What’s Wrong With South Korea’s Liberals?
Image Credit: REUTERS/Lee Jae-Won

What’s Wrong With South Korea’s Liberals?


August 18 marked the five-year anniversary of the death of Kim Dae-jung, eighth president of South Korea and one of the key leaders in the country’s struggle for democracy during the authoritarian regimes of Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan. Kim’s contribution to the 1987 restoration of popular presidential elections defined his political legacy and it remains the moment that shapes the liberal movement today.

Yet Kim’s successors have been decisively unsuccessful since his departure from office in 2003. The center-left parties fractured, lost two successive presidential elections, and have not held a majority in the National Assembly since 2008. In the most recent by-election, the frail coalition of liberals under the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) received the most decisive blow, losing 11 of the 15 contested constituencies, including one in the liberal home turf of South Jeolla Province. The results were all the more shocking considering President Park Geun-hye’s low approval ratings after a string of scandals involving cabinet nominees and government collusion with businesses.

Politics Before Ideology

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So why have the liberals been unable to rally the public’s confidence in recent years?

By no means have the conservatives been successful in politically outflanking the liberals. Weighed down by the public’s disapproval of Park, the Saenuri Party has merely avoided overt infighting and splintering prior to the local and by-elections this year. Strain in the party was visible when the two top candidates for the Saenuri chairmanship position forwarded opposing views on how closely the ruling party should work with the Blue House. Nonetheless, the victory of “anti-Park” candidate Kim Moo-sung did not lead to any revolts among the rank and file assemblymen. Indeed, the conservative party has shown a coherence indicative of a consolidated political party.

The same cannot be said for the liberals. The post-democratization history of the liberal movement in South Korea is one defined by strife, division and splintering. In the first election of the sixth (and current) republic, Roh Tae-woo, hand-picked successor of dictator Chun Doo-hwan, won in a free and competitive election against long-time opposition leaders Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung. With the opposition ballot split, Roh won with only 36.6 percent of the vote. Splits within the opposition were further aggravated in 1990 with the “three-party merger.” In a most unlikely coalition, Kim Jong-pil and Kim Young-sam joined a “grand conservative coalition” with then-incumbent Roh Tae-woo.

Even with the election of Kim Dae-jung to the presidency in 1997 and the subsequent victory of the progressive Roh Moo-hyun administration in 2002, the liberals proved incapable of remaining unified. Citing lackluster support from members within the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), members loyal to Roh broke ranks and formed a rival liberal party, the Uri Party. This was no harmless splinter. The formation of a new opposition party precipitated Roh’s impeachment by the MDP, the party which had backed his election. The impeachment was eventually thrown out by a constitutional court, but the political damage had already been done. Internal party conflict between different factions within the liberal party continues to this day.

As a result of the constant infighting, the fractious coalition built around the NPAD is unable to forward a strong message against the Park Geun-hye administration and the ruling Saenuri Party. Despite the mountain of scandals facing the conservative government, including accusations of government interference in the presidential election, the liberals appear incapable of mobilizing a coordinated political offensive on the government.

Instead, the liberals advance the rhetoric of “struggle,” reminiscent of the 1980s and the minjung movement. In fact, where the conservative party has institutionalized the legacy of economic growth, the left has taken on the message of “let us struggle together against an oppressive regime.” This is a woefully inadequate message in a post-authoritarian South Korea. As one citizen from the liberal home turf of South Jeolla pointed out, “It is no longer the era of ‘democratic struggle’ and Kim Dae-jung; nowadays the regional economies have to be important.”

Indeed, as one close Korea-watcher sarcastically puts it, “Post-Sunshine South Korea is sober, pragmatic, and grouchy.” This is just as true for South Korea’s youngest generation, the voting cohort typically most supportive of “progressive” policies and liberal parties. Recent polling data show that South Korean youth are realists. Among other things, they are largely pro-U.S., have ambivalent views on China, do not care too much for unification, and are increasingly unlikely to support Kim Dae-jung or Roh Moo-hyun-era Sunshine policy towards North Korea. What we see in South Korea is a largely conservative voting base.

If this trend holds, it will make for an interesting study. South Korea, it seems, is showing a different set of values and interests as a post-industrial nation. Comparatively speaking, countries in their post-industrial phase are more progressive, what political scientist Ronald Inglehart calls “post-materialist.” Citizens of such societies display a syndrome of distinct political values: they rank high on interpersonal trust, show an increased tolerance towards outgroups, favor policies that promote self-expression and personal autonomy over political and economic stability, show less deference to traditional institutions, are more active politically, etc. Of course, some of these values are flourishing, but not like they did elsewhere. South Korea seems to have made a partial post-materialist shift.

Long Shadow of the Regime

To some degree, the pre-1987 authoritarian regime was very astute in its assessment of what message would guarantee their long-term retention of power in the post-democratization political environment. Roh Tae-woo and the Democratic Justice Party (DJP) made a strategic decision to concede democracy in 1987 with the aim of retaining power, not losing it. Political scientists Joseph Wong and Dan Slater argue that when authoritarian regimes recognize the limits of their rule, they may initiate democratic transitions. This is especially true when ruling parties see their chances of winning an election as high. In fact, “the very strength that helps dominant parties sustain authoritarianism can also help motivate them to end it.” By capitalizing on a legacy of economic growth and development and an internally fractured opposition held together only by a shared opposition to an authoritarian regime, the DJP was able to perpetuate its rule and maintain power in a new, democratic political system. Ironically, the initiation of democratic reforms at a time when the conservative party still had a significant amount of support from the population likely saved the party from internal split or external ousting in the long-run. This is what Wong and Slater call “the strength to concede.”

However, the Park administration and the Saenuri Party cannot rely on a legacy of growth and development to guarantee numbers at the polls. In post-industrial South Korea (like much of East Asia), the need for more comprehensive welfare policies has grown. When “lifetime employment” was more prevalent, the cost of living more manageable, and the economy still “developing,” there was no demand for a strong welfare state – employers and the family unit provided what was needed. However, times have changed and South Korea’s welfare model no longer seems adequate. People want better, more comprehensive welfare policies from the state.

Despite demand, there has been little progress. The incumbent mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, rallied popular support behind providing free school lunches for students in the city’s public school. However, both the poor quality of the food and the burden on the municipal budget have since attracted criticism. Meanwhile, the rising number of elderly living in poverty has prompted the government to offer assistance, only to retract the original amount when it realized the budgetary constraints.

It is no secret South Korea’s social policies are underdeveloped. As a result, there is a sense that the state is out of sync with social realities and the demands of a globalized economy. Society is suffering under a state incapable of lessening the burden of life and the dislocations associated with liberalized economies. High suicide rates, elderly people living in abject poverty, a dismal birthrate, and low labor productivity are just a few of the socioeconomic consequences. Given these problems, improving South Korea’s social policies is likely to be major election issue going forward.

Park Geun-hye’s administration knows this. Park has regularly emphasized the need to develop South Korea’s welfare policies, cultivate innovation, and grow the creative economy. Whether her administration is actually able to go beyond the rhetoric is yet to be seen. The first two years of Park’s administration have certainly been underwhelming. It is reasonable to assume that if Park and the ruling party are incapable of getting anything done in the next few years, voters will not respond kindly. But this will also depend on the Left’s ability to organize itself politically and prevent internal dissent from spiraling out of control. Its history since 1987 hardly inspires confidence.

Domestic Variations, International Constants

Although one might expect significant differences between a conservative and liberal government on domestic issues given the divergent political messages, the same cannot be said with regard to South Korea’s foreign policies. The Roh Moo-hyun administration was criticized for bending to the pressure of the neo-liberal global order. “Roh turns on his left-turn signal and then makes a right.” Much the same could probably be said for Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who both oversaw fundamental restructuring of the South Korean economy from a state-directed to a more deregulated economy; by the end of the latter’s tenure, South Korea had basically shed its developmental state skin. Saegyehwa, or the globalization of South Korea, had begun. There is not much liberal governments are doing to stop this trend. In fact, the Roh Moo-hyun administration started the U.S.-Korea FTA negotiations.

As the political scientist Peter Katzenstein argues, the forces of globalization have particularly strong effects on domestic politics in “small” states. Unlike larger countries, South Korea has far less leeway when it comes to economic policymaking and the structure of its foreign trade than do other, larger countries. That it is an export-oriented economy with a domestic economy dominated by a handful of large conglomerates makes the pressure all the more intense. South Korean leaders have very much embraced the pressure of globalization, using it to Korea’s competitive advantage.

In fact, South Korea is the only country to have free trade agreements (FTAs) with the world’s two largest economies (the EU and the U.S.). And as those who followed the recent Xi visit to Seoul will know, one of the key items on the agenda was the China-Korea FTA; according to reports, both leaders want an FTA sooner rather than later. Given the structure of South Korea’s economy, a China-Korea FTA would likely be a key agenda item for any administration (conservative or liberal). Seoul ranks high among governments most avidly supporting the neo-liberal global order, to the chagrin of many but probably not enough for it to have an electoral impact.

As far as military cooperation is concerned, it is true that Roh Moo-hyun was not the cooperative ally the U.S. has in Park Geun-hye (or had in Lee Myung-bak). However, the sort of anti-American sentiment that supported Roh’s critical position seems to have dissipated – for now, at least.  Liberal or conservative, any future ROK government is likely to seek a relatively cooperative relationship with the U.S. It is in the nation’s best interest, and state leaders seldom work against the national interest willingly. It is worth considering South Korea as the new norm among the now-developed countries that matured into economic powerhouses under the neo-liberal world order: export-oriented, with a strong vested interest in the globalized world economy. It is unlikely that this structural condition benefits the liberals, who cannot, in any meaningful way, differentiate themselves from the conservative party.

With more than two years left in Park Geun-hye’s five-year-long term, much will be expected of her administration and the ruling Saenuri Party. An inability to meet voters’ expectations may set the stage for a liberal candidate to mount a significant challenge. In fact, the media outlet JTBC reports that the current liberal mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, is a favorite to run in the 2017 presidential election. As mayor of the capital city, he is in a good position to launch a presidential bid (Lee Myong-bak did it). But if liberal party continues to be fractured by internal in-fighting, even that platform may not help.

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