August 18, 2023
SEOUL – The 25th World Scout Jamboree, which began in a sweltering campground atop the reclaimed land of Saemangeum on the coast of North Jeolla Province and ended with a K-pop concert at Seoul World Cup Stadium, leaves much controversy in its wake. Shortly after the opening on Aug. 1, news of extreme heat and unsanitary conditions began to spread on social media. As more Scouts began to suffer from exhaustion and heat stroke, the British and American Scouts left the camp, raising fears that the event would collapse.
To save the event, the South Korean government led a national, local and private-sector efforts to improve the site. Other nations remained at the camp, but Typhoon Khanun would eventually force all Scouts to leave the camp for safe locations around the country. Hoping to end on a high note, the government organized a concert by K-pop stars following the closing ceremony.
Questions abound. Why was Saemangeum, a vast flat area of reclaimed land with no natural shade, chosen as the site? Why did the organizers fail to anticipate the need for shade tents, water and sanitation? Was it acceptable for the government to intervene so aggressively in the K-pop concert for the Scouts? How has the event damaged South South Korea’s reputation?
To answer these questions and more, the Board of Audit and Inspection will soon begin what should be a thorough investigation. In the meantime, discussion of the Jamboree has become highly politicized, with major political factions blaming each other for the mess. Each news cycle has only exacerbated the partisan rancor.
The situation in South Korea is approaching the highly polarized situation in the US, where political camps cannot even have a discussion based on commonly accepted facts. From climate change to COVID-19 to illegal immigration, Democrats and Republicans in the US cannot have a rational discussion about how to deal with the pressing issues of the day. In the end, this undermines democracy.
In 1792, Alexander Hamilton summed up the dangers of partisanship succinctly: “The truth unquestionably is, that the only path to a subversion of the republican system of the Country is, by flattering the prejudices of the people, and exciting their jealousies and apprehensions, to throw affairs into confusion, and bring on civil commotion.”
In such a polarized environment, the name of the game is to destroy your opponents, not at the ballot box, but through accusations, media hype and ultimately impeachment. The problem with this is that in democracies like South Korea or the US, the people, not political partisans, choose leaders. Attempts to overturn elections are inherently anti-democratic and should be reserved for exceptional situations in which leaders pose a threat to democracy or the rule of law.
As serious as things are in the US, a broad swath of the population is fed up with the partisans. Poll after poll shows that people are troubled by the prospect of a Biden-Trump rematch in 2024. Over the summer, Biden has solidified support among Democrats, but many, especially younger voters, would rather he not run. Trump, meanwhile, is far ahead in the Republican race, but he averages about 55 percent, which means that nearly half of Republicans want someone else.
Partisans have a strong hold on the parties for now, but that could change as voters express their dislike for both candidates. Independents and younger voters in particular are concerned about pressing issues like the high cost of housing and climate change. They want to start families and get ahead in their careers, and they want politicians to discuss the future rather than argue about the past.
Although South Korea is less polarized than the US, the country has a similarly large group of voters who are tired of partisan bickering. A recent Gallup Korea poll shows that support for the People Power Party rose slightly in the first week of August, while support for the Democratic Party fell slightly. More interesting were results showing that independents were by far the strongest group among voters under the age of 39. Among voters between the ages of 18 and 29, 46 percent are independents, while 51 percent support either major party. Among voters over 40, however, the proportion of independents drops.
Even more than their US counterparts, young voters in South Korea are up for grabs. They share many of the same and want candidates to offer a vision for the future. They are tired of partisan bickering and will make their voices heard in next year’s National Assembly elections.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Providence, Rhode Island. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. — Ed.