Korea’s election and the dictator’s daughter

By Alex

14 December 2012

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.

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3 Comments on "Korea’s election and the dictator’s daughter"

By Young-su Won, on 17 December 2012 - 16:20 |

This essay might give a wrong perception on the Korean election, because it uncritically represent the position of UPP, which is not fundamentally different from UDP because UPP wants an alliance with UDP. And yesterday, Lee Jung-hee, UPP candidate, gave up the election in order to support Moon Jae-in, who refuse to accept her, because she and her party never apologised its frauds and sectarianism in the last general election in May. Though the following is a rough draft from the perspective of radical left, but in order to help readers have more balanced understanding, I’m posting. The finalised version will be available soon. 

What’s Happening in South Korea?
Presidential Election and Radical Left 

Young-su Won
Independent socialist activist & editor of the Tahrir Publisher

The whole nation is waiting for the final result of the coming presidential election on 19th of December. Park Geun-hye, daughter of military dictator Park Chung-hee and candidate of ruling Sae-nu-ri Party[Sae-nuri means a new world], is leading in polls, but Moon Jae-in, main opposition candidate, is closely following her. Thus, at moment, it’s quite difficult to expect who’ll win and be the next president, because another black horse candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo supported Moon against Park. Ahn was quite popular amongst people, for his clean image and successful entrepreneur of his anti-virus programming firm, but he gave up his candidacy just before the formal registration for presidency.

Behind the two leading candidates, some radical or leftwing candidates are also competing for the presidency, though it’s almost nil for them to win. While Lee Jeong-hee is the candidate of United Progressive Party, a successor merger party of the DLP, Kim So-yeon is representing the radical wing of trade unions and part of radical social movements. Kim Soon-ja is running as an independent, though she was a number one on the proportional list of Progressive New Party, a leftwing split of the DLP, at last general election of this May, but his time as she had no support from the party. Just before the official registration, Shim Sang-jeong another female candidate of Progressive Justice Party, another spilt from UJP, gave up her candidacy to support for Moon and UDP.

Thus, the political scene of South Korean winter looks quite chaotic, rendering it impossible to forecast what will come. But in order to understand what’s going on, we need to look back at the past couple of years which on the way to the next presidency witnessed lots of changes and feuding, not just of main stream parties, but also of progressive or radical parties.

The General Election and its aftermath

Before the election, the ruling party had been expected to lose because of unpopularity of president Lee Myeong-bak and his anti-people, pro-capital policies, but when Park Geun-hye emerged as the party leader, the situation changed, and the opposition United Democratic Party suffered a painful defeat, which opened a way to power for Moon Jae-in who was out of power for long after the end of Noh Moo-hyeon government. Moon was chief secretary of president Noh, who gave a huge shock to the nation for his committing suicide in face of being prosecuted for his wife’s bribery.

However, something much more interesting is the internal strife with Untied Progressive Party before, during and after the election. The UPP won 12 seats, 6 from direction election and 6 from the proportional list, which was not bad. However, the throughout the course of election, the party had to suffer from internal dispute over unilateral hegemony and manoeuvring of the majority wing, mostly the successor group of the DLP against other minority factions, such as liberal wing from People’s Participation Party, a pro-Noh Moo-hyeon split from the UDP, and a small splinter from PNP, a moderate faction within PNP who joined the merger of so-called progressive parties and forming the United Progressive Party.

The majority wing of UDP, pro-North Korean tendency of the DLP, dominated the party overwhelmingly, and filled the list of candidates with their faction members, thereby alienating other tendencies and rank and file party members. In the course of electing candidates, they used illegal and unjust means like rigged ballots. In one district of Seoul, Lee Jeong-hee, young party leader, had to resign from the candidacy though she had a great possibility of being elected, because the UPP aligned with UDP in common electoral front. In short, in the course of election primaries, many of illegalities were reported, and the majority faction monopolized important seats for proportional list, ignoring the angry voices from other factions and rank and file party members.

Just after the election, UPP was driven into chaotic turmoil. The Investigation Committee’s final report was rejected by the majority faction, and in dealing with election frauds, the party meetings turned into a battle ground of physical violence between the majority faction and minority faction. People inside and outside of party were shocked at first with widespread frauds, and later, ferocious process of dealing with issues. Thus, the UPP was driven into deep crisis, as the majority faction refused to discipline those party members responsible for frauds, and blocked any moves for discipline at all the levels of meetings, even using violence to party leaders who belonged to minority factions.

All these process were televised, and in August, the KCTU withheld its support for UDP.  In September, when it proved impossible to resolve the crisis, the minority factions resigned from the party, forming a new party, Progressive Justice Party, with 7 parliamentarians. Thus, the UPP was a total faiure as a merger of the whole progressive forces, though it excluded the PNP which was having a long process of discussing over the issue of the merger. Part of PNP and other radical groups were opposed to forming a merger party UPP that included neoliberals and electoral alliance with liberals, the UDP.

Thus, in the general election, the radical politics in South Korea shattered into pieces. The majority UPP was denied by masses except pro-NK hard-core factionists, and the other radical forces exist as small splinter parties, like PJP and PNP, and outsiders like radical left grouplets. In the terrible crisis and dispute, each faction had to face the presidential election. From the eyes of rank and file workers, the progressive politics was a total failure as a historical project of building working class power.

The Presidential Election

The three-way competition between Park, Moon and Ahn was getting hotter and hotter. The results of polling have been changing at every turn of events. At early stages, Ahn looked prominent because as a single opposition candidate he could win over Park Geun-hye. But after his official inauguration of campaign, he had to face various difficulties and personal slanders, and at the last moment, he gave up candidacy in spite of huge protest from his ardent supporters. Thus, Moon Jae-in became the single opposition candidate. 

Ironically, the defeat of UDP in the general election paved way for his candidacy and Ahn’s resignation gave him the status of a unified opposition candidate. Just a week before the vote, the race between Park and Moon is getting chaotic, unlike the international news reports that predict the victory of Park Geun-hye. Thus far she is leading the race, but after recent TV debates and Ahn’s support for Moon, the final result of the election beyond guess, until it is finalized on the day of balloting.

On the other side, there are minor candidates. As Shim Sang-jeong of PJP resigned and joined Moon’s campaign, the three women candidates represent the left wing politics. Lee Jeong-hee of UPP ran to save the party in crisis. She want an alliance with Moon, but UDP and Moon refused to ally with UPP for its internal corruption and its refusal to apologize illegalities. On the TV debate, Lee attacked Park Geun-hye and won some popularity, but still far away from saving her party.

The Progressive New Party that had not been invited to the merger process of the UPP failed to win any seats in the parliament, and have been faced with the crisis. Thus, it decided not to run a presidential candidate, but to work with other radical groups outside the party. Thus, it sought to find allies from radical left groups and formed a round table for the joint presidential election campaign that would represent the interest of working class and other popular sectors. However, in the course of negotiation, a tendency manoeuvred to change party policy and ran the PNP’s own candidate and the party was divided though the motion for party candidacy failed in the national committee of PNP. Party of that faction split from the party and persuade Kim Soon-ja, a symbolic cleaning worker, into independent presidential candidate. She had to resign the party and ran as an independent candidate, with support from a small sect.

Radical Left’s Campaign

After the general election and the terminal crisis of the UPP, radical left activists in trade unions, social movements, and political groups began to discuss over the possibility of intervening the election as a united radical left forces. They formed a nation-wide network with rank and files groups and activists, and formed an alliance with PNP. And in October, though quite late, Kim So-yeon, a female militant, was elected as a worker candidate in a national assembly of activists. Her major slogan is no to redundancy dismissal and no to casualization. As an anti-capitalist candidate, this campaign of Kim So-yeon and radical left signifies a huge step forward for the radical left politics. Many of them who had refused to get involved in electoral politics are now working as a united force. Huge sum of money was collected for the campaign, including the absurd amount of registration fee, 300,000 US dollars plus other costs more than that.

Thus, amidst of the fatal crisis of trade union movement and progressive politics, the radical left are working together to represent the interest of working and popular classes under the banner of anti-capitalism. Also, the campaign is active in solidarity with sit-in workers on the high-rise towers to demand jobs against redundancy. After the presidential election, whatever the result, the movements and politics in South Korea will face huge changes, like splits and mergers. In spite of difficulties and hardship, on the basis of nation-wide joint campaign for working class militancy, there will be some opportunity open to rebuild a genuine working class party with socialist orientation, as well as revitalizing labour movement and mass struggles.

By Horror, on 20 December 2012 - 12:26 |

I am a bilingual graduate student studying Korean History here in Seoul. A day has passed and I am still reeling at the election’s results What has happened is unbelievable. Korea’s democracy has killed itself.

There are accounts of fraud at the vote count level circulating on twitter. There are analyses suggesting the Minjudang relied too much on self-righteous indignation and forgot to concentrate on concrete platforms addressing problems in the countrysides. Or that the ghost of Park Senior was too much to overcome. Hegemony, cultural or economic, start from internalization. Fascism starts with indoctrination. Ignorance is breeding a new class of far-right youth that scoff at and mock the halo surrounding those that were butchered by the regime in their fight for democracy. The chaebeol-intimate, government friendly media is praising and embellishing the Park Senior legacy, undermining the ‘unfortunate collateral’ of that ‘miraculous success.’ Underhanded schemes even during the election campaign were blatantly condoned by the people who remember fondly and selfishly how Park Senior sponsored chaebeols’ coffers with opportunistic, illegal bouts of war and immoral blood money—all for the ‘good’ of the ‘public.’ Things are taking a frightening turn for the worse. I could go on. I’m deeply, deeply perturbed. 

By kolokol, on 20 December 2012 - 12:37 |

...I appreciate the article which seems relatively timely and informed. It would also bear mentioning that candidate Kim So-yeon was consistently met with riot patrol police forces on the campaign trail. Also, many ‘Trotskyist’ cells involved in the radical movement that would otherwise have supported Kim So-yeon ended up coralling their votes for candidate Moon because of the urgency of the situation(see http://www.left21.com) That. left Kim So-yeon with a vote record of 0.05%. There was also a female candidate Kim Soon-ja, who represented herself as a college janitor and amassed 0.15% of the youth vote—she was popular among the struggling self-supporting college kids on the basis of her interesting ‘let’s rest’ campaign in which she sprawled tents and beds out in the middle of the street and sent a sympathetic but narrowly targeted message of lower tuition and higher minimum wage. 

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