A president fanning the flames of Korea’s political polarization

Posted on : 2023-03-26 10:29 KST Modified on : 2023-03-26 10:29 KST
A new survey shows how political polarization and animosity for those with opposing political beliefs has touched nearly every part of social life as we know it
President Yoon Suk-yeol takes part in a ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 10, 2022, one day after being elected president. (pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol takes part in a ceremony at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 10, 2022, one day after being elected president. (pool photo)

In the world of sports, a match between equally skilled players is a sight for sore eyes.

A yearly rugby game is held between two of Seoul’s most prestigious private high schools, Paichai and Yangchung. Graduates of Paichai High call it the Pai-Yang game, while Yangchung High alums call it the Yang-Pai game. I fall in the former camp, being a Paichai High graduate.

The Pai-Yang game is a worthy sporting event in its own right, but what makes it even more remarkable is the cheering contest that unfolds. Students from both sides sing songs, do dances, hold up posters, and pull off card stunts and body stunts throughout the game.

It’s traditional for the students of the two schools to sing each other’s alma mater after the game is over. While many years have passed, I can still manage an accurate rendition of the Yangchung High alma mater.

Another entertaining rivalry is the yearly football game held between the US Military Academy at West Point and the US Naval Academy in Annapolis. On a trip to the US a long time ago, I was shocked to see the phrase “Sink Navy” on the roof of the West Point stadium. That was mirrored by the message “Go Navy! Beat Army!” that’s painted on naval ships and airplanes.

While such rivalries are entertaining to watch and beautiful to behold in the area of sports, they function quite differently in politics. It’s rare for credit to be given to the opposing candidate or the competing party, presumably because politics is a struggle for power.

A president who incites public division

Recently, political polarization has emerged as a buzzword among politicians and academics. The information age and the ubiquity of smartphones have aggravated confirmation bias among voters.

In the past, the loser of an election would concede their defeat, while the victor would accommodate the vanquished. But now, such virtues are on the way out: losers refuse to concede, and winners trample on the losers.

The singer Park Sang-min performed at the national convention of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) on March 8, at the KINTEX exhibition center in Ilsan. After singing “The Way to You” and “Sunflower,” Park paused to speak to the crowd.

“The biggest dilemma in my career as a singer was whether or not to perform here,” Park said.

“I have just one request to make. Instead of stressing out about whether people are on the right or left, whether they’re conservative or progressive, can we please just figure out how to make life better in our country? This all just makes me cringe. I don’t care who will be elected, as long as they change our country for the better.”

It was heartbreaking and saddening to think that a singer as famous as Park Sang-min would have to worry about getting caught up in political controversy just for performing at a political event.

Last year, the presidential election was decided by the slim margin of 0.73 points. Yoon Suk-yeol interpreted his narrow victory as being “the people’s earnest appeal for a politics that brings people together instead of dividing them” and promised to “never forget the wishes of the people.”

That was a lie. Yoon’s true nature has become evident in the year since his election. He’s dividing the people with his angry demands to fix all the mistakes made by former President Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party.

Yoon’s opponent Lee Jae-myung, who is now head of the Democratic Party, conceded his defeat after the election. “I sincerely hope that the victor will overcome division and strife and usher in an era of unity and harmony,” Lee said.

Then on June 1, Lee was elected to the National Assembly in a by-election in Gyeyang, Incheon. In the Democratic Party’s national convention in August, he was elected head of the party.

That set the political stage for a rematch between the winner and loser of the election in the person of the president and the head of the opposition party. With the presidential election basically going into extra innings, hardcore supporters from the two parties have been doubling down on rage and hatred of the other side.

Not long ago, an event set up by a group critical of Yoon featured a booth where you could shoot toy arrows at photographs of Yoon, his wife, and Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon. There was another booth where visitors could pin good luck charms — the kind used to drive away evil spirits — to a photograph of the president.

Meanwhile, somebody defaced the grave of Lee Jae-myung’s parents, in Bonghwa, North Gyeongsang Province, and buried a stone inscribed with curses there. The incident is being investigated by the police.

Why on earth are people acting like this?

A data research center at the Korea Institute of Public Administration published a study of interviews with 1,000 Koreans aged 18 and above between Dec. 21 and Jan. 15. The study’s findings are really troublesome.

Interviewees were first asked which conflicts they regard as serious. The top response (chosen by 92.6% of interviewees) was the conflict between conservatives and progressives.

Other conflicts ranked as follows: between the southeast and southwest regions (84.3%), between regular and irregular workers (82%), between the wealthy and the working class (80.6%), between big corporations and SMEs (76.6%), between labor and management (75.3%), between the older and younger generations (66.2%), between the Seoul region and the provinces (65.6%) and between men and women (44.2%).

In short, the ideological conflict between conservatives and progressives outweighs conflicts between regions, classes, generations and genders.

When supporters of the ruling PPP and the opposition Democratic Party were asked how they feel about the other party, 61.8% of PPP supporters voiced a negative opinion of the Democratic Party, while 30.2% had a neutral opinion. Meanwhile, 74.1% of Democratic Party supporters held a negative view of the PPP, while 16.3% had a neutral one.

When supporters of the PPP and the Democratic Party were asked about the discomfort they felt during social interactions with people of the opposing party, nearly 4 in 10 said that they would be uncomfortable with a supporter of the opposite party as their spouse or the spouse of their child (41% of Democrats, 40.1% of PPP supporters).

At this rate, people of opposing political beliefs will stop marrying each other or calling each other part of the family.

A similar percentage of people replied that they would “feel uncomfortable” if someone with opposing political beliefs were their best friend (39.6% of PPP supporters, 38.5% of Democrats). Meanwhile, 29.2% of PPP supporters and 28% of Democrats said they would not feel comfortable with a next-door neighbor who was of the opposite party, and 30.2% of PPP supporters and 27.2% Democrat supporters claimed that they would feel uncomfortable with such people as co-workers.

An ever-so-slightly different story in Germany

The survey also compared the level of negative feelings harbored against opposing parties by country. The US demonstrated the highest rate of negative feelings against opposing parties, followed by the UK, Korea, and Germany.

In the US, 86.8% of Republican supporters expressed hostility toward Democrat supporters, while 86.8% of Democrats showed hostility toward Republicans. In the UK, 82.6% of Tory supporters expressed negative feelings toward those supportive of the Labour Party, while 80.5% of Labour supporters thought the same of the Conservatives. In Germany, 23.8% of the Social Democratic Party (SPD) supporters demonstrated hostility toward supporters of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU), while 16.6% of CDU supporters felt the same toward their SPD-supporting counterparts.

What is most interesting is that the evolution of hostility is quite different between the countries. In the US, hostility towards the opposing party is rising rapidly with each passing year. The UK and South Korea are also seeing steady increases, though not as violent as that of the US. However, in Germany, hostility has been dropping rapidly over the years. Why is this the case?

Germany’s repeated grand coalitions between the CDU and the SPD, which have happened since 2005, have led to a significant decrease in hostility between both parties. This is evidence that cross-party coalition politics can help reduce partisan animosity.

In hindsight, it makes me think that President Roh Moo-hyun, who first proposed a grand coalition, was quite the politician. In a speech to the National Assembly that he made shortly after his inauguration in 2003, Roh stated, “If the election law is amended so that no single party can win more than two-thirds of the seats in a given region, I will transfer the power to form a Cabinet to the party or political coalition that wins the majority of seat in the 17th National Assembly.” The proposal did not lead to any changes.

In 2005, Roh once again formally proposed a grand coalition. The proposal came too early, and was met with opposition from both ruling and opposition parties. Roh was then named a “straw man.” However, now that I think about it, it seems that Roh’s proposal was a cry of a prophet in the wilderness, calling for a politics of dialogue and compromise.

Now, of course, it would be difficult to organize a grand coalition even if someone like Roh were to appear on the horizon, as the hostility between the supporters of the two parties has become even further entrenched. Roh’s heirs are still fighting an uphill battle to keep the politics of dialogue and compromise alive here and there.

Yoo In-tae, former secretary-general of the National Assembly, recently participated in an interview with the Dong-a Ilbo which appeared with the headline: “The laziness of demonizing the other: The six-party political system needs reform.” In the interview, Yoo stated, “We need to reform the electoral system so that we can have a multi-party system. Then the Democratic Party can divide the seats between centrist-friendly figures and more hard-line figures. The same goes for the reformers of the PPP.” It is an interesting suggestion.

The electorate needs to change

To conclude, I believe that we should reduce political polarization and free ourselves from this political civil war.

We need to improve our institutions. We need to revise election laws. To revise election laws, we need to increase the number of lawmakers. We also need to amend the Constitution to create a decentralized presidential system that breaks up and spreads the power of the president over various institutions. If we do not do that, whoever becomes the next president will not be successful.

The electorate also needs to wake up. We need to stay firm and not become swayed by hate-mongering extremists. We need to learn the wisdom of co-existing with people who adhere to different political beliefs. Democracy is all about coexistence.

By Seong Han-yong, senior political writer

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

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