Flying “new right” flag, Korea’s Yoon Suk-yeol charges toward ideological rule

Posted on : 2023-09-07 16:45 KST Modified on : 2023-09-07 16:45 KST
Political scholars said there appears to be little chance of Yoon shifting from the antagonistic focus of his governance approach
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy flanked by Foreign Minister Park Jin (left) and the academy’s chancellor, Park Cheol-hee. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol enters an event celebrating the 60th anniversary of the Korean National Diplomatic Academy flanked by Foreign Minister Park Jin (left) and the academy’s chancellor, Park Cheol-hee. (presidential office pool photo)

With South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol recently ratcheting up the tenor of his ideologically polarized statements and revisionist approach to history, some analysts have identified parallels between this trend and the so-called “new right” worldview.

Other areas where the administration has shown a concerted commitment fall along the same lines, including efforts to re-evaluate former President Syngman Rhee, play up the achievements of Gen. Paik Sun-yup despite his history of collaboration with Japan, and focus on North Korean human rights issues over exchange and cooperation.

Recently, Yoon’s remarks have included numerous terms of an ideological and antagonistic nature, including his references to “liberty” and “anti-state forces.”

Yoon has been bombarding the public with ideological statements at seemingly every opportunity.

In his Liberation Day celebratory address on Aug. 15, he declared, “The forces of communist totalitarianism [in South Korea] have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists while engaging in despicable and unethical tactics and false propaganda.”

At a People Power Party dinner party on Aug. 28, he stressed that “ideology is the most important thing.” During a ceremony on Friday to commemorate the 60th anniversary of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy, he accused “communist totalitarian forces and their opportunistic followers” of “inciting anti-Japanese sentiment.”

His approach bears strong similarities to the new right perspective of the past. Originally, the new right, or dissident right, movement expanded in places like the US and Europe as a reaction to social change along progressive and post-authoritarian lines since the 1960s.

In the case of South Korean politics, it came to the fore around the start of the 21st century, chiefly among former “national liberation” sympathizers, including converted former juche advocates. Having broken away from their previously strongly held beliefs, these figures were quite negative and hostile toward both the North Korean regime and those who were friendly toward it.

In their words, they have advanced a “shift away from stale ideologies.” But in practice, they have exhibited far-right characteristics.

“Liberal democracy,” a term that Yoon has trotted out time and time again since taking office, gained new life after new right scholars began bringing it into the public discourse during the Lee Myung-bak administration. New right proponents argue that liberal democracy represents a universal and superior system in global terms, as well as the framework that has preserved South Korea in its confrontation with the North and helped it to achieve economic growth.

Adopting this line of reasoning, the new right-leaning Association for Contemporary Korean History successfully lobbied in 2011 to have the term “liberal democracy” used instead of “democracy” in elementary, middle and high school history textbooks that were being developed at the time.

But the approach has been the subject of ongoing criticism and controversy in academia, where many insist that the concept in question is vague and that no basis for it can be found in the Republic of Korea’s Constitution. The term was subsequently removed from textbooks after the Moon Jae-in administration came to office, although since taking office last year, the Yoon administration has decided to begin using it again in textbooks as of 2025.

During the Roh Moo-hyun presidency, the new right worked to develop itself into a bona fide bloc through organizations such as the National New Right Association, Solidarity for Liberalism, Zeitgeist, Citizens United for Better Society, and the Hansun Foundation for Freedom & Happiness. Most of these supported Lee Myung-bak’s candidacy in the 2007 presidential race, and members enjoyed great success entering Yeouido politics, the Blue House, and the business world.

The pinnacle of their organizational strength came under the Park Geun-hye presidency. Having mostly suffered electoral and nomination defeats in the 2012 general elections, members went all in on a push for government-authorized textbooks during that administration.

While they lost some of their luster as an organized force during the Moon presidency, members have been appointed to key positions under the Yoon administration.

An example of this is Kim Young-ho, who took over as Minister of Unification last July. In the past, he served as steering committee chair for New Right Think Net, a think tank for new right scholars. He was also active with Textbook Forum, a new right group focusing on historical issues that was launched in 2005.

Kim Kwang-dong, the new chairperson of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, took part in compiling new right “alternative” Korean modern and contemporary history textbooks in 2008. Lee Bae-yong, the chairperson of the president’s National Education Commission, participated in the authorized history textbook effort during the Park presidency.

Now the current Korea Communications Commission chairperson, as director of the Dong-A Ilbo newspaper’s politics bureau in 2004, Lee Dong-kwan wrote a column advocating a new right perspective as an alternative for conservative politics, asserting that the “new right’s critical stance originates from the fact that radical positions are damaging the constitutional spirit of liberal democracy and the market economy.”

Kim Moon-soo, the chairperson of the Economic, Social and Labor Council, is a figure who made a 180-degree shift from labor activist to far-right politician. He is now viewed among new right proponents as being a “model” figure.

Kang Kyu-hyung, a Myongji University professor who serves as a director with the Educational Broadcasting System, was a member of the authorized textbook compilation and review committee during the Park administration. He also characterized the general Hong Beom-do’s activities with the Soviet Communist Party as “anti-national.”

Figures like these appear to be influencing the Yoon administration’s anti-communist policies and decisions.

Recent developments with the removal of the Ministry of Unification’s exchange and cooperation activities targeting reunification and its reorganization to emphasize more on North Korean human rights issues are seen as being associated with Kim Young-ho’s appointment as minister.

The administration’s recent move to relocate a bust of Hong Beom-do from the Korea Military Academy was spearheaded by Na Jong-nam, a new right-affiliated professor at the academy who took part in compiling an authorized contemporary history textbook under the Park administration.

The prevailing view among analysts is that the new right’s perspective on colonial modernization was an underlying factor in the announcement last March of plans for third-party compensation to victims of forced labor mobilization during the occupation, as well as subsequent efforts to improve ties with Tokyo.

This perspective of using “anti-communism” as a basis for sweeping denunciations of those critical of the administration — together with a policy approach reflecting an unbalanced historical stance and dogmatism that have been turning off even rational conservatives — has many observers predicting the future could see a repeat of the history textbook debates and calls for Aug. 15 to be marked as a “national foundation day.”

Political scholars said there appears to be little chance of Yoon shifting from the antagonistic focus of his governance approach.

“President Yoon seems to have made up his mind that he needs to base his political capabilities on strongly right-wing and conservative ideological dispositions,” Kyung Hee University Humanitas College political science professor Kim Yun-cheol told the Hankyoreh, explaining this was the “backdrop behind the rallying of the new right.”

“With the anti-communist conservative and reactionary attitude he’s shown in his ideological approach to politics, he’s been focusing all around on antagonism, engaging in the kind of politics that only incites conflict,” he concluded.

Kim Hyung-chul, a research professor of political science at the Sungkonghoe University Democracy and Social Movements Institute, said, “The excess of biased ideology we’ve seen from President Yoon and his authoritarian approach of enlisting the prosecutors and other investigating organizations is being seen as a sign of his commitment to an even more strongly dogmatic approach to government than we saw during the Lee Myung-bak presidency.”

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter

Please direct questions or comments to []

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

Related stories

Most viewed articles