The Koreas

Who Represents Labor Market Outsiders in South Korea?

If South Korea’s left won’t represent the poor, who will?

Who Represents Labor Market Outsiders in South Korea?
Credit: Flickr/ mj jin lee

Political scientist Joseph Wong recently tweeted, “Who does the Left represent today? Unions or the very poor? Labor market insiders or outsiders?” It is a pertinent question for most, if not all, democratic countries. Given the setbacks for leftist and liberal politics, the questions seem particularly appropriate in South Korea.

The United Progressive Party (UPP), which claimed to represent labor, was recently disbanded by court order after a band of politicians with questionable motives pushed the party hard left. The mainstream New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is better off, but only marginally so. It is racked by intraparty strife and an inability to nail down anything resembling a programmatic party platform — a set of consistent and predictable policy positions with a clear ideological foundation. The South Korean left is, like the left elsewhere, reeling from an identity crisis. What is to be done?

Some commentators, like Aidan Foster-Carter, think the solution lies in the center — the political center–“where elections are won.” To an extent, this long-time Korea watcher and former “far left” British socialist (self-proclaimed) is right: the ability to win over the median voter, or those politically undecided, often means electoral success. The problem is he doesn’t think that something like “more welfare,” as a policy position, is going to win over the hearts of the average South Korean. Writes Foster-Carter, “Park Geun-hye stole those clothes — only to find them costlier than she’d reckoned. Her retreat on welfare, plus the recent pension and tax debacles, will make voters wary in future of anyone promising pie in the sky or a free lunch.”

Whether right or wrong (South Korea’s increasing number of informal workers and elderly living in poverty are certainly hoping for the latter), this position is troubling. It’s also, one could reasonably argue, at the heart of the identity crises articulated above. If the left isn’t representing those with the least amount of power and influence in society, who will? Who is politically representing and advocating on behalf of those living on minimum wage, like the workers at Homeplus? According to a recent story by the Hankyoreh, many workers at this discount retail chain feel South Korea’s current minimum wage ($5.11) is so low that they are effectively being told, “Don’t get married. Live alone your whole life.”

The UPP can’t represent this group of people, because it doesn’t exist. NPAD appears more concerned with the illusive concept of party “innovation” and “struggle” against the Park Geun-hye administration. Why not actually represent someone, like labor unions or the poor, or both? Why not actually stand for something, like providing social protections for labor market outsiders? But to do so presumes that the party is actually capable of putting forth a “predictable, stable left wing programmatic platform” — something Christopher Green doesn’t think exists in the South Korean context.

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Wong would agree. The problem, it seems, is that South Korea’s party system has failed to institutionalize: “Partisan affiliations among voters and the parties’ rank and file are capricious and ephemeral.” The parties “are viewed as transitory, rather than institutionally entrenched or relatively fixed points on programmatic or ideological partisan spectrums.” Whether this actually applies to the ruling conservative party (Saenuri) is debatable. What is indisputable, though, is that while business interests are more than capable of taking care of business, so to speak, those with less “power resources” (e.g., the poor and labor market outsiders) are not. So perhaps the question shouldn’t be “who does the left represent today?” It should be “why doesn’t the left represent those who most need representation?” Seems like as good a place as any to build a programmatic party platform.