When faced with serious controversial issues that may have a negative impact on the nation, developed countries often resort to referendums for a resolution. For instance, in the U.S. state of California, starting with Proposition 13 in 1978, the state inquires citizens’ opinions on bills that citizens themselves have proposed at every election. By principle, in a democratic political system, only the representative body elected by the citizens, i.e. Congress or the National Assembly legislates. However, when the legislative body malfunctions, citizens are allowed to propose a bill and decide by vote whether to enact it.
In Korea, the 72nd Article of the Constitution allows a national referendum, but unlike the U.S., a referendum is only possible through the president and the decision to enforce it is at the president’s discretion. Recent controversy over the government-issued school textbook divides public sentiment and further threatens national security; it has become a serious issue. This is the time to exercise the 72nd Article.
A referendum is a privilege allowed by the Constitution for the citizens to make the law themselves. A cost reduction is also possible if we include a vote on the government-issued textbook as a part of the 2016 general election. All parties must adhere to the result of the vote once it is delivered, and for those who did not vote, they must let the matter rest since they did not exercise their voting privilege.
Our neighbor China does not have a national referendum system. China has a single party system without an opposition party. Whatever decision is made by the premier that the Communist Party of China selects, the decision gets enacted promptly without room for any opposition. Everything in China, therefore, is rapid and efficient, and perhaps China’s economic miracle can be credited to that. North Korea, where any opposition is silenced through execution, is worse. On the other hand, the Republic of Korea is a democratic nation. Through respecting opposition from its citizens, Korea took nine years to build Incheon International Airport, which would have only taken a year if built in China. Construction of pedestrian paths in Namdaemun, where accidents are frequent due to the lack of quality installation, is also experiencing a few years’ delay because of opposition from the vendors nearby. Despite of all this, we have chosen democracy. Our choice has given us the proud reputation as a model democratic nation where democracy matured at an incredible speed.
We have survived through the rubble and mounds of casualties after the disastrous Korean War. Further, we persevered as our loved ones perished through North Korean atrocities in the sinking of the Cheonan and the shelling of Yeonpyeong.
If history textbooks assert that Yoo Kwan-soon is a fabricated history by the Japanese sympathizers and that the Korean War was an invasion of North Korea by South Korea, they certainly need to be corrected. However, the criticism that just because there are several errors in history textbooks, the government issuing entire history textbooks is in fact an anti-democratic practice that only happens in authoritarian countries is not necessarily wrong. Likewise, the ruling party’s logic that the future generation of Koreans needs to have a proper view and value of history is also not wrong. I don’t think that there is much difference between the assertions for a proper view of history and prevention of government’s autocracy. It really isn’t right to go for a black and white approach to fiercely divide between “my” side and “your” side to turn it into an emotional battle.
It is also too much to ask to reveal the members of the writing committee; if their names are revealed, they may be in physical danger. There is the “the right for citizens to know,” but the government also has “the responsibility to protect” the well-being of the committee members. The names of the committee will eventually be revealed when the time comes, so I believe it is the duty of the citizens to be patient until the time arrives. It’s important that we trust the government; if we don’t trust it on each and every issue, then the responsibility is in part with the citizens who have elected the representatives.
We overcame the Asian financial crisis. The world knows it. The controversy over government-issued textbooks will cease soon, since it is a battle over emotion. Such battles are often seen in the U.S.
Such distress is due to appear periodically in a country that has achieved democracy in such a short time span.
So it is timely that we exercise the referendum that our Constitution guarantees. A referendum will be a great opportunity for Korea to display our matured democratic institutions to the international community. Such a movement will reinforce our status in the international sphere, as well as help our economy.