. If there is a meeting with the President to discuss an urgent issue, it usually involves the Speaker from the ruling party and the Minority Leader from the opposition party. It has nothing to do with the chairman of parties themselves.
It is this system centered on Congress and its individual members that has successfully maintained the U.S. Congress for the past 250 years. I am not saying that we must copy the American congressional system, just that it is a pity to watch members of the National Assembly have hard times in tents on the street.
Jay Kim is a former U.S. congressman. He serves as chairman of the Kim Chang Joon U.S.-Korea Foundation. For more information, visit Kim’s website at http://www.jayckim.com.