That Which Divides Us: Filibusters, Security Bills, and the NIS

By | February 26, 2016 | No Comments

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A screen capture showing Jin Sang-pil, the protagonist in the popular 2015 drama Assembly (KBS2), stumbling from the lectern during a marathon filibuster.

Battering rams and smoke bombs. Not items one associates with democratic politics, but they were tools in the armory of South Korean lawmakers in the not-too-distant past.1)There is no guarantee that violence will disappear from the South Korean National Assembly for good. However, having the filibuster option is likely to help. Viewed optimistically, it is a way of more deeply integrating South Korean democracy at the expense of more combative methods befitting the authoritarian era. In 2011, for example, Democratic Labor Party assemblyman Kim Sun-dong ignited a teargas grenade in the legislative chamber. Coming from the far left, Kim was attempting to stop the ruling Grand National Party (now Saenuri Party) from voting to ratify the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement.

Now, it seems, long speeches are set to replace violent, undemocratic acts. On February 23, for the first time since 1969, a filibuster was used to prevent new legislation from going to vote. In this case, the hotly contested anti-terrorism bill (테러방지법).

The proposed legislation is nominally meant to address concerns over terrorist attacks — the sort the NIS alleges that North Korea is currently planning. If implemented, it would establish an anti-terror agency in the Prime Minister’s office and grant additional discretionary powers to the state intelligence agency, the National Intelligence Service (NIS). These would allow it to collect relevant information on persons and activities deemed a threat to public safety and national security. The main opposition Minjoo Party opposes the expansion of NIS powers on principle, as well as on justified fears of NIS impropriety.

Nevertheless, Speaker Chung Ui-hwa brought the issue to a vote even though the ruling and opposition parties had yet to agree on the content of the bill.2)Although a version of the legislation was actually first introduced more than a decade ago in the lee of the 9.11 attacks. An amendment to parliamentary procedure was introduced in 2012 by the National Advancement Act, which requires legislation to have three-fifths approval by the Assembly before being put to vote. The amendment is intended to prevent a party with a strong majority riding roughshod over a main opposition and other minor parties. To prevent the tyranny of the majority, in other words. The amendment specifies, however, that the Assembly Speaker can legally call to vote legislation lacking three-fifths support if public security is at risk; that is, during conditions of war or natural disaster.

Citing a “national state of emergency corresponding to a war,” Chung exercised his authority, at which point the main opposition Minjoo Party (더불어 민주당) exercised its right to filibuster. For the first time in a long time, the organized resistance didn’t involve smoke bombs or blunt instruments, only words — as befits a filibuster. A rolling chain of opposition filibusters, the longest of which lasted 10 hours and 18 minutes, successfully prevented the bill from going to a vote. As an aside, Saenuri Party lawmakers initially attacked the filibuster for undermining the legislative process, but were then politely reminded that the right to filibuster was actually in the party manifesto for April 2012 (on page 52, to be precise).

While the filibuster has united the main opposition for the time being, the ultimate outcome of the national security debate is unclear. National security conservatives have the upper hand following North Korea’s nuclear test and launching of a satellite using banned ballistic technology. That North Korea may be planning to respond to the closure of the Kaesong Industrial Complex through terrorism — this according to the NIS, although they’ve cried wolf on a number of previous occasions — is bound to exacerbate extant fears.

Security is a main concern for many South Koreans, and with elections coming up, no one — not even liberals — will want to come across as “soft on security,” a phenomenon of hardline bandwagon jumping that the leftist media has branded “national security populism.” Notably, the Minjoo Party’s interim chairperson, Kim Jong-in, is seen as tougher than his predecessor on security issues, especially North Korea policy, leading some to say that he is pushing the party to the right.

Whether differences of opinion end up complicating the Minjoo Party’s opposition to the anti-terrorism bill is an open question. As watchers of the popular 2015 KBS2 drama Assembly (어셈블리) know, intra-party factionalism is what drives party politics, and factions tend to be particularly antagonistic in the liberal camp. Ahn Cheol-soo and several other moderate lawmakers defected from the main opposition and formed a rival opposition party (the People’s Party; 국민당) on February 2.

Ahn and others from the left didn’t leave the Minjoo Party over concerns about the party’s stance on security issues per se, but over the inability to chart an electable path.3)Some People’s Party higher-ups are from the right, notably members of former President Lee Myung-bak’s staff. These folks have different political motivations, but they are in the minority. The two issues aren’t unrelated, however. That Ahn, speaking for his party, has publicly endorsed a middle-of-the-road position on the anti-terror bill (i.e., the Speaker should encourage compromise) is telling, and suggests that staunch opposition to legislation perceived to be “anti-terror” is electorally risky, at least in the center ground where political identity is harder to come by and more difficult to retain.

A Realmeter public opinion poll conducted on February 23 asked respondents whether they supported or opposed the filibuster. Results show that the public is, overall, split: 42.6 percent support the filibuster, 46.1 percent oppose it, and 11.3 percent “don’t know.” The support/oppose difference is within the margin of error (4.6%).

As it goes for most issues, there is a significant divide between age cohorts. The 60s+ age cohort overwhelmingly opposes the filibuster (65.9%), while the 30s and 20s age cohorts are far more supportive, with 68.6 percent and 56 percent supporting, respectively. Thus, unlike attitudes toward North Korea, the young do not think like the old; the young think like… the young. Cohort analysis in this case suggests “life cycle effects” are at play; that is, the older one is, the more likely they are to express a conservative attitude. In this case, the conservative attitude is that terrorism is indeed a threat to national security and should be dealt with appropriately.

By party, support is divided, as one would expect, between Saenuri supporters (10.7% supporting, 77% opposing) and Minjoo supporters (86% supporting, 10.6% opposing), with supporters of Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s party occupying something of a middle ground (38.9% supporting, 46% opposing).

Among those making public statements about the filibuster, Ahn’s is one of the more interesting, given that he was once heralded as the left’s savior and has, since leaving the main opposition party, arguably begun digging a “centrist” trench somewhere between the New Right and the Old Left. Taking to Twitter (see below), Ahn urged both sides to come to a reasonable agreement on the bill’s content once the filibuster ends. Time will tell whether lawmakers heed his call.

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1. There is no guarantee that violence will disappear from the South Korean National Assembly for good. However, having the filibuster option is likely to help. Viewed optimistically, it is a way of more deeply integrating South Korean democracy at the expense of more combative methods befitting the authoritarian era.
2. Although a version of the legislation was actually first introduced more than a decade ago in the lee of the 9.11 attacks.
3. Some People’s Party higher-ups are from the right, notably members of former President Lee Myung-bak’s staff. These folks have different political motivations, but they are in the minority.