It could just be that the rising temperatures summoned a high-pressure system and clean air, but even nature seemed to acknowledge the momentousness of the occasion. On May 9 South Koreans elected Moon Jae-in as president. And just as suddenly, the noxious spring smog that normally blankets the Korean Peninsula dissipated, revealing an almost clear sky.
Though most certainly a coincidence, the change in air quality eerily mirrored the improvement in political climate. In late summer 2016, conservative president Park Geun-hye was accused of colluding with Choi Soon-sil, her friend, to use the government for their personal gain. A series of mass demonstrations called on Park to step down. The National Assembly impeached her in December, and the constitutional court stripped her of power in March. Park and Choi are undergoing a criminal trial. Moon, from the main opposition Minjoo Party, is the nation’s newly elected leader.
There is no question that Moon is far preferable to Park, and excitement initially surrounded his rise to power. She was reclusive, fond of ceremony and incompetent, while he is seemingly transparent, unconcerned with trappings of power and above all modest. The post-election rally at Gwanghwamun Square in downtown Seoul – the same site where more than a million had demanded Park’s resignation – was predictably celebratory.
Given the development, the foreign media, after praising South Korea as having shown “how to do democracy” right, has largely moved on to other issues in other countries. And it would be nice if we could say that this is indeed the fairytale ending the South Korean electorate has waited for, but it isn’t the case. Getting rid of a corrupt leader and successfully holding an election don’t equal thriving democracy. South Korean politics is once again at an impasse, mired as it usually is in partisan politics. Oddly it’s Moon and his supporters that share the blame for stoking division, even within the so-called ‘progressive’ coalition that encompasses him and his Minjoo Party.
Moon, though handsome and earnest, has a complex history. A former human rights lawyer, he won only one parliamentary election before becoming president. And yet he led the opposition for a time and represented it in two presidential contests including this latest one. Before entering electoral politics, he was best known for serving president Roh Moo-hyun, a longtime friend, first as a presidential secretary and later chief of staff.
Roh had charisma, commanding a sizeable grassroots following even after his suicide in 2009. Moon, considered the country’s most recognizable “pro-Roh” politician, came to prominence through his connection to the late president. He also inherited a solid base of supporters from Roh, and beneath the sunny picture of post-election South Korea as a mature democracy, some of these die-hard fans have embarked on a warpath against anyone suspected of even slightly disparaging their new icon. So determined are they to punish his perceived enemies that they are often mocked as “Moonppa,” “Moonslam” or “Daliban.” (The suffix “ppa” stands for obsessive fans, usually of celebrities. The references to Islam and the Taliban conveys that they are extremists.)
During much of May, these more extreme Moon supporters’ hatred for the established leftwing media — especially Hankyoreh, Kyunghyang and OhmyNews – dominated the news. The first two are venerable giants among leftist media, and their distaste for Park Geun-hye and her Saenuri Party (now called Liberty Korea) is well-known. OhmyNews, a citizen-driven internet outlet, is, if anything, more trenchant than Hankyoreh or Kyunghyang when it comes to taking conservatives down.
But for failings as minute as not describing Moon or his wife with sufficient deference, using a less-than-flattering photo of him on the cover of a magazine, or making a mistake in rounding up his support rate in a poll, Moon supporters have taken to the internet in large numbers to accuse the outlets of a secret bias against the new president.
Journalists didn’t exactly help matters by lashing out at them (sometimes in a state of impaired judgment under the influence of alcohol as they themselves would admit later). On May 15 a former editor-in-chief of Hankyoreh’s weekly magazine wrote on his Facebook page, “Bring it on,” disparaging the president’s followers as fanatics. When that comment came under fire, a reporter at Media Today, another left-leaning outlet, defended him by equating the critics to “a pack of dogs” that “mount a concerted attack and win submission.” He added, “This is fascism.” They both ended up apologizing, but much ink was subsequently spilled on the hostile relationship between Moon’s base and these iconic liberal media companies.
One apparent reason for Moon supporters to attack Hankyoreh and its likes is that these papers and online outlet are allegedly dominated by elitist leftists, who have only disdain for the “ordinary” people and Moon who represent them. And it’s true that late president Roh and Moon come from an independent faction within the leftist movement.
But the divide between leftwing media and Roh’s faction is more about ideology than lineage: Roh was not exactly a leftist, even though the conservatives painted him as such. When he was president, he won little love from the South Korean left as a whole for his major policies: making the labor market more flexible, pushing for a free trade agreement with the U.S. and deploying South Korean soldiers to Iraq and Afghanistan at Washington’s request, despite widespread public opposition. He was also accused of being exceptionally close to Samsung, the conglomerate that makes the South Korean left recoil in undiluted contempt.
Roh’s relationship with media from both poles of the political spectrum was contentious, translating into dismal approval ratings during much of his presidency. (He tried to compensate for his lack of allies in the press by directing substantial funds toward what is called “public service advertising,” essentially pro-government propaganda paid for with taxpayer money.)
But after Roh became embroiled in a corruption scandal and committed suicide in 2009, his base, already unhappy with the South Korean left, was radicalized; it came to the opinion, justified to a degree, that Roh was hounded into taking his own life in a politically motivated investigation that then-president Lee Myung-bak — a conservative — prosecutors and rightwing media masterminded. While Roh wasn’t completely innocent – his wife took large sums of money from a businessman for reasons that have yet to become clear – Roh’s followers were as incensed at leftwing media as they were at the right, for not defending him enough in the court of public opinion.
Nine years of conservative rule meant that no matter how angry, the Roh faction could do little. But now that Moon, Roh’s heir apparent, is president, the radical streak has returned. The ultimate goal is, of course, to ensure that Moon can successfully carry out his promise of “eradicating accumulated evils” – winning the war against political conservatives, big corporations, descendants of pro-Japanese collaborators (also equated with the conservative faction) and the national security apparatus that include the prosecutors’ office and the National Intelligence Service, the country’s main spy agency.
That goal is certainly being pursued if we are to go by Moon’s actions during the last five weeks – appointing a prominent critic of the chaebols to head the Fair Trade Commission and ordering an inquiry into corruption within prosecutors’ ranks, to name just two. But another priority among Moon supporters appears to be whipping the whole of the leftist coalition into backing Moon, or at least into silence. In one widely circulated essay, a writer defending the pro-Moon faction summed up the sentiment in this way: “We will fight the dirty fight. President Moon should govern as he wishes.”
And that dirty fight involves harassing anyone seen as critical of Moon. Spamming mobile phones with countless text messages is apparently one favored tactic. Making a political contribution of 18 Korean won (less than two cents) is another. (In Korean the number 18 is pronounced in the same way as a common insult.) Then there are the threats to newspapers with dissenting views. Nasty tweets and comments on internet forums, numerous to the point of shutting down debate, are de rigueur.
Conservatives are natural targets, but centrists, progressives and even people within Moon’s own party have all suffered what appear to be concerted attacks from his followers for standing in the way of his agenda.
The small leftist Justice Party and its leader Sim Sang-jung came under fire after she confronted Moon a little too vigorously during a televised pre-election debate. The Korean Confederation of Trade Union was hounded mid-May for denouncing the president’s choice for the anti-corruption czar. LGBT rights groups have been slammed for trying to raise the issue of discrimination with Moon at a public forum. (Moon himself went on record as “disliking homosexuality,” a statement for which he subsequently said he was sorry, but it didn’t stop his followers from insulting the LGBT community.)
So far the president has coasted on his likeable image and claim to represent the people’s will. Moon Jae-in walks from his residence to office rather than being chauffeured. Once he served himself lunch at the Blue House employee canteen. He even wears an old pair of shoes made by deaf cobblers. (The shoes caused a small sensation on social media, with many trying to buy a pair from the company.)
Moon has also been keen to link his electoral success and legitimacy to the recent anti-Park demonstrations and the democratization movement leading up to 1987. He gave his first major speech at the May 18 democratization movement commemoration in Gwangju, where military dictator Chun Doo-hwan massacred civilians protesting his power grab in 1980. More recently Moon was at the memorial ceremony for a student activist killed by a police teargas canister thirty years ago.
Yet exemplary conduct aside, Moon’s commitment to healthy dialogue at the heart of democracy is in question. He shows no interest in reining in the “red guard,” as some detractors call his fan base. His election campaign was accused of coordinating with a private supporters’ group to steer online discourse in a favorable direction. He has hired a presidential secretary convicted of illegally disseminating online content in 2012, and defended his extreme supporters’ antics as “a kind of spice that makes our competition more interesting.”
Moon’s decision to rule by charisma and popular support also means that he is losing the allies he badly needs. The president enjoys no parliamentary majority: The Minjoo, while the largest party in the National Assembly, has only some 120 out of 299 seats, and the next general election will not take place until 2020. At the very least Moon must court the centrist People’s Party if he is to accomplish a major legislative victory, but he doesn’t seem to be especially invested in this relationship.
While there is no direct evidence the Moon administration is systematically fanning the passion among his followers, extreme loyalty to Moon and the late president Roh evokes the passion inspired by disgraced president Park Geun-hye and her father, General Park Chung-hee. The Park family cult has been one defining feature of the country’s conservative establishment. Now another cult of personality is in the making, dedicated to the Roh-Moon pair. (Moon has a new nickname, “the moon” as in the celestial body, and there are reports of pilgrims at his house of birth.)
The Blue House apparently registered displeasure at the local government’s attempt to restore and turn the house into a tourist attraction, but it’s too little too late. South Korean politics often revolves around big personalities, and Moon, too, has also become a focus of idolatry. And as a newly minted cult object, he seems content to let his devotees beat all critics into submission. This is the vaunted South Korean democracy of today.
Editor’s Note: A shorter version of this essay appeared in the New York Times on Jun. 13.
Cover Image: Moon Jae-in supporters hold up his campaign poster on the election day. (Haeju Kang/Korea Exposé)