Stop the Communists! Save democracy from North Korea! These chants, as outdated and irrelevant as they may sound, still reverberate around the streets of South Korea in the 21st century. They come from some in the older generation, who believe that the recent ouster of former president Park Geun-hye is actually a conspiracy by “dirty leftists” who sympathize with the North.
“How can anyone be anything other than conservative in this country?” Kim Gap-jung, a far-right supporter of Park Geun-hye, said at an anti-impeachment rally a month before the Constitutional Court formally removed Park from power on Mar. 10. To Kim, conservative equals democracy. Progressive equals communism. As far-fetched as this logic may be, this rhetoric of anti-communism still resonates in South Korea. It’s still, to a degree, influential. It stops many citizens — conservative, progressive, or neither — from being too much to the ‘left,’ however that may be defined.
In the aftermath of former president Park Geun-hye’s ouster, most candidates vying for South Korea’s presidency in the May 9 election are from the “progressive” side of the political spectrum, an identity characterized by a comparatively soft stance on North Korea, and preference for greater redistribution of wealth through welfare and taxation.
But being progressive is a thorny concept in a country that, though a functioning democracy, still suffers internally from the effects of Korean division. So what does it mean to be progressive in South Korea? What distinguishes a progressive from a conservative?
Let’s Talk About North Korea
“The most critical point of difference is the stance towards the North,” said Kang Won-taek, a political science professor at Seoul National University. Progressives are softer, embracing engagement. Conservatives take a harder line, calling for absorptive unification of the peninsula, made possible by the collapse of the regime in Pyongyang.
South Korea has spent much of its history being ruled by authoritarian rightwing governments that relied largely on anti-communism for legitimacy, and put national security ahead of human rights.
But the country’s political spectrum hasn’t long been defined by the progressive/conservative divide, which didn’t appear until the 90s, said Park Se-gil, a prominent progressive scholar and the author of the series Rewriting Modern Korean History.
“In the past, ‘progressive’ basically meant ‘communist,’” he said. Not until the Roh Moo-hyun administration came to power in 2003 did ‘progressive’ begin to be used more actively and positively by the lawmakers on the left to identify themselves.
The ‘left = communist’ frame is an old and broken tune, a lasting remnant from the Cold War era. “It’s the frame from the Korean War in the 1950s, equating ‘democracy’ to ‘right’ and ‘communism’ to ‘left,’” said Kang.
Today, there is a subtle distinction between the Korean terms “progressive” and “left.” The former, like its English equivalent, simply means “moving forward.” The latter is more derogatory, said Park. “Leftist” (jwapa) carries pro-North connotations, and is often accompanied by the word ppalgaengi (“red”).
Not everyone agrees. Take, for instance, commentator Ryu Keun-il, who writes a regular column for conservative outlet New Daily. He claims that many so-called progressive lawmakers in South Korea are extreme leftists. He said “legitimate progressives” fought for democracy in the 1970s and 80s, against the authoritarian rulers. According to Ryu, many of these progressives became more extreme, and many of these activists became lawmakers.
Ryu equated the progressive “extremists” with “violent revolutionaries, Stalinists and Bolsheviks, [who destroy] democratic principles.”
Many South Koreans are more open-minded. Over 70 percent of the public identified as centrist to progressive in a 2015 government survey. But even if the actual numbers indicate a changing political inclination in the wider population, in politics, at least, the old logic remains potent.
“Communists and socialists around the world all label themselves ‘progressive,’” said Yang Tong-ahn, a veteran conservative commentator and emeritus professor at the Academy of Korean Studies. “Progressives here [in South Korea] are disguising socialist or pro-socialist policies as progressive, and succeeding as their propaganda power grows.”
Yang asserts that South Korean politics as a whole needs to be “further to the right, with an anti-communist stance, because of the national situation [of Korean division].”
Here, in addition to voicing a common conservative rationale for putting national security before political freedom, Yang touches on a concept known as the “Overton window.” Named after a U.S. think tank official of the same name, the window refers to the range of politically acceptable policies in a given area. In each country and era, the window sits over a different part of the ideological spectrum, describing the range of policies that politicians in a democracy can introduce without being rejected by voters.
In South Korea, the North appears to function as a buffer on the political spectrum, limiting how far the Overton Window can move left — for older South Koreans, at least. To many of their younger compatriots, labeling progressives with moderate policies “commies” is less convincing.
“This ppalgaengi rhetoric just doesn’t resonate with me,” said Kim Hyun-kyung, a 27-year-old museum employee in Seoul. “Ppalgaengi have never harmed me directly; to me the term is just an idea, a concept. I don’t know if it’s real. I think it’s too extreme to call progressives ppalgaengi.”
While younger South Koreans may be viewing the political spectrum through a different Overton window, political action remains largely dominated by older people. (Granted, in light of the recent impeachment rallies, in which many young citizens participated, the culture of political action seems to be changing.) The average age of National Assembly members has climbed to 55.5, slightly above the most recently available global average of 53. South Korea has yet to democratically elect a president who is younger than 60.
“Young people are perceived to be uninterested in politics,” said Kim So-hee, the leader of South Korea’s youngest political party, which isn’t represented in parliament. The Woori Mirae [“Our Future”] Party was founded earlier this year and targets voters in their 20s and 30s — a demographic represented by 1 percent of lawmakers — basically three seats — in the National Assembly. “They don’t bring in votes. I think that’s why [politicians] focus on the older generation.”
When combined with a rapidly aging population, the notion that left equals communism shows no sign of disappearing any time soon. If this ideological frame mellowed out briefly during the progressive Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations (from 1998 to 2008), when engagement with North Korea reached its peak, the following two conservative administrations re-intensified the anti-communist rhetoric in the political arena.
The dissolution of the Unified Progressive Party in 2014 — the only such incident since the establishment of South Korea’s Constitutional Court — is a classic example.
This minor opposition party, which had just five members in the National Assembly, was accused of containing elements of the National Liberation (NL), a left-wing faction. The NL is rooted in radical 1980s campus activism that had previously courted controversy by viewing the U.S. as an occupying imperialist power. The NL also embraced North Korea’s so-called “Juche” ideology.
Many of the disbanded UPP’s members were linked to the NL movement and inevitably labelled as pro-North sympathizers. Overlooked was the party’s 2012 presidential election manifesto, which appeared closer to European-style social democratic progressivism, featuring pledges such as cradle-to-grave universal welfare and opposition to free trade agreements.
But “North Korean-style socialism” was what the UPP was prosecuted for pursuing, by Park Geun-hye’s Justice Ministry in 2013. (The justice minister at the time was Hwang Kyo-ahn, now the country’s acting president.) The disbanding of the party prompted critics to say that the Park administration was using North Korea as an excuse to suppress opposition.
To many conservatives, however, the court had merely been protecting the country from an internal, pro-North Korean menace. For them, disbanding the UPP was just one episode in an ongoing struggle for national security.
“Breaking up the UPP was not the end of it,” wrote “myeolgong-ui hoetjip” (“Commie-eradicating Sashimi Restaurant”), a user on the far-right website Ilbe.
“Personally, I hope Hwang Kyo-ahn, the man behind the breakup of the UPP, runs for president, saves the country from crisis and liquidates the remaining spies and commies.”
Commie-eradicating Sashimi Restaurant’s hopes were recently dashed, when Hwang publicly said he wouldn’t be running for the presidency. Unfortunately for the the ruling party, Hwang had been the most popular conservative in presidential election polls, despite not having announced his candidacy.
Beyond Limited Progressivism
Are South Korea’s progressives really progressive? When comparing their accomplishments to their Western counterparts on various issues — human rights, social welfare, environment and so on — the answer would be, well, not quite.
Even internally, the self-proclaimed progressives have faced harsh criticism from their own supporters. The biggest failures of the country’s only two left-leaning administrations still haunt the current parties, who have yet to come up with good solutions to South Korea’s myriad ills.
Labor is a big strike one. The Kim Dae-jung administration, in attempting to address South Korea’s largest financial crisis in 1997, made it legally easier for companies to replace regular employees with irregular ones. The Roh administration, in attempting to fix Kim’s screw-up, only worsened the irregular workers problem by passing a labor law in 2007 that made it mandatory for employers to “regularize” irregular contracts after two years.
Job instability then actually got worse for irregular workers, who were often fired within two years of hire by employers who didn’t want to bear the cost of promoting them to regular employees. Even Moon Jae-in, formerly Roh’s chief of staff, said, “The irregular workers’ law is an unforgettable wound.”
The Iraq War is a huge strike two. Over 3,000 soldiers were sent to Iraq in 2003 during the Roh administration, despite widespread anti-war public sentiment and nationwide protests from Roh’s own supporters. The progressives failed to overcome what the conservatives had perpetuated: a political culture of following the demands of the U.S., South Korea’s most important ally, even against public sentiment.
Roh’s free trade agreement with the U.S. — which after many political and civic battles, eventually went into effect in 2011 during the following conservative administration — was seen as a form of betrayal by many progressive voters. He may have had his reasons. “[Going against] the U.S is still a taboo in South Korean politics,” Sim Sang-jung, the leader of the leftist Justice Party and a presidential candidate, told Korea Exposé.
North Korea is another lingering problem. The progressives are hobbled by their perceived failure to condemn North Korea for its current behavior, such as violations of international laws and human rights abuses. “North Korea is a totalitarian state, the kind of place where the leader has his own uncle shot. Real progressives should criticize it, just as progressives in Europe do,” said conservative commentator Ryu.
Despite their many failures, South Korean progressives have established a political foothold in a relatively short time. Though their country has long been considered a bastion of conservatism, the scene is rapidly changing.
Many were surprised after last April’s parliamentary elections, when the ruling conservatives unexpectedly lost their majority and opposition parties collectively gathered more seats in the National Assembly.
That was months before the Choi Soon-sil saga started. Now, almost a year after the upset last April, the ruling party has split apart. Park Geun-hye has been ousted, and no viable conservative candidate has emerged for the upcoming presidential election.
Progressives are riding this wave of opportunity. Moon Jae-in is surging ahead in the polls; the rest of the field is also predominantly from the progressive camp.
But among young and old alike, it’s easy to find people saying that South Korean progressives really don’t live up to their name. Such critics cite lack of vision, generic policies barely distinguishable from those of conservatives, internal corruption, and more. These aren’t just progressive problems: Conservatives deal with them too. But perhaps the expectation to be different weighs heavier on progressives because — well, they’re supposed to be progressive.
Cover Image: Roh Moo-hyun governed South Korea from early 2003 to early 2008 and remains a progressive icon. A picture of him was on display in front of Seoul City Hall for the fourth anniversary of his death, in 2013. (Source: Vincent Lee/flickr)
For more on South Korean politics and the upcoming election, read:
- Hwang Kyo-ahn: The Man Who Wouldn’t Be King
- Lee Jae-myung: Populist, Left-wing, Unapologetic
- Ahn Hee-Jung: A Dark Horse Gathers Pace
- And Goodbye, Mr. Half