Yoon’s far-right leanings find new outlet in repainting Korea’s history

Posted on : 2023-08-29 16:47 KST Modified on : 2023-08-29 16:47 KST
During the second year of Yoon’s term, the president’s hostile attitude pitting “liberal democracy” against “communist totalitarianism” has become more vehement
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers an address at an event celebrating Coast Guard Day held in Incheon on Aug. 28. (Yonhap)
President Yoon Suk-yeol delivers an address at an event celebrating Coast Guard Day held in Incheon on Aug. 28. (Yonhap)

During its second year in office, the Yoon Suk-yeol administration has become increasingly forceful with its red-baiting tactics and historical revisionism.

The ruling People Power Party is characterizing these moves as a process of “setting the national identity straight” and “normalizing” misguided policies adopted by the preceding Moon Jae-in administration.

But critics have blasted the administration for encouraging divisions in national opinion by turning even matters where both left- and right-leaning South Koreans are broadly in agreement — such as the honoring of independence activist Gen. Hong Beom-do — into fodder for outdated ideological battles.

Commenting Monday on the objections to the Ministry of National Defense’s move to remove a bust of Hong and the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs’ establishment of a “Zheng Lücheng history park,” an official with the presidential office said it was “not right to view this as a matter of ‘history wars’ or ‘red-baiting.’”

“It’s a matter of the Republic of Korea’s identity,” they insisted.

The presidential office also officially asserted that the actions are “being pursued by the Ministry of National Defense and Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs” and have nothing to do with Yoon himself.

But among insiders, the prevailing view is that the president’s views are not any different from the administration’s position as articulated by the leaders of the two ministries. Some have commented that there are no ministers in the current administration who would defy Yoon’s will or pursue an effort without at least gauging his opinion on it first.

The recent moves by the Defense Ministry are being read along similar lines to the message about eradicating “communist totalitarian forces” overtly voiced by Yoon in his Liberation Day address earlier this month, as well as to Seoul’s disregard toward North Korea, China and Russia as it steps up trilateral cooperation with the US and Japan.

In truth, Yoon’s right-wing bias on historical and ideological issues was apparent numerous times during his campaign for president and the early stages after he took office.

Two weeks before the election, Yoon sounded a strong “red-baiting” note in remarks about the Democratic Party that he made while canvassing in Hongseong, South Chungcheong Province, in February 2022.

“Can we afford to hand the politics and future of the Republic of Korea to this minority of dreamers who have given themselves over to leftist revolutionary theory and want to gradually transform our society into a socialist state rather than a liberal democratic one?” he asked at the time.

In another stump speech in Gangneung, Gangwon Province, on Feb. 28 of that year, he asserted, “I despise communism more than anyone, and my attitude on national security is resolute.”

He dished out more harsh rhetoric in an October 2022 luncheon meeting with PPP local bargaining committee leaders.

“The pro-Pyongyang juche advocates are anti-state and anti-Constitution. Cooperative governance with them is impossible,” he declared.

But at the time, his ideological messaging was seen as having been tailored to supporters and party members in an effort to rally their support.

During the second year of Yoon’s term, however, instances of him showing a hostile attitude pitting “liberal democracy” against “communist totalitarianism” have become more frequent and vehement, with extreme sentiments showing up even in his messages to the broader South Korean public.

During a commemorative ceremony for the April Revolution of 1960, Yoon said, “The forces who threaten democracy take the side of dictatorship and totalitarianism yet outwardly present themselves as ‘democracy activists’ and ‘activists for human rights.’”

In his Liberation Day address on Aug. 15, he stressed that Korea must “properly remember those who gave their all to defend the freedoms of our people; to bring independence to our country; and to uphold the universal values,” saying that “remembering and honoring them in a right way is vital and essential for the national identity and continuity of the Republic of Korea.”

“Nonetheless, still rampant are anti-state forces that blindly follow communist totalitarianism, distort public opinion, and disrupt the society through manipulative propaganda,” he also said in his speech.

This was an example of the president actively fomenting division rather than unity in a commemorative address at an event for the entire South Korean public. It was also his harshest invective yet, lumping together all those critical of his administration as threats to democracy with a distorted historical perspective.

The remarks by Yoon and the historical and ideological battles stirred up recently by the administration have targeted critics at a time when the administration has been working to overturn the policies of its predecessors.

“The anti-Japanese struggle over the 1920s was overwhelmingly leftist, yet President Yoon only seems to think of things in terms of the ‘Soviet Communist Party’ and ‘Reds,’” said Choi Chang-ryul, a professor of political science and international relations at Yong In University.

“This isn’t an issue of ‘left’ and ‘right,’ but one of President Yoon’s lack of a historical perspective,” he added, describing the situation as “much more severe than the ‘national establishment date’ controversy during the Lee Myung-bak administration or the state-designated history textbook one during the Park Geun-hye administration.”

Some observers predicted that the administration’s extreme right-wing attitudes may end up dividing conservatives.

Chae Jang-su, a professor of political science and diplomacy at Kyungpook National University, said, “Even if the intention has been to rally conservative votes, the most pronounced aspect has been the administration’s style of pushing far-right beliefs.”

“If you look at the differences of opinion over the Hong Beom-do bust issue, what stands out is that the current administration and ruling party aren’t an ideological group capable of advocating a consistent brand of conservatism,” he concluded.

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

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

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