A Change of Power? — B.R. Myers
South Korean news outlets have finally had to admit that their reports of weird cultic rites in Park Geun-hye’s Blue House had no basis in fact. Her former confidante, then accused of being a shaman herself, is suing various media companies and politicians for defamation. But will the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, Foreign Affairs, Financial Times, etc, which passed on the fake news under their own lurid headlines, ever set their readership straight?
As for the bad news about Moon Jae-in that Western journalists swept under the rug, it’s likely to remain there. Should he escape punishment for his abuses of power — as the new law hamstringing prosecutors was created to help him do — the Western news consumer will have no cause ever to hear about them. Nor will Reuters ever have to admit that Lee Jae-myung wasn’t so much “Korea’s Bernie Sanders” as its Rod Blagojevitch. (Before that, mirror-imaging buffs, he was Seongnam’s Saul Goodman.)
I realize that if the folks back home are to show any interest in ROK politics, they need a team to cheer for and a team to boo, but correspondents wanting to frame Yoon Seok-yeol as Korea’s Trump are going to have their work cut out for them. He’s no conservative even by South Korean standards, let alone American ones. Any local person who (waking from a long coma, say) knew only that Yoon helped imprison Park Geun-hye, that he plans to enshrine the spirit of the Gwangju uprising in the constitution, and that his political idols are Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun, would naturally take him for a leftist.
That assumption wouldn’t necessarily change upon hearing news — well-founded this time — of the incoming First Couple’s interest in shamanism, fortune-telling and feng shui. The left was always more into that sort of thing. (The main purpose of that propaganda about Park was to turn her Christian-heavy base against her.) To this day shamans perform ceremonies for “democratization martyrs,” and Japan-bashers recall colonial attacks on the nation’s feng shui, such as metal spikes driven into mountainsides. Certainly no conservative president-elect would let anyone talk him into abandoning the Blue House, one of very few bona fide state symbols in this shamefaced republic, in order to work out of a so-called People’s House instead.
I’m not saying Yoon is on the nationalist left. Even his projected center-leftism seems more a matter of conformism and class-envy deflection than anything else; in America he’d be moderately woke. No wonder the People Power Party, which has no convictions either, was so quick to latch onto him. Depoliticization is underway here all right, but not as something new to South Korea. One could well argue that since Park’s impeachment in 2016, the country has reverted from an aberrational period of ideological conflict — which was never as sharp as foreigners thought anyway — to an old patrimonial tradition of fighting over everything except ideology.
The following is from a book by Norman Jacobs for which I paid a fortune at Kyobo during the Chun Doo Hwan era (only to find, to my annoyance, that every mention of “DPRK” had been blacked out with a felt pen).
Inter-party contention over issues [in the ROK] is shallow and superficial, being but a vehicle to denounce opponents as inept and hence unworthy to exercise power, or a bargaining device to obtain a share of the available power and prebends. Indifference to ideology … encourages raiding and the formation of opportunistic cliques whose members will ally themselves to anyone willing and able to offer some advantage. Korea’s Road to Modernization and Development (Urbana, 1985, p. 26).
That seems even truer today, except that “indifference to ideology” was and is wrong; “acquiescence in the hegemonic ideology” makes more sense. When Jacobs was researching his book, that ideology was anti-North conservatism. Today it’s nationalist leftism, and the new ruling party has no will to change that. Just last month the PPP refused to allow its last old-school conservative to run for governor of Gangwon province, where he is very popular, until he made a groveling apology for having publicly questioned the orthodox narrative of the Gwangju Democratization Movement.
Softline Korea watchers are already wringing their hands about Yoon’s pledges to strengthen the alliance and take no nonsense from North Korea, but even Moon said that sort of thing. As yet there are no indications that Yoon will break sharply with his predecessor’s policy toward Pyongyang — unless he’s forced to do so by acts of aggression, as Lee Myung Bak finally was after some “underwater” overtures to the Dear Leader.
It has been announced, for example, that Yoon will abide by the inter-Korean military agreement of September 2018. Like all agreements since 2000 this is a far better deal for the North than the South. (Just compare the relative proximity of Seoul and Pyongyang to the DMZ, and ponder the obvious implications of demilitarizing it in earnest.)
Yoon even appears ready to leave Park Jie-won in charge of the intelligence agency for a while yet. Like a good patrimonial official — and a few precision-centrists in the Korea-watching community — Park has moved rightward since the election. The other day he contradicted his still-boss by saying the North will never denuclearize. Let’s not forget, however, that the main reason Moon appointed the old man was because the regime in Pyongyang is known to trust him.
Yoon’s nominee for foreign minister has also signaled that the administration may continue Moon’s policy of the “Three No’s”: no additional THAAD deployment, no participation in America’s missile defense system, and no formation of a trilateral military alliance with America and Japan.
The White House is in no position to demand more loyalty. A day after meeting Yoon in Seoul on May 21, our president is scheduled to meet with Moon — the same Moon who told a stadium in Pyongyang that the North does all Koreans proud by standing up to “external pressures.” Of course this breach of diplomatic protocol needn’t have the same effect as Carter’s meeting with Kim Young Sam in July 1979, a show of “dropping” Park Chung Hee t0 which many historians attribute the dramatic events of the following October. Still, Biden’s gesture (which was probably much lobbied for) will eliminate the pseudo-conservatives’ only remaining selling point, namely their claim to get along better with the US ally than the left does. And this only a few weeks before local elections. Why go out on a limb for the Americans, Yoon may well be thinking, if they’re just as nice when you don’t?
But he has much bigger problems than Biden. Depoliticization always helps the side that avows the hegemonic ideology more convincingly. This may help explain why Lee Jae-myung, whom no self-respecting voter in the Philippines would look at twice, is one of the most popular politicians here. The better part of a billion dollars is estimated to have gone missing on his mayoral-gubernatorial watch over the Seongnam area, yet he came within a hair’s breadth of winning the presidency, and is now expected to win a parliamentary seat in Incheon (as he must do to stay out of prison).
Perhaps I should recall a few relevant points made in earlier posts: 1) Electorates everywhere tend to tolerate more corruption from tax-and-spend politicians. 2) Many on the ROK left subscribe to a convenient Gramscian logic according to which their kind must ascend to the upper class, by any means necessary, so as to rout the pro-Japanese “accumulated evils” there and take back the country. 3) The nationalist politician is considered truly Korean and therefore incapable of premeditated evil; his transgressions are but errors, etc.
On the other hand, it was only thanks to the Minjoo’s nomination of Lee that the less-left candidate could plausibly present himself as the cleaner one, perhaps a first in the history of South Korean presidential races. Had he behaved accordingly after winning, the Minjoo wouldn’t have dared ram through the law I mentioned above. Fortunately for Moon and Lee, the president-elect squandered his moral authority within days, first by selfishly insisting on the costly abandonment of the Blue House complex, and then by appointing several people with records of the usual Gangnam sleaze.
The latter blunder did more damage, throwing as it did a harsh retrospective light on Yoon’s crusades against Park Geun-hye and Moon’s darling Cho Kuk, neither of whom did anything much more serious than what some of these cabinet picks appear to have got up to. Was Yoon in cahoots with the pseudo-right all along? Or did “spiritual advisors” on a stormy heath point him on this winding road to kingship?
As my readers must know already, Yoon Seok-yeol’s approval ratings are at record lows for a president-elect. I expect them to continue falling after a little post-inaugural jump, if he gets even that. This is the danger of standing for competence and honesty instead of political values; one becomes far more vulnerable to missteps and scandals than the other side. Inter-party talks on constitutional revision are expected by many to begin later this year; they will bring more disappointment for conservative citizens, who are well to the right of the PPP, without winning Yoon any support from the left. What demographic does he expect to support his poll numbers when the candlelight theatrics take off? I once asked a Munhwa Ilbo journalist to explain the absence of a big paper in the dead center of the ideological spectrum, and she said, “Because there’s no place to stand there.” That goes for governments too.