On the 19th of December Koreans will go to the polls for the 2012 presidential election. NLP's Alex Doherty spoke to activist Hyun Lee about the candidates...
The upcoming presidential election in South Korea will lead to either the continuation of the rule of the right wing Saenuri party (under the new leadership of Park Geun Hye) or the election of Moon Jae-in, whose party is associated with the "sunshine policy" towards North Korea during the late 90's and the 2000's. Could you explain to our readers the major differences between the two candidates both regarding domestic and foreign affairs?
The current South Korean presidential election is a contest between a neoliberal candidate (Moon Jae-in) and a right-wing conservative candidate (Park Geun-hye). As is the case in the west, the line between neoliberals and conservatives is sometimes so fine as to make their platforms almost indistinguishable from each other. There are, however, still some not so insignificant differences.
Park Geun-hye stands for economic policies that privilege the wealthy and the chaebol (multinational conglomerate) class. She will continue the policies of current president Lee Myung-bak of strengthening the US-ROK alliance and implementing in the controversial Korea-US Free Trade Agreement. She will prioritize strengthening the US-Japan-South Korea trilateral alliance over mending inter-Korea relations; and will insist on North Korea’s unilateral denuclearization, as opposed to the simultaneous denuclearization of the entire peninsula (i.e. abolishing the U.S. nuclear umbrella in South Korea).
Moon Jae-in, on the other hand, favors economic policies for the middle class and the poor. He will simultaneously strengthen the US-ROK alliance as well as develop a strategic relationship with China. He will honor the October 4 North-South Declaration (signed in 2004 between Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Jong-il) and improve inter-Korea relations with an emphasis on economic collaboration. He will pursue
denuclearization of the entire peninsula as well as the ratification of a peace treaty to end the Korean War.
Park Geun Hye is the daughter Park Jung-Hee, the dictator in power between 1963 until his assassination in 1979. Could you explain the significance of her background, the way Park Geun Hye appears to regard the political positions and actions of her father, and the view of Koreans in general regarding her background?
The generation of South Korean voters over age 50 (who make up 40% of the electorate) considers Park Geun-hye like national royalty, and her tragic story of having lost her parents at a young age plays on their
heart strings. They have fond nostalgia for Park Jung-hee, whom they credit for having modernized South Korea.
The younger generation of South Korean voters in their 20s, 30s, and 40s, on the other hand (who make up 60% of the electorate), have a far more critical view of Park Jung-hee as a dictator who came to power
through a military coup and his economic policies as having consolidated the wealth of the chaebol class through the exploitation of low-wage workers and farmers. They reject a potential Park Geun-hye presidency as a throwback to Park Jung-hee-era strong-arm politics.
In a recent presidential debate Lee Jung Hee of the leftist Unified Progressive Party received plaudits for her strong challenge to Park Geun Hye. What are the policies of the UP, how do they differ from the centerism of the Democratic United Party?
The Unified Progressive Party is fundamentally different from the Democratic United Party in what it stands for:
- Abolishing the US-ROK alliance
- Withdrawal of US Forces in Korea
- Ratification of a Peace Treaty to end the Korean War
- Denuclearization of the Korean peninsula
- Creation of the legal mechanism for and realization of the June 15 (2000) and October 4 (2007) Inter-Korea declarations
- Nullification of the Korea-US and Korea- China free trade agreements
- Stopping the construction of the Jeju naval base
- Abolishing the National Security Law
- Comprehensive labor law reform to strengthen labor protections
- Dissolution of chaebols (multinational conglomerates)
Lee Jung Hee has been criticised for her position on North Korea - some describing her as "the North's spokeswoman". What do you make of that claim?
Labeling someone a "communist" or an "agent" of North Korea is a tactic used historically by the right in South Korea to silence dissent and is a legacy of Japanese colonial rule. Pro-democracy activists in the 1980s as well as union leaders in the 1990s were often called "North Korea sympathizers." Today, even citrus farmers opposed to the construction of a naval base that would destroy their village on Jeju Island are ridiculed as "Kim Jong-il mouthpieces". The right uses this tactic to undermine the cause of progressives but it is a remnant of cold war era politics that has no place in the free elections of a country that considers itself a modern democracy.
Amnesty International recently criticised the Lee Myung Bak administration for using the national security laws to stifle political debate in the country. What is your view of that critique and how do you think a victory for the ruling party will affect freedom of debate within South Korea?
The National Security Law (NSL) dates back to 1948 when US-backed Syngman Rhee established South Korea as a separate state and outlawed all organizations and activities aimed at overthrowing or undermining the legitimacy of his newly formed government. Under Park Jung-hee's military rule, the NSL was used to jail and torture countless pro-democracy activists and create a general climate of fear to silence dissent. Repeated attempts to abolish the NSL have consistently been blocked by the conservative Grand National Party, the predecessor of Park Geun-hye's New Frontier Party. Under the NSL, South Korean citizens can be punished simply for joining a communist organization or tweeting messages construed as praising North Korea. If elected, Park will continue to suppress freedom of speech and association and undermine basic democratic rights of the South Korean people.
Hyun Lee is a member of Nodutdol, a Korean American social justice organization in New York City, as well as the U.S.-based Working Group for Peace and Demilitarization in Asia and the Pacific. She also co-produces Asia Pacific Forum - a weekly radio show on culture and politics related to Asia and the Asian diaspora.