In the April 15 parliamentary elections, President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) captured an overwhelming majority of the National Assembly (180 of 300 seats). This historically unprecedented feat in South Korea reminds us that, to borrow a phrase, “Timing is everything in politics.”
Last year, Moon was mired in low approval ratings (in the low 40s), because of South Korea’s economic slowdown and various political scandals, especially those tied to his former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. A couple of months ago, in the early stages of the novel coronavirus outbreak, Moon was criticized for not banning travelers from China, against the advice of the Korean Medical Association. Since mid-March, however, South Korea’s mainstream media have effusively praised the Moon administration for leading, and winning, the battle against COVID-19.
But Korean public attitudes may shift again later this year, if other countries recover and adapt more quickly to the post-COVID economy. South Korea’s economy was the leading political issue before COVID-19, and it shall rise to the top again as the pandemic eases. If the economy does not recover by the next presidential election (May 22, 2022), critics will again blame Moon and the DPK’s policies — sharply raising the minimum wage, limiting workers to a 52-hour week, phasing out nuclear power, as well as (informally) boycotting Japan-related goods, services, and travel.
In contrast to COVID-19, critics claim, the Moon administration’s approach to economics and foreign affairs has not been guided by experts in line with the global mainstream, but by a left-wing, nationalist ideology designed to rectify the accumulated injustices of (allegedly) pro-Japanese, pro-capitalist elites. The Moon administration, emboldened by its legislative majority, may further its leftist-nationalist agenda, including enforcing the 2018 Supreme Court ruling expropriating Japanese company assets to compensate colonial-era laborers. Unless Moon follows in the footsteps of Germany’s Gerhard Schröder and shifts to pragmatic and pro-market policies, South Korea may experience continued bilateral tensions and economic stagnation.
Conversely, the 2020 elections will help unify opponents of the ruling DPK and potentially open up the major rightist United Future Party (UFP) to new leaders and ideas. The elections wiped out the center-right Party for People’s Livelihoods (PPL, Minsaengdang), formerly the minor party alternative for politicians who defected from the major rightist party (then called Saenuri) over former President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment. With PPL’s demise, anti-DPK politicians have little choice but to rejoin the UFP. With their own electoral setback — nearly all of UFP’s senior leaders lost their competitive Seoul races — the UFP will be more open to former defectors, such as 2017 presidential candidate Yoo Seong-min.
Although South Korea’s immediate political future will be determined by the ruling DPK, its long-term politics may be impacted more by what happens with the conservative opposition. Sustained electoral defeats potentially open up opposition parties to alternative ideas, movements, and leaders that may, over time, generate new majority coalitions. In the United States, for example, for nearly half a century (1932 to 1980), the Republican Party (GOP) was dominated by the Democrats, both in electoral politics (especially control of the U.S. Congress) and in the cultural realm of ideas. Activists and intellectuals outside of the GOP leadership focused on building a grassroots, conservative movement and counterculture. By 1980, the conservative movement helped create a new governing majority behind Ronald Reagan.
The COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed South Korea’s ideological divisions, but they remain deep and growing. The DPK’s ambitious campaign to remake South Korea’s domestic institutions and foreign relations is a continuing earthquake that unsettles various social groups, from UFP mainstays (e.g., older anti-communists) to relative newcomers. The latter group includes prosecutors, who oppose Moon’s proposal to reduce their investigatory powers (e.g., former prosecutor and newly elected Assembly member Kim Woong); North Korean defectors alarmed by Moon’s North Korea policies (e.g., former North Korean ambassador and newly elected Assembly member Thae Yong-ho); and free-market liberals opposed to increasing government regulations (e.g., Korea Hayek Society).
The group with potentially the most radical cultural and political impact are self-described post-nationalist classic liberals, who reject South Korea’s ingrained, anti-Japanese nationalism – for example, fans of the highly controversial 2019 best seller Anti-Japan Tribalism (edited by former Seoul National economics professor Lee Young-hoon), which sold more than a hundred thousand copies in Korea and double that in Japan. Emerging “new right” or “post-nationalist right” groups, such as the intercollegiate Truth Forum, have endorsed Lee’s book and promote a South Korean identity based not on ethno-nationalism but on universal values of individual freedom, free markets, and religious-based (especially Judeo-Christian) morality (i.e., “markets and moralism”). They oppose the nationalist and anti-Japanese historiography taught in schools and promote a “liberal-democratic” alliance of South Korea, Japan, and Taiwan. On October 3, 2019, South Korea’s first-ever CPAC (Conservative Political Action Conference) conference, partly organized by Truth Forum, brought together like-minded conservatives from the United States, Japan, Taiwan, Hong Kong, and South Korea, including senior UFP leaders and the Hawaii-based One Korea Network.
April 15’s overwhelming victory by the DPK does not guarantee future results. Opportunities and pitfalls lie in front of both the major ruling and opposition parties. Like “anti-Trumpers” in the United States, anti-Moon partisans, whatever their various viewpoints, share a strong goal to defeat the president’s party in the next presidential election. As a result, the major opposition UFP is experiencing an influx of new ideas and activists that may, in the long term, fundamentally reshape South Korean culture and politics.
On a closing note, April 15, 2020 also marked the 31-year anniversary of the Tiananmen Square democracy protests in China, which started April 15, 1989. (Back then, the first author was an idealistic high school senior, who helped deliver a petition of support, signed by more than a hundred classmates, to the Chinese consulate in Los Angeles.) Many of those Chinese protesters were inspired by South Korea’s June 1987 Democracy movement. Every free election in South Korea celebrates democracy and hopefully encourages all those struggling for liberty in their countries.
Joseph Yi is an associate professor of Political Science at Hanyang University (Seoul).
Wondong Lee is a Ph.D. student in Political Science at the University of California, Irvine.
This article was supported by Hanyang University Research Fund.