South Korea is wrapping up a polarizing year for domestic politics, but the conservative opposition is not letting 2019 end without one more fight. On December 16, the Liberty Korea Party (LKP) held a rally at the National Assembly to oppose several reform bills that were up for vote. The scene quickly descended into chaos, with protesters insisting on entering the National Assembly grounds and refusing to leave even after LKP organizers tried ending the rally, leading to clashes with police throughout the day. Protesters chanted violent slogans including “Let’s kill Speaker Moon Hee-sang” and “Let’s destroy the National Assembly,” and video footage reportedly showed protestors hitting and grabbing the hair of lawmakers.
The incident was a culmination of a year of protests in South Korea. Throughout the year, conservative supporters marched the streets of Seoul on a regular basis to condemn moves by the liberal ruling party and President Moon Jae-in. In particular, protesters vehemently opposed Moon’s appointment of former lawmaker and presidential adviser Cho Kuk to the position of justice minister. After months of debate and controversy, Cho finally resigned the post in October.
In addition to anger over Cho’s personal history — he and his wife have been accused of using their privilege to help their daughter with college admissions, among other charges — the Cho scandal is, at its core, about prosecution reform. Successive Korean presidents have tried for years to reduce the power of the prosecutor’s office, to no avail. Cho’s stated goal as justice minister was to push through these reforms, some of which succeeded before he left office. These issues were among the most salient for South Korea this year — in Twitter Korea’s list of most discussed social issues in 2019, “prosecution reform” and “Liberty Korea Party” were no. 1 and no. 3 respectively; on the list of most discussed politicians, Cho Kuk was at the top, ahead of President Moon. Prosecutor-general Yoon Seok-yeol came next at no. 3.
More reforms are now in the hands of the National Assembly, with bills pending that would create a separate, independent unit to investigate high-level corruption among politicians (including the prosecutors themselves), as well as giving more investigative power to the police instead of the prosecution. The ruling party’s decision to fast-track these reforms, along with major changes to the National Assembly’s mixed system of proportional and direct representation, are the main points of contention for the conservative opposition and their supporters that sparked the protests this week.
This is not the conservative party’s first controversial attention-grabbing move this year. Just a few weeks ago, LKP leader Hwang Kyo-ahn launched a hunger strike that lasted eight days, attempting to gain attention to their opposition to various Moon policies including these reform bills and Moon’s handling of South Korea’s ongoing dispute with Japan. And in the spring, LKP lawmakers physically barricaded a Bareun Mirae lawmaker in his office to stop him from voting on a similar election reform measure.
The country’s conservatives have been struggling to regain political power since the corruption and impeachment scandal that eventually removed President Park Geun-hye from office in 2017. Park’s Saenuri Party split into the moderate Bareun Mirae Party and the rebranded Liberty Korea Party. The conservative base has since faced even more fracturing in the form of the far-right Republican Party, the main architects of protests throughout this year opposing Moon’s rule and calling for the reinstatement of former President Park. Critics have accused LKP leader Hwang of using these actions and protests to appeal to his more extreme conservative base and failing to discuss or try to find compromise with other parties.
As 2020 begins, it is unlikely Korean politics will calm down. Not only are contentious issues still on the table, but parties are already gearing up for major National Assembly elections in April, where all 300 seats in the legislature will be up for grabs.