On Last Week’s Elections — B.R. Myers

The press is always behind the times, as T.S. Eliot noted, and it’s only natural that the foreign press should be further behind, but the lag seems especially great in South Korea. Bias plays a larger role than the language barrier. Until this spring most correspondents for foreign media avoided reporting on ruling-camp corruption and incompetence much more assiduously than the locals did.

The conservative mayoral-election landslide of 7 April has finally forced them to acknowledge that Moon Jae-in is seen far less favorably here than overseas. The New York Times’ Choe Sang-Hun had to do an explanatory dash through ruling-camp scandals and failures in which he had hitherto shown next to no interest. There was great rejoicing on the South Korean right to see him finally explain the political catchphrase naero nambul to American readers, though it seems a little stale now. I discussed it on this blog in February 2018:

Upon his election [in 2017] Moon appointed several Gangnam leftists with records of tax avoidance, real-estate speculation, and the … pulling of strings on relatives’ behalf. This prompted much use of the crypto-Sinitic compound naero nambul, short for “When I cheat, it’s romance, when others do, it’s adultery.”

Incidentally the electoral commission, which ensures that election propaganda is kept within narrow limits — especially the conservative kind — made clear a few weeks ago that pseudo-neutral banners bearing this anti-hypocrisy slogan would not be tolerated. The reason given: everyone would know which party was being criticized.

It won’t be much of an improvement if the foreign media, having swallowed the South Korean government’s cant for so long, were to start taking the opposition’s posturing at face value. The Deutsche Welle headline “Mayoral elections sink Moon’s North Korea peace drive” will be proven wrong in short order if it hasn’t been already. Still a tiny minority in the National Assembly, albeit an invigorated one, the People Power Party is in no position to make this remarkably obstinate president change course.

Nor is it especially interested in doing so. Of all the things the Western press gets wrong about South Korea, the misperception of the conservative opposition as a bunch of hardline Cold Warriors may be furthest off the mark. Having triumphed last week in no small part because it jettisoned most conservative principles years ago, the PPP is at least as far to the left as Kim Dae Jung’s administration was 20 years ago. It says a lot that when Na Gyeong-won and Oh Se-hun were vying for the PPP nomination last February, each claimed to be more moderate than the other. The ensuing run-up to the elections in Seoul and Busan saw both sides argue over which one was morally and technically better qualified to do the things everyone considers necessary.

Let me offer a fresh illustration of the political culture here. Along with a few dozen other Busanites, I now sit on a committee, established days ago by the new mayor, which is meant to explore ways for the city to become greener, more international, and so on. The first speaker invited to address us, I see, is Kim Kyung-soo: the governor of South Gyeongsang Province, a member of President Moon’s innermost circle, and a key player in one of those big stories the New York Times thought readers needn’t know much about. In American terms this would be like a new Republican mayor of New York inviting, say, Andrew Cuomo to kick off a lecture series.

Busan is famous in Korea for its lack of of a sharp left-right divide, but even in Seoul the ideological polarization is mild by American standards. It takes longer than 10 seconds, which seems to be the current norm back home, for encounters between the unlike-minded to turn ugly. Personally speaking, I’d much sooner engage the far-left or far-right here than have to reason with an American wokester or gun nut. The average Korean’s response to encountering fundamental disagreement (which I keep urging myself to emulate) is to change the subject. After I spoke on North Korean culture to nationalist-left researchers the other day, the kind lady running the Zoom conference began with, “You said some debatable things we needn’t discuss right now.” Meaning of course ever; still, they heard me out. I admit that the foreigner enjoys a sort of court-jester’s freedom which the native doesn’t, but I received more threats while holding an animal-rights sign in front of a KFC in Albuquerque than I’ve heard go back and forth between “clashing” demonstrators in Seoul.

Even if South Korean conservatives were willing and able to put pressure on Moon, he would stand firm. What choice does he have? Kim O-jun, the government-loyal host of the aptly-titled radio show News Factory, is correct in saying that any rightward shift would be the end of the ruling party. The main reason for this, which he forbore to mention, is that alienating the southwestern Jeolla region is political suicide for any progressivist force, as Moon’s old boss Roh Moo Hyun found out. From the start, the current government has rested on this demographic base, which includes the enormous Jeolla diaspora in other parts of the country. (The region proper only holds about 10% of South Korea’s population.) It was in order to get out this crucial part of the vote a few years ago that the ruling party chose Jeolla-born people to run for district chief in most of Seoul’s 25 districts, almost all of whom were elected.

Yet discussion of the ideological distinctness and monolithicity of the Jeolla region is a taboo topic in South Korean political discussion. It’s always in geography-free language that the media tell us of Moon’s “hardcore supporters,” of a “concrete” base that keeps his approval ratings from sinking too far — as if the bulk of that 30% or so were not also the bulk of the roughly 25% who plan to vote next year for his old foe Lee Jae-myung, a man not unlikely to seek prosecution for key Moon-camp members and maybe (the Korean tradition being what it is) Moon himself.

Public opinion in Jeolla now diverges more markedly from that of the rest of the republic than ever before. It’s not because the economy is any better off there, nor the new tax burden lighter, nor the pace of vaccinations any less glacial, nor the big corruption and sexual-harassment scandals any less common knowledge. Its support for the ruling party can be explained only with reference to ideological matters that must never be publicly discussed.  I suspect this is why, in coverage of last week’s elections — in which the PPP candidates took every last district of Seoul and Busan — the ruling party’s victory in four Jeolla by-elections went almost completely undiscussed. (In none of those races were conservatives even contenders; the Minjoo candidates ran against nationalist-left independents.)

Let’s just say, if I may touch very lightly on the forbidden topic: Jeolla has a uniquely strong interest in the improvement of inter-Korean relations. Hence also its support for Lee Jae-myung, now the governor of Gyeonggi Province, who bangs that particular drum louder and more often than any of the other likely contenders for the presidency, and makes sure the mayors on his turf bang it too. A look into his power-base in Seongnam is also illustrative.

To return to the conservative party: its real focus,  now as during the impeachment drive of 2016, is on bringing about a semi-parliamentary system through constitutional revision. As I explained in 2018, here and here, this is something many on the nationalist left also want, albeit for very different reasons. Mind you, the PPP’s current aversion to the “imperial presidency” may dissipate if it reckons it can wrest back that institution next year. The party’s chances still look pretty dismal, due to the likelihood of a three-way election in which the moderate and conservative candidates would split the non-left vote. On the other hand, if South Koreans continue being vaccinated at one of the slowest rates in the developed world, and must walk around in masks while other countries go back to normal, the conservatives might be able to win even without a personally popular candidate.

Suffice for now to observe, however, that if a semi-parliamentary system were to come about while the National Assembly is under Minjoo control, it would create very favorable conditions for constructing the “peace system” Moon and his circle have long envisioned: an inter-Korean league or confederation. He’s not quite a lame duck yet.

Source: sthelepress.com

On Last Week’s Elections — B.R. Myers