The Republic of Korea: No Democracy as We Know

The Republic of Korea: No Democracy as We Know

Ben Jackson
Ben Jackson

The Constitutional Court of Korea made history on Friday by ordering the dissolution of a political party for the first time since the court’s establishment in 1988. It was also the first time a political party was disbanded in South Korea since 1958.

The entity in question was the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), a leftist political presence that had just five members in South Korea’s 300-seat National Assembly.

In addition to the party’s dissolution, the court ordered its five lawmakers to forfeit their democratically elected positions.

Friday’s ruling came as victory for the government, arriving more than a year after the Ministry of Justice filed a petition with the country’s top court to have the UPP disbanded on the grounds that it was unconstitutional. The Constitutional Court’s nine justices voted overwhelmingly in favour of the dissolution, with only one justice disagreeing with his eight colleagues.

The court posted an explanatory press release on its website on Friday morning, shortly after court president Park Han-chul read out the ruling:

“The activities of the respondent party, which include assemblies to discuss insurrection with the hidden objective of realizing North Korean style socialism, is in violation of the basic democratic order. In order to eliminate the specific danger of the respondent to cause substantial threat to society, there exists no less measure than to dissolve the said party.”

The court’s summary did note the argument of lone dissenting justice, Kim Yi-su, who argued: “There is no sufficient evidence on the concealed objectives of the respondent. The objectives of the respondent proclaimed by the platform of the political party including progressive democracy is not against the democratic order”.

Divided Response

Predictably, the decision has been slammed by liberal and progressive figures and welcomed by conservatives. “The Park Geun-hye administration has reduced the Republic of Korea to a dictatorship”, said former UPP leader Lee Jung-hee in the immediate aftermath of the ruling.

“The Constitutional Court, the product of the June [1987] Democratic Uprising, has opened the door to totalitarianism with its own ruling, based on fiction and fantasy. From today, both doctrines of national independence, democracy, equality and peaceful reunification, and the politics of workers, farmers and the people, are banned”.

The ruling Saenuri Party appeared highly content. “Justice has prevailed”, said party spokesman Park Dae-chul at a briefing. “This is a victory for the constitution and for liberal democracy. From now on, the Republic of Korea will no longer be a playground for pro-North Korean forces and the National Assembly no longer a haven for them”.

Meanwhile, conservative Gyeongsangnam-do governor Hong Joon-pyo commented: “It seems the age of pro-North Korean leftists posing as progressives is over. I look forward to the appearance of a reasonable progressive party”.

Netizens were equally divided. “Let’s celebrate today as an annual holiday called ‘UPP Dissolution Day’”, suggested “Choe Byeong-uk”, an evidently pleased commenter on the conservative Chosun Ilbo website.

“How can we play carefree games with democracy and just allow any political party to exist like in an advanced democracy, while ignoring the fact that we’re still part of a divided nation?” chimed in fellow Chosun Ilbo reader “Im Seong-jae”.

Readers of the progressive Hankyoreh tended towards a mixture of outrage, despair and grim humour. “A black curtain has fallen over Korean politics today”, claimed “Liberal”. “Democracy has died again”.

Hankyoreh reader “xslashx” slammed the court ruling in this way:

“An abbreviated summary of the constitutional court ruling’s meaning: ‘The Republic of Korea’s ideological system is inferior to that of North Korea, so anything remotely similar to or in the slightest agreement with North Korean ideology has to be nipped in the bud in order to maintain national security in the South, since its introduction would make it highly likely that the ignorant Southerners would become commies.’ In other words, it’s admitted that the Republic of Korea is a retarded country. Lol. It’s saying we’re worse than North Korea.”

Amnesty International expressed serious concern at the decision. “The [South Korean] government is increasingly using national security as a guise to repress political opposition and curtail freedom of expression,” said Roseann Rife, the movement’s East Asia Research Director. “The space for freedom of expression has been vastly diminished in recent years.”

Differing Conceptions of Democracy

While the Constitutional Court backed up its ruling with a detailed argument that clearly stated the UPP’s unconstitutionality lay in its “hidden revolutionary aims”, the decision has surprised many observers and further deepened concern among many at what appears to be an erosion of democracy under current president Park Geun-hye.

But rather than signaling a slide back to authoritarianism of the military era, Friday’s ruling affirms the fact that there exists a vastly different conception of democracy, especially as embraced by the country’s conservatives and current administration.

Contrary to the popular view, South Korea never fully developed into a democracy of the Western imagination. As Professor Emeritus Choi Jang-jip at Korea University notes:

“[W]hile the ultimate goal of the newly created [South Korean] state was the establishment of liberal democracy, the means to attain it was Cold War anti-communism. In reality, the goal and its means were displaced”.

Although the Republic of Korea assumed the image of a legitimate political entity by distinguishing itself from the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea in the north, the southern government was not fully invested in building democratic institutions nor upholding principles of liberal democracy, especially freedom of expression.

The early architects of the separate South Korean state felt that “under the circumstances, the realization of liberal democracy was not possible without the realizing of national security and internal political stability”. In other words, it was seen as necessary to privilege repression and order over political freedom in order to build and maintain a liberal democratic state, despite the paradox inherent in this project.

The ultimate legacy of this history is that being pro-national security has come to be seen in many South Korean minds as being pro-democracy, with anyone speaking of dissent and divergence from the established order immediately smeared as anti-state, anti-democracy, and pro-North Korea. It is the logic behind that dreaded term jongbuk — pro-North Korea — so often invoked by South Korea’s right wing to discredit opposition of all kinds, even those that are not grounded in any affinity for communism.

The development on 19 December is significant because it shows that despite a brief period of ideological reorientation under the electoral democracy of presidents Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Roh Moo-hyun, South Korea has never fully shed its identity as a national security state deeply immersed in the Cold War-era psyche of anti-communism.

While the Saenuri Party celebrates the UPP’s dissolution, their self-proclaimed status as champions of democracy is rendered ironic by their devoted protection of an agency that most genuinely threatens South Korea’s democratic principles: the National Intelligence Service, which was revealed last year to have engaged in massive electoral interference in the period running up to the 2012 presidential election. Some, then, would argue that the UPP did not pose the biggest threat to the country’s basic democratic order.

The Future for Progressive Politics in South Korea

Several Korean media outlets interpreted the ruling as also banning the forming of a party similar to the former UPP. But no explicit mention of this is found in the court’s summary. The court ruling clearly takes issue primarily with the UPP’s alleged aim to “seize power by overthrowing the free democratic system through violence,” implying that a party with other progressive goals such as extensive economic redistribution, peaceful reunification or replacement of ruling elites by a proletarian government through democratic elections would not be unconstitutional.

Whether a new progressive party could or would be formed by the leaders of the former UPP, such as Lee Jung-hee, is unclear. Indeed, the legal ordeal of Lee and her colleagues may not yet be over: after yesterday’s ruling, conservative civic groups filed an official complaint with Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office demanding the UPP’s entire membership be investigated for violating the National Security Law, another relic of anti-communism that criminalises any activity deemed subversive to the state.

A larger problem facing any future attempts to re-form a progressive party is the stigma that may now become attached to progressivism itself as an indirect result of the Constitutional Court’s ruling. While the UPP has never come anywhere near achieving parliamentary majority, the very public dissolution of a party carrying the progressive banner by the judiciary will ensure that no progressive party can achieve a significant electoral victory for many years to come.

Political stigma aside, any further battles are sure to test South Korean legal and constitutional definitions of progressive democracy: does it really threaten the “basic democratic order” if achieved through the ballot box? Is it really inseparable from violations of basic democratic order and revolutionary unification with “socialist” North Korea? Can it even be defined?

Finally, the question of political representation for the country’s workers remains unanswered now that the UPP, which absorbed the Democratic Labour Party three years ago, no longer exists. This vulnerable segment of the country’s conglomerate-dominated economy now faces a new struggle to find a political voice while avoiding charges of extremism from the right.

Se-Woong Koo contributed to this article.

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