[News analysis] Common sense and fairness out the window, Yoon Suk-yeol leans hard right

Posted on : 2022-10-30 11:14 KST Modified on : 2022-10-30 11:14 KST
Recent remarks by the president and the interim leader of his party reveal a far-right leaning that has failed many a South Korean president in the past
President Yoon Suk-yeol salutes troops while attending an Armed Forces Day in Gyeryongdae complex in South Chungcheong Province on Oct. 1. (presidential pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol salutes troops while attending an Armed Forces Day in Gyeryongdae complex in South Chungcheong Province on Oct. 1. (presidential pool photo)

After facing a firestorm over what sounded like vulgar remarks captured on a hot mic during a US visit, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is facing a new controversy — this one involving “red-baiting” remarks.

At an Oct. 19 invitational luncheon organized by the head of the People Power Party (PPP) non-parliamentary party committee, Yoon said that “pro-Pyongyang ‘juche believers’ are anti-state and anti-Constitution forces,” adding that it was “not possible to cooperate with them.”

This was a different sort of issue from the hot mic gaffe. Viewed within the context of politics, it reads as a declaration that Yoon’s administration does not intend to “cooperate” with the opposition party.

His remarks come at a time when PPP emergency committee chairperson Chung Jin-suk and other members of the party leadership have been describing the Democratic Party and its leader Lee Jae-myung as “pro-Pyongyang.”

Even the presidential office seemed taken aback, as it hurried to issue an explanation credited to its spokesperson’s office. That explanation offered a slightly clearer picture of the context behind Yoon’s comments.

“First, one party committee chairperson had brought up North Korea’s recent provocations and threats, stressing to President Yoon that he should not let himself get thrown off course by the ‘pro-Pyongyang juche believers,’” it explained.

“In response, President Yoon said, ‘Economic conditions are difficult both in Korea and overseas, and the security situation is troubling. At times like this, the most important thing is for us to have firm belief and conviction toward our own system of liberal democracy,’” it continued.

It further quoted Yoon as saying, “I can cooperate and negotiate with anyone, progressive or left-wing, who supports freedom and democracy, but juche believers who follow North Korea are neither ‘progressive’ nor ‘left-wing.’ It is impossible to cooperate with hostile anti-state forces.”

Yoon parrots conservative media

“With his message signaling his unwillingness to compromise with those seeking to overthrow the Republic of Korea, Yoon was articulating a basic principle as the president, whose first duty is to preserve the state,” the explanation said.

“He also expressed the message that he is willing to cooperate with anyone who shares the constitutional spirit of liberal democracy and a market economy. Hopefully, there will be no politicized distortions of a remark meant to underscore the Constitutional spirit and the duties of the president.”

Do you think the presidential office’s explanation is appropriate? Is it a “politicized distortion” to interpret Yoon’s remarks as signaling his refusal to cooperate with the opposition?

Perhaps Yoon himself realized his goof, because he responded to a reporter’s question the next morning by saying he was “not referring to any particular individuals.”

“The person themselves knows whether they are a ‘juche believer’ or not,” he added.

They do? That’s the kind of language that the county magistrates of old used in their trials: “You know what you did wrong.”

Interestingly enough, the same point was expressed in a Chosun Ilbo column published a day before Yoon’s remarks. This was a column by Kim Dae-jung titled “What the ‘Kim Il-sungist’ remarks meant.” In it, Kim defended Kim Moon-soo, the chairperson of the Economic, Social & Labor Council, who had referred to former President Moon Jae-in as a “Kim Il-sungist.”

Here’s an excerpt from Kim Dae-jung’s column: “Kim [Moon-soo]’s remarks can be seen as a sign that conservatives and right-wing parties are beginning their counterattacks on South Korea’s political landscape, which has been dominated by left-wing, mainstream, activists, and pro-North Korean forces. Indeed, it may mean the regression of left-wing, pro-North Korean activists.”

“For politics to return to normalcy, the first thing that must happen is a change within the Democratic Party. The Democratic Party should no longer act as a hideout for pro-North Korea politicians and activists but go back to being a place of refuge for progressives, left-wing, and socialists. That way, the right and the left can participate in healthy debates and discuss political alternatives with each other.”

I urge you to compare the arguments made by the president and this Chosun Ilbo columnist. Yoon’s logic is the exact same as the logic used in Kim Dae-jung’s attempt to separate “pro-North Korean activists” and “progressive left-wing socialists.” It is exactly the same logic that was used when Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Chun Doo-hwan’s dictatorships labeled politicians of the opposition and the relevant parties, along with various democratization movements who did no more than advocate for peaceful reunification and peace on the Korean Peninsula, as pro-communists and pro-North Korea groups.

So Yoon’s willing to cooperate and come up with compromises with politicians — liberal or leftist — so long as they’re not a juche-believer who follows North Korea? Get real.

The parties in favor of the division of the Korean Peninsula cracked down on various pro-democracy activist groups by labeling them as “real commies,” going so far as to violently press their boot down on them. It is a pity to see how the president of South Korea is so swayed by the shallow logic of these parties.

Well, Yoon is not the only one parroting this line. Recent statements made by the People Power Party’s leadership have been toeing the line of decency to the point of concern. Chung Jin-suk, chairman of the party’s interim leadership committee, has been the most aggressive.

“Why did Joseon fail? Was it because of the Japanese invasion? Joseon was rotten from the inside, that’s why it failed. Japan never went to war with the Joseon dynasty.” (Oct. 11)

“If North Korea carried out their seventh nuclear test, not only must the Sept. 19 South-North military agreement, which was made during Moon Jae-in’s terms, be annulled, but the Joint Declaration on the Denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula must also be scrapped.” (Oct. 12)

“What is the ideology of the 586 forces, which make up the majority of the Democratic Party?” “The Democratic Party maintains to this day that North Korea is a self-governing regime made by Kim Il-sung in his fight against Japan, while South Korea is a country that was founded by a pro-Japanese group puppet regime.” (Oct. 18)

As Chung’s remarks grow harsher, his family history is garnering attention.

His father, Chung Seok-mo, was a former police officer who served as a security chief, governor of South Chungcheong Province, interior minister, and six-term member of the National Assembly. His grandfather was head of the township of Gyeryong during the Japanese occupation and changed his name to fit Japanese tradition. Chung Jin-suk himself was a former reporter for the Hankook Ilbo paper and made his name as a rational conservative with a brash personality.

However, now he has become even further right than even the Taegeukgi Unit, and appears completely unafraid to spew incredibly far-right statements. He argues that his remark that Joseon was not destroyed by the Japanese invasion isn’t a sign of pro-imperial toadyism, but historians disagree.

These far-right remarks and actions on the part of Yoon and Chung do nothing but betray the people who have supported their own People Power Party.

What do I mean by this? Recall the series of events that followed the general election in 2020. The Liberty Korea Party, which was led by far-right conservative Hwang Kyo-ahn, reorganized itself as the United Future Party ahead of the 2020 general election, but produced pitiful results.

The United Future Party held 84 seats, while the Future Korea party got 19. Hwang Kyo-ahn stepped down and Kim Chong-in took over as interim leader. Kim Chong-in got down on his knees at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju and offered a public apology. He changed the name of the party to “People Power Party” in September 2020 and specified the need for a basic income in its platform. In his words, he attempted to change the party to become one that is more “adventurous.”

These efforts secured wins for the People Power Party in the by-elections in 2021 in April (mayor of Seoul) and July (mayor of Busan). At the party’s national convention in June 2021, they did not waver in making the unconventional choice of electing 30-something Lee Jun-seok to be the party’s new leader.

Then the party won the presidential election on March 9, 2022, by recruiting the prosecutor general under the Moon Jae-in government. Simply put, Yoon and the People Power Party came into power by demonstrating that they were capable of being fair and having common sense, rather than relying on far-right conservatism.

However, they kicked out Kim Chong-in during the presidential election process and got rid of Lee Jun-seok after they took power.

Now, they are shifting back toward the far right.

A governing strategy bereft of philosophy

Why is this happening? Why are President Yoon and Chung Jin-suk returning to the ways of the far-right, much like the days of Hwang Kyo-ahn?

There are two possible explanations.

The first explanation can be based on the absence of philosophy.

Yoon was originally a prosecutor. During his campaign for president, he presented liberal democracy as his ideology, but he is still finding it hard to define what “liberal” means.

If one is not well-educated, one is easily swayed.

The People Power Party has its roots in Syngman Rhee’s Liberal Party, Park Chung-hee’s Democratic Republican Party, and Chun Doo-hwan’s Democratic Justice Party. To this day, the People Power Party displays portraits of Rhee, Park Chung-hee, and Kim Young-sam in its offices. Dictatorship and far-rightness seem to be key characteristics in the history of the People Power Party.

The second explanation is that this is a ploy to rally a sturdy support base to prevent the current administration’s approval rate from falling.

Gallup Korea’s numbers showed that Yoon’s approval rating was the lowest ever in the first week of August and the fifth week of September, going as low as 24%. According to the National Election Commission’s website, in the last week of September, people over 60 approved of Yoon at a rate of 46% and disapproved at a rate of 34%.

Surveys carried out within the separate parties showed that, even within the People Power Party, Yoon only has an approval rate of 59% and a disapproval rate of 30%. This is what the so-called “concrete” support of Yoon’s people looks like.

Likewise, we can see that Yoon and Chung Jin-suk’s far-right remarks and behavior are borne from “instinct” and “strategy.”

Will this bode well for them?

No, it will not.

A litany of failures shows why. Hong Joon-pyo, the current mayor of Daegu who ran in the 2017 presidential election as the conversative party candidate after Park Geun-hye was impeached, chose to denounce the 2018 North Korea-US summit as nothing but a publicity stunt to showcase a false sense of peace. He lost the election badly.

If we go even further back in time, we can see the example of Lee Myung-bak. When Lee faced a sharp drop in approval ratings due to the scandal over imports of US beef during a mad cow disease outbreak, he chose to abandon his philosophy as a pragmatist and instead chose to go the far-right route. He appointed one of his closest aides, Won Se-hoon, as the head of the Ministry of the Interior and began to claim that “pro-North Korean forces” were behind the candlelight protests. He neglected to address the prosecution service’s excessive investigation into President Roh Moo-hyun. You could even say that he encouraged it.

I shall not go into the details of what happened after that. To summarize, the conservatives flourished when they relied on rational conservatism and pragmatism, but failed when they degenerated and fell into far-right antics.

The irresponsible move to the far right

I shall rest my case.

Yoon and Chung Jin-suk’s far-right statements and subsequent actions are very dangerous gambles.

Firstly, claiming that the opposition party is nothing but a pro-North Korea group is declaring that they will not cooperate with that party politically.

Secondly, raising tensions on the Korean Peninsula without having any backup plans shows a failure to see how this might impact and heighten the crisis of an impending war.

This has nothing to do with the president’s poll numbers, or the political advantage or disadvantage that the People Power Party might be facing, or the 2024 general election. This is incredibly worrying. Reader, what are your thoughts?

By Seong Han-yong, senior editorial writer

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles