The Bernie Sanders of Korea? An Interview With Ahn Cheol-soo

Ahn Cheol-soo has referred to himself as a "Bernie Sanders of Korea" but has taken the distinctly different approach of leaving the Korean Democratic Party behind and setting out with both conservatives and liberals to chart a new course.
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I had the first opportunity to talk at length with Ahn Cheol-soo when I made a presentation in front of him and the faculty of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology back in 2012. Ahn served as the dean at the time and he sat across from me as I spoke about possible international collaboration with MIT and Yale University. He did not say a word the whole time. But his silence was remarkably powerful. So completely focused was he on what I said that I was forced to do my best to present the material in more carefully and accurately. Ahn was unusual even for an academic. He has strong administrative skills and a tremendous sense of self-confidence, but unlike similar personalities, he is not interested in hearing his own voice and is uncomfortable getting undue attention. But beneath the placid surface there is a tremendous energy that keeps pushing him forward. That force is the combination of responsibility, fascination with how things work and considerable ambition. But you have to look very carefully to spot it.

He is profoundly shy. If it were not for his plans and his dreams he would probably just as well just sit and listen. It is still hard to imagine him shaking hands with hundreds of people at local community centers, but that is exactly what he does now, and even more. A native of Busan, Ahn was originally trained as a medical doctor but later developed the V3 anti-virus software. He became a remarkable business innovator who founded one of the most successful anti-virus software companies in Korea, AhnLab. Ahn is famous for his unrelenting schedule of constant work and reading that left everyone else behind in the dust.

Ahn became immensely popular because of his books. There were many young people, who wanted Ahn to enter the Seoul mayoral election in 2011. He ultimately backed the NGO leader Park Wonsoon who was elected as Mayor in an irregular election. Ahn then decided in 2012 to run for president and in the end joined the Democratic Party (then known as NPAD), backing his formal rival Moon Jaein in his bid for the presidency. Moon Jaein was not successful and Ahn found himself very out of place in the rather cozy Democratic Party, best known for its colossal ineffectiveness.

It was then that he made up his mind to launch a third party, the "People's Party." He has referred to himself as a "Bernie Sanders of Korea" but has taken the distinctly different approach of leaving the Korean Democratic Party behind and setting out with both conservatives and liberals to chart a new course.

I had a chance to catch up with Ahn recently and here is what he had to say about this new gambit.

Emanuel Pastreich:

Why did you decide to start a new political party at this moment in time?

Ahn Cheol-soo:

I first got involved in politics because I was affected by the passion shown by ordinary people when they demanded that we must end this doddering way of politics in Korea. I feel I have been entrusted by the citizens with a mission.

So I've tried to approach this problem from different angles over the last few years. I struggled to find a new way to carry out politics, though I have sadly never achieved what I hoped for.

For me the first step was to go from being an independent to joining the opposition party (the Democratic Party) so as to transform it from within, but for all my efforts, that strategy did not work.

It was only then that I came to the realization that we needed a third party that could stand with citizens and help us to break out of this massive two-party complex of gridlock and confrontation. Currently the two big political parties, the Minju ("Democratic Party," liberal) and Senuri ("New Frontier Party," conservative), are bickering angrily over specific policies and yet they have established a symbiotic relationship with each other that deters real change.

The political system is set up so that the two parties appear to be fighting against each other, but at the same time they eagerly seek out opportunities to protect their shared interests. We intend to break up this structure.


You may know that there is currently a similar movement forming in the United States. Bernie Sanders, a former independent like yourself, is trying to affect the same reform within the US Democratic Party that you tried with your Korean Democratic Party, but he has also run into tremendous opposition from within the system, and it is not clear whether he will succeed. Perhaps he will end up leaving the party like you have, or perhaps he will succeed.


Yes. I can imagine the challenges he must face trying to make such reforms.


In the Korean case, many citizens are concerned that merely starting a new party will not solve any substantial problems. Korean political parties often change their names, but the content remains essentially the same; there is no expectation of genuine change. All we see is politicians taking the symbolic step of launching something new. But, inevitably, the past practices and the collusion will continue on unabated.

What do you propose to do this time that will make this political party successful where others have failed?


I have acquired insight into the depths of Korean politics over the past three years, and I know what people are concerned about.

In my case as well, many people had high expectations as to what I could achieve and I have disappointed them because my ability was limited. Because of my three years of experience, I can avoid repeating the same mistakes. My determination is to throw my all into this struggle and do my best, regardless of what becomes of me.


Can you describe more concretely what exactly was lacking in your experience and in what way that posed a challenge?


Now, three years on, I have experienced firsthand what actually goes on in Korean politics and how the legislative process unfolds. I know how to keep tabs on the whole process so that we can be sure that what was originally intended will be realized. I've figured out which specific individuals will take which actions to stop reforms and I understand what I need to do in order to accomplish our goals.


There is a lot in common between the politics of Korea and the US. Perhaps the most striking trend in politics these days is the enormous gap between what politicians like to discuss when on television and the actual problems experienced by ordinary people.

The situation has become so extreme that the serious problems in government, and in society, that we complain about every day seem to be entirely invisible to the political class. How can we transform this unrealistic political culture?


The first thing that I noticed when I started working in Yeouido (political center of Seoul where the National Assembly is located) was that politicians don't meet with ordinary people. We assume that that politics is about political parties representing different economic classes, and interest groups, knocking heads with each other and that out of the skirmish comes some sort of solution. The confrontation between political parties is important, but politics is about the citizens offering a judgement about whether policy works. But politicians on Yeouido completely forget this because they are too busy fighting with one another.

So in all my decisions about legislation I try to assess their significance and impact from a citizen's perspective, and I never forget that his or hers is the ultimate judgement concerning the mertis of a policy.


Nevertheless, some would argue that ordinary citizens lack the expertise and the experience to make proper judgements about policy.

And there are certain topics that will be difficult for the general public to properly grasp and to assess.

For example, the majority of people really have no other option than to believe what they read in the newspaper concerning topics like foreign relations, security, or science and technology, because they lack the specialized knowledge and critical perspective to assess policy decisions.


Our top priority as politicians must be to communicate with citizens, conveying the essence of what needs to be done, understanding the perspective of citizens, convincing them of the value of our actions, and thereby receiving their support.


Let us talk about the recent test of a nuclear weapon by North Korea. Although there are many opinions about what the proper response should be, what do you think needs to be done to present a true solution to the problem based on a comprehensive vision for the future? If, as some conservative politicians suggest, South Korea also acquires nuclear weapons, Japan, Vietnam and other countries will likely follow suit. It seems that such a move would only lead to a dangerous arms race that will only encourage North Korea to increase its arms.


There is no doubt that we are facing a serious crisis. The Republic of Korea should take the lead as the primary actor in resolving this problem before we ask powerful countries for help. Above all, we as Koreans need to ask ourselves why such problems emerged in the first place.

How do we resolve this crisis? We need serious discussion in South Korea and we must engage North Korea. We need to both make our own efforts for resolution as self-confident nations, convince the other major nations of the value of our approach, and ask for their understanding.


Although our goal may be peace, the goal of many politicans is merely maintaining appearances and saving face. The situation with North Korea is so serious that we need to have a summit regardless of what sort of criticisms we get from those around us. It is just a reality that we must do so.

The security architecture in East Asia today is formed around two separate alliances: the US with South Korea and the US with Japan. We need to set up a security system that empasses not only the US, but also China to ensure a stable environment. A larger vision that includes both the United States and China offers the potential to resolve the problems with North Korea.


It's extremely dangerous for Korea to be overly biased in its diplomatic relations with the nations around it at this historical moment. I am certain that the alliance with the United States will be the basis for our policies going forward.

At the same time, it is a reality that China has become Korea's biggest trading partner and that China can play a critical diplomatic role in resolving the problems with North Korea. In diplomacy it is essential that we maintain harmonious [gyunhyeong] and stable relations with both nations.


Business and political leaders seem to give no thought to young people. People in older generations express fondness for the Park Chung Hee administration, but that administration's great achievement was not industrialization but free education for all. All today's politicians have is short-term gimmicks. What kind of a world or future is left for young people?


They want to end this nightmare of uncertainty and unpredictability. What worries me is how much worse the situation has gotten over just the past three years.

Three years ago young people were saying, "Life is so hard. We need some sort of relief." But now the phrase they use is "Hell Joseon" ("Korea is Hell!"). That phrase indicates the depth of despair about the potential of our society.

If we look around us we see that China is moving forward towards the future with its vision of "One Belt, One Road," which is trying to turn the ancient Silk Road into a cross-border economic zone. And Japan is actively trying to realize a new economic potential through the revitalization strategies of Abenomics. In Korea, however, we don't talk about hope and instead of responding to the crises of the present, we are stuck back in the past, bogged down in a debate about revisionist school textbooks for our children.


Such lack of interest in the future will lead inevitably to extremist politics in the future. We see the same trends in the United States. Sadly, there are many young university graduates with great ideas who are ready to work, but there are no opportunities for them to get the financing to start their own businesses. I wonder whether perhaps the first step is to find a way for young people to find meaningful financing to pursue their dreams?


First, let me say that I do not think it is wise for those who want to start their own business to borrow money. What they really need is investment. If you borrow money, you will be obligated to pay it back. So if you fail in your effort, you will never have another chance. On the other hand, if you work with investors, you can pick yourself back up after a failed effort because the financial responsibility is shared among the investors.

The problem should not be addressed as a matter of financial policy, or easy loans, but rather as a matter of industrial policy. The solution is not lending more money so that youth are deeper in debt, but rather creating the infrastructure that assures a higher rate of success. If those foundations are in place, it will be possible for those honestly committed to their innovative ideas to secure the investment that they need to be successful.

Our university graduates are saddled with too much debt already resulting from tuition, living expenses, and housing. If we focus on reducing financial burdens for young people we will make it possible for young graduates to launch their careers without obstacles.

We tend to focus only on tuition subsidies, scholarships, and loans, leaving out housing and living costs for students. Tragically, students become ineligible for scholarships and their academic work suffers because they take on part-time jobs.


What might be the role of the government?


Government should offer low-interest or interest-free loans to students. Once students graduate and find employment, they would pay back their loans over ten years. And the amount paid back should vary according to the financial ability of the students.


How can we create opportunities for innovation within corporations and within government organizations? Many Koreans praise the innovation shown by the founders of major companies back in the 1970s, but they do not give the youth of this age such opportunities.


Young people need real opportunities for entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurship does not only refer to starting a new business. There are many forms of entrepreneurship whereby young people can come up with and implement innovative ideas within a company. Some refer to such work as 'intrapreneurship' because they happen within an existing organization.

Young people deserve to learn about the fundamentals of entrepreneurship and what exactly their role will be within the organization. Once they have the basics down, they should be allowed to use their own know-how to start their business, or to innovate within a corporation.


The more fundamental problem is the aging society. There is a burden in terms of welfare and pensions, but the most serious problem is one of leadership. When Korea was most successful back in the 1960s and 1970s, the majority of the leadership was in their forties. But today, although Korean youth are extremely creative, the political leadership is in their sixties and the decision makers behind the scenes are in their eighties. An aging population will make the situation worse with old people making descions for their own short-term interests and little concern for the future.


When I started to put together the "People's Party" I decided to actively recruit young talents in their thirties and forties and to give them the means to play a central role in planning and policy, helping them develop their careers.

We have seen leaders in their forties who play an important role in developed countries. Right now Justin Trudeau, the prime minister of Canada, is extremely effective at the age of 45. Barack Obama and Angela Merkel also led their countries starting in their forties. Korea needs to start heading in that direction.

All of those politicians had at least a decade of experience under their belt before they assumed office. Such experience prepared them well to play leadership roles. But in Korea, talented young people in their thirties and forties never get those opportunities.

Our party hopes to change that state of affairs by actively recruiting young people and providing them with meaningful opportunities.


Moreover, too many Koreans look at education as a way to make money, especially over the last ten years. But back in the 1960s and 1970s, the governmet invested in education because people knew that in the future Korea would need a highly educated workforce.


Korea must take an entirely new direction in education policy. Education is distorted by the entrance examination system and the four-year university education system. We place no emphasis on, or investment in, continuing education in Korea. The content of education in secondary education and in university education is outmoded, as is the approach. Students are being produced to be the kinds of workers we needed in the '60s and '70s. Consequently, education is not aimed at encouraging creative thinking or finding new solutions.

Korea could learn a lot from the United States community college system. Community colleges allow people to constantly update their professional expertise and those who may not have started out with the benefit of a college degree can find a way forward. Moreover, the middle-aged and elderly are given have opportunities to enrich their skills. Pastreich:

The issue of education is linked to a more fundamental challenge. The evolution of technology is now exponential and the resulting gap between the extremely slow manner in which human culture and habit evolve and the rapid transformation of technology is creating tremendous problems around the world. The serious gap between the two is the cause of many social and economic problems.


More often than not, the leading politicians talk about neither the impact of technology nor of globalization. They just obsess on current issues, providing only vague prognostications about the future that lack any concrete steps to how we will prepare for that reality.

Germany does not wax sentimental about past success, but is rather preparing for the 4th industrial revolution in which the need for human labor will be much reduced within just five years. Germany promotes smart factories as part of its "Industrie 4.0" policy regarding the automation of manufacturing. Sadly, in Korea we are educating people for jobs that will no longer exist when they enter the workforce. We will face a huge crisis if we ignore these rapidly unfolding transformational trends.

Thirty- and forty-year-old talents understand best the current technology and globalization. They should play extremely significant roles in setting up future policy.


The Korean economy is globalized to a remarkable degree and its culture and technology have had broad impact around the world. And yet, although Korea is so global in every sense, it does not have a tradition of colonialism or imperialism. This non-colonialist global presence has immense appeal for people like me.


It is critical that Korea to embrace its cultural strengths and avoid unnecessary pessimism about its potential. A CEO recently told me, "Koreans have a combination of strengths from many nations. We have the strong work ethic of the Japanese, the craftsmanship of the Germans, the artistic sensibility of the French, and the creativity of the US." The Korean Wave, which is a fusion of the diverse qualities of our culture, has created music and dramas that have a universal appeal. We must find a way to channel the unique qualities of Korea and Korean culture for worldwide impact. Pastreich:

The dangers of climate change are enormous. And yet we have not even started to formulate an institutional response. Can't the Korean National Assembly take the first step? For example, The National Assembly could establish a committee dedicated to climate change. What do you think?


I think that a step like that is absolutely necessary and that we need to focus on climate change. In the previous Lee Myung Bak Administration, there was a focus on "green growth" and one result of those efforts was bringing the Green Climate Fund to Songdo, an international organization with great potential. This administration has not supported the GCF, preferring to innovate rather than carry on a past policy. We need to take advantage of the GCF to further Korea's development.


Political parties seem very far away from the concerns of ordinary people. They could be far more meaningful, especially new parties, if they functioned in a manner that allowed ordinary citizens to participate in them at the local level. Imagine a political party where jobless young people who have lost hope can gather together and get real advice, where they cabn convey their thoughts directly to those in charge of the party and feel that the party is an organization to which they belong. Ahn:

That is the reason that we chose the term "People's Party." We are referring to President Abraham Lincoln's Gettysburg Address in which he said that "government of the people, by the people, for the people, shall not perish from the earth."

We want a party which is governed by those principles.

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