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(Yonhap Feature) Korea experiments with deliberative democracy over sharply divisive nuclear energy policy

All Headlines 19:00 October 24, 2017

By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Oct. 24 (Yonhap) -- Like in many other democracies, policymaking in Korea has long been an exclusive, often clandestine, realm dominated by a cadre of astute officials and experts while ordinary citizens are sidelined for their presumed lack of expertise.

This has raised one perplexing question: Is one living in a true democracy with a real voice in the formulation of key government decisions that directly affect your life?

In its quest for a solution to this governance dilemma, South Korea has taken a new path of "deliberative democracy," where the legitimacy of policy decisions stems from citizens' informed deliberations rather than their mere exercise of voting rights.

The government has recently carried out a political experiment by setting up an ad hoc public deliberation panel to decide whether to scrap the project to build two nuclear reactors in a southern city as part of a policy shift toward safer, renewable energy sources.

Though its outcome last week handed a blow to President Moon Jae-in's campaign pledge to cancel the project, the public deliberative process marked a step toward a more mature, enhanced democracy, observers noted.

"Given the scope and variety of conflicts in our increasingly pluralistic society, there are limits for elected representatives -- or the government and legislature -- to take control of all these issues," Jun Kye-wan, a political analyst, told Yonhap News Agency.

"The attempt was intended to overcome such limits through deliberative democracy that lies in between representative democracy and direct democracy, and it is meaningful in that it has opened the door for citizens to directly handle issues of their own concern," he added.

This photo, taken Oct. 20, 2017, shows Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon (R) and Kim Ji-hyung, the head of a state panel tasked with gauging public opinion on the fate of two nuclear reactors, posing for a photo at the central government complex in Seoul. (Yonhap)

On Friday, the deliberation panel recommended resuming the construction of the Shin Kori-5 and Shin Kori-6 reactors in Ulsan, 414 kilometers south of Seoul, based on a survey of 471 members of the 500-strong jury following their three months of deliberations.

Opposition parties condemned Moon for "social confusion and costs" for the suspension of the project.

But Moon touted the deliberation process as an opportunity to make the country's democracy "more mature" and develop a new model for conflict settlement.

"It is more worthwhile to bring citizens into the public deliberation process and draw social consensus, based on which we pursue a policy, rather than having a handful of experts make a decision on a divisive national issue," Moon said during a Cabinet meeting Tuesday.

In July, Moon ordered the establishment of the panel amid sharp public divisions over his nuclear phase-out policy.

Critics warned Moon's policy could lead to a hefty rise in electricity prices and a potential energy shortage given that Korea relies on nuclear power plants for a third of its electricity supply.

Supporters called for reducing reliance on nuclear energy, citing their safety and environmental concerns, which were amplified after the nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan, in 2011 and a 5.8 magnitude earthquake that jolted Korea's southern city of Gyeongju last year.

This photo, taken Oct. 20, 2017, shows the construction site of two nuclear reactors in Ulsan, 414 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)

The attempt at a deliberative democracy was welcomed by many, mainly because it brought the public into the consensus building process for a policy with profound implications.

Citizens' participation has been a crucial value for the Moon administration elected in May on a public call to restore democracy that critics say had deteriorated due to a lack of transparency during former governments.

"Deliberative democracy is anchored on compromise, cooperation and consensus, and these elements highlight the importance of the process through which a decision is shaped -- rather than the outcome itself," said Kim Hyung-joon, a politics professor at Myongji University.

"In a broad context, it is fair to say that Korea has experimented on a way towards a substantive democracy," he added.

Many countries have already adopted the public deliberation tool to forge social consensus on high-stakes issues, according to reports. Japan sought in 2012 to gauge public opinion on the operation of nuclear power plants following the Fukushima disaster. In April, Mongolia also involved citizens in a public debate over a constitutional revision.

Despite its merits, concerns have also persisted that the public deliberation could hamper policy efficiency, constrain the popular mandate of elected representatives and fall prey to a political scheme to circumvent criticism for any policy failures.

"For deliberative democracy to be successful, we need citizens' active participation and the well-established decision-making institutions and frameworks, and leaders that can embrace it and so forth. ... We still have a long way to go," said Lee Chung-hee, politics professor at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

"The recent experiment may have served as a wake-up call for the practitioners of our democracy, but it could be seen as an attempt to shift the responsibility for the important policy decisions, as well as a move that could shake the foundation of representative democracy," he added.

Other critics pointed to the "wrong sequence," criticizing the president for initiating the deliberation process only after he pledged to shut down the reactors.

Citizens appear largely content with the government's move to solicit their views on key policy issues.

"Though the deliberation mechanism is in its rudimentary stage, I highly regard the government's efforts and believe that it offered an opportunity for enhanced communication with citizens," said Kim Jang-won, a high school teacher in Seoul.

"I hope that this deliberation program will be further expanded as a key tool to address our social issues, such as whether to allow capital punishment or not," he added.

Experts put the cost for the decision to suspend the construction of the Ulsan reactors during the deliberation process at around 100 billion won (US$88 million), including losses construction firms and workers have sustained.

But the country would have undergone a much costlier conflict had Moon pressed ahead with his election pledge without public deliberation, Yoon Pyung-joong, a political philosophy professor at Hanshin University, noted.

"Korea ranks among the world's top high-conflict societies. When a conflict erupts, it shakes the entire society, hurts the minds of many citizens and results in large national losses, and the energy policy is also typical of such a societal conflict category," Yoon said.

"Moon could have pushed for his election pledge, as his predecessors did, which would have incurred astronomical social costs. ... I think the public deliberation offered a turning point to defuse the energy policy conflict," he added.

A 2013 report by the Samsung Economic Research Institute revealed that Korea had suffered annual economic costs of up to 246 trillion won incurred directly or indirectly by social conflicts. The costs amounted to 27 percent of the per-capita gross domestic product, it added.

Though some may interpret unrelenting social conflicts as a sign of democratic vibrancy, observers say that the country needs to learn how to more systematically manage and resolve differences and foster internal cohesion.

From selecting a new airport site to building a naval base on a resort island and to signing a deal with Tokyo to settle Japan's wartime misdeeds, myriad issues have gripped the country and gnawed on national unity.

"There has been a lack of training in our society as to how to smoothly address conflicts surrounding current affairs," Yoon of Hanshin University said, proposing setting up an independent, permanent public deliberation body.

"If we give authority and autonomy to a national public deliberation body, this would serve as a crucial stepping stone for deliberative democracy," he added.

This photo, taken Oct. 20, 2017, shows unionized workers of the Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power Co. staging a protest against President Moon Jae-in's nuclear power phase-out policy in front of the company building in Ulsan, 414 kilometers south of Seoul. (Yonhap)


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