On the South Korean Presidential Race — B.R. Myers
A common headline here over the past few weeks: “There’s never been a presidential election like this one.” Because the two parties are already looking beyond it to “democratic integration,” they’ve been going easy on each other, to the annoyance of their respective voter bases. Most of the ideological noises made thus far have been of the integrating sort. The left-wing candidate Lee Jae-myung has praised Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan for their economic policy, while his conservative rival Yoon Seok-yeol has again pledged to enshrine the spirit of the “Gwangju Democratization Movement” (May 1980) in a new preamble to the constitution.
Most of the time the two candidates just promise extravagant hand-outs and say disapproving things about each other’s moral failings. Their followers seem remarkably impervious to bad news. No number of serious allegations about the corruption of Lee and his wife — any one of which would end an American candidacy — can drive his approval ratings under 35%. Conservatives are no less ready to shrug off the fact that Yoon was until 2019 Moon Jae-in’s loyal servant, and a left-winger by his wife’s proud account. He’s still reluctant to criticize Moon by name. The Christian right overlooks even the couple’s interest in shamanism, talismanic symbols and fortune-telling, although baseless rumors of weird Blue House rites did much to turn it against Park Geun-hye in 2016. (By the way, Western observers who want to treat shamanism as a kooky right-wing thing should read up on the role it played during the minjung movement.)
The main issue dividing left and right remains North Korea, but the two main parties disagree with each other much less strongly about it than their voter bases do. Last year the opposition party framed the Seoul mayoral election as an opportunity to protest the government’s obsession with inter-Korean relations. No sooner was Oh Se-hoon elected in a landslide than he vowed to support the bid for a Seoul-Pyongyang Olympics.
Having argued already that the local right isn’t as hardline as the foreign press depicts it, I want to make clear in this post that pro-Northism has always been more moderate than the radicalisms of the West and Japan. One of the things that drove the student leader Kim Young-hwan from Marxism-Leninism into the bosom of the Great Leader was the film The Killing Fields (1984), about the Khmer Rouge. Seeking a kinder, gentler socialism, he found it in the bland truisms of Juche Thought, as well as in North Korean radio broadcasts, which urged the campus protest movement to employ more populist rhetoric and tactics than its Marxist-Leninist core was then using.
Not surprisingly his National Liberation or NL group (known here by that English acronym), ended up outnumbering the Leninists by a ratio of about 9:1. To its credit neither faction went in for the terrorist kidnappings and killings we associate with the Rote Armee Fraktion or the Brigate Rossi. While the Leninist youth were big on Molotov cocktails, the NL protesters staged the more effective downtown lie-ins of the so-called June 1987 Struggle.
Although mythologized nowadays (as in 1987: The Day Comes) as the driving force behind democratization, the student protest movement was monolithically abstentionist and in favor of “people’s democracy,” despite its belated strategic alliance with the bourgeois opposition. A fascinating book on this subject has just been put out by Min Gyeong-u, an oft-imprisoned former official of the Pan-Korean Alliance for Reunification. It wasn’t pro-North students like himself, he says, but Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung who forced the Chun regime to allow direct elections.
Let me stop here and say something about the word “pro-North.” Globalization globalizes taboos, so Korea watchers are now as nervous about calling people “pro-North” as South Koreans themselves have become. For some reason “pro” is thought to express something far more extreme in this context than it does in all comparable ones. You can call South Koreans pro-American without implying they want another US military occupation. But you can’t attribute pro-Northism to South Koreans without some Western fool on Twitter accusing you of thinking they want a North Korean takeover. Even saying that Moon Jae-in admires the country is considered a horrible slander, although the address he delivered to a packed stadium up there in 2018 speaks for itself.
Now, I could understand it if the Westerners flying off the handle at the word “pro-North” considered the DPRK as hard for any sane person to like as Pol Pot’s Cambodia. But no, these tend to be the same people who tell us what a wonderful place it is when you get to know it. So forgive me if I find their jeering a little forced, and “double down” on my use of the term in question: South Korea’s nationalist left is pro-North.
But pro-Northism has always accommodated differences of opinion: differences inside a unity — with none of the fierce mutual animosities I was just reading about in a book on Irish republicanism — but still differences. Even the hardcore students who actually slogged through Juche texts in the 1980s were divided into those who did and didn’t accept the Leader Theory twaddle. (Most didn’t.) There was also a branch of the NL movement which, although pro-North, refused to take orders from the North’s southward radio broadcasts. To my knowledge none of these groups wanted KPA tanks to come rolling down again like in 1950. They wanted — just as Kim Il Sung professed to want — a transition stage to unification, namely federation or confederation.
Here the mirror-imaging Westerner, determined to keep rooting for what CNN tells him is the “liberal” side, simply asserts that the nationalist left must have abandoned its earlier beliefs. But age doesn’t necessarily moderate people. (I’m much more radical about animal rights now than I was 20 years ago.) The most prominent members of today’s ruling party refuse to renounce the National Liberation movement. They still consider the “poorer but purer” Korea the more legitimate state, just as it’s routinely presented in those inter-Korean buddy movies and romance dramas the Moon government loves subsidizing. Min Gyeong-u has remarked wonderingly on how radical (gwagyeok hada) so many people who went to university 30-some years ago still are. The president’s own worldview as expressed in speeches is straight out of the 1980s. Whatever he may say for Western consumption, his base sees no reason why the North should denuclearize, and holds Washington responsible for the ongoing crisis. The efficacy of appeasement, a word which in Korean lacks the negative associations it has in English, is still wholeheartedly believed in.
One plank most of the pro-Northers have certainly abandoned is the “Yankee go home” line. Yes, this is partly because they don’t want Kim Jong Un to try anything crazy. But they also understand which half of the peninsula the US-ROK alliance has done a better job of protecting since the truce. Make Yankee go home, and South Korea ceases to be a human shield deterring even the most limited strike on the North.
The goal of the nationalist left, then, is still an inter-Korean confederation, or “de facto unification” as many (include Lee Jae-myung) prefer to call it, but on paper, at least, this is a remarkably loose and tame affair. We’re told it would come down to little more than routine summits, a constitutionally anchored commitment to cooperate economically, and some sort of EU-type, supra-state body to administer the partnership. Let’s leave aside for now the restrictions on anti-North expression that would be sure to accompany such a set-up here. Let’s also disregard the question of whether (and why) the North would be interested in it. My point is that the concept is probably moderate enough for the Minjoo and the PPP to integrate over in the near future — or at least to join in removing all constitutional obstacles to. The sanctions currently in place would give the conservatives cover with their voters: Relax, it’ll never come to fruition.
In any case I don’t see what choice a President Yoon would have but to go along with this, and everything else the Minjoo-run National Assembly chooses to insist upon. A honeymoon period would be out of the question, even if key posts were given to Minjoo members, as a few in Yoon’s camp have suggested might happen. Already some on the nationalist left are saying a Yoon victory in March would constitute a “coup d’état.” The implication is that street resistance would have to begin at once, probably before his inauguration in May, for the nationalist left reserves the right to remove or at least neutralize a president if voters pick the wrong one. This anti-liberal thinking goes back to the protest movement too. Its actual apex was therefore not June 1987 but the May 1991 Struggle to topple Roh Tae Woo, whose successor was due to be elected the following year anyway. But that’s one episode of modern history you won’t get a movie about.