/ December 31, 2019
By Donald Kirk
From the viewpoint of a foreigner, one common denominator marks South Korea’s seismic shifts from left to right, liberal to conservative, socialist to capitalist. That is the level of authoritarianism, the threat of dictatorial rule, the demands for complete loyalty if not subservience to one particular viewpoint or another.
As one who first came to Korea during the era when Park Chung-Hee exercised his own brand of top-down rule, demanding complete loyalty from an often recalcitrant populace, I have to wonder if the current government of Moon Jae-In is following in the same pattern. Moon and his topmost aides and followers would clearly not appreciate the comparison, but every day one hears of another step toward centralized rule that brooks increasingly less criticism.
The danger of leftist dictatorship is evident in just about every significant walk in life, in labor unions, in schools and universities, on the editorial pages of the media, in corporations ranging from huge chaebol to mom-and-pop shops and stands with only a few people on the payroll.
The government, frustrated by the reluctance of most people, including many who joined in the Candlelight Revolution that drove Moon’s unfortunate predecessor, Park Geun-Hye, out of office and into jail, is tightening the screws on criticism, on dissent, on conservative voices that represent probably a majority of the populace.
There was a time, to be sure, when conservative regimes, notably those of Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan, the general who rose to power after Park’s assassination, cracked down hard on organized labor. Now the government operates in league with unions representing a wide array of members, ranging from factory workers to teachers.
Korea, in its own industrial revolution, which dates from the Park era, came to accept the rights of workers to organize and strike, but today’s unions often function as political organizations more interested in spreading leftist views than answering the needs of rank-and-file workers. In fact, many of the theoreticians and ideologues at the top ranks of labor have never gotten their hands dirty working in a factory.
One particular example is the bias in teaching, most obvious in history. We hear reports of teachers rebuking students for not giving the proper examples in responses to questions about recent history, about North Korea, about the policies of the current and previous governments. The outlook of the teachers’ union may be extreme, but we also have the problem of mass media falling bit by bit under government control. The leadership of the television networks is a notable example, but newspapers also appear muted in their criticism. No, we’re not yet at the point at which government censors sit on editorial desks ordering editors to delete certain sentences, paragraphs, sometimes entire stories, but it’s easy to imagine that day is coming.
Authoritarian rule builds up slowly, in stages. New legislation enforcing the power of the justice ministry, new laws on the freedom to speak openly and freely, to form certain political organizations inhibit democratic freedom. How fiercely is the new justice minister going to go after cases of corruption involving members of the ruling party, whether in or out of government?
Then again, political forces in the National Assembly, controlled by Moon’s party though it does not hold a majority, can circumscribe and shut off debate while ramming through their special programs. We have seen enough of that already.
We may be sure the forces of the ruling party and central government are working their hardest to undermine the conservative movement that manifests itself dramatically and colorfully in protests and parades every Saturday in central Seoul. Clearly in the run-up this winter and spring to pivotal National Assembly elections in April, we will see the right-left clash in raw, compelling detail. These races should determine the real strength of the government versus foes and critics.
Through the cold months of winter and early spring, zealots within the ruling structure will be doing all they can to suppress conservatives and stop the media from reporting fully and fairly on their activities. Rarely, for instance, do we see reports on the tens of thousands waving American along with South Korean flags at demonstrations.
Most disturbing, from the viewpoint of a foreign observer, is the impact of liberal and leftist rule on relations with the U.S.
Clearly this government is busy going after reconciliation with North Korea at the expense of national security. The government is eager to cooperate with China, North Korea’s only ally, and also build up relations with Russia, which also supports North Korea, while downplaying the American alliance.
The trend is frightening. The world will be watching closely as Korea enters a critical stage in which the future of the current government versus that of the opposition is at stake. Also at stake is the future of the peninsula as the North refuses to give up its nuclear program and the threat it poses to South Korea and the region.
Donald Kirk has been covering conflict in Asia for decades.
Free Press International