In place of inter-Korean peace pledges, smear campaigns dominate election cycle

Posted on : 2024-04-01 16:49 KST Modified on : 2024-04-01 16:49 KST
In this election, the people of South Korea need to clearly demonstrate to our political class that they can no longer be stirred up by words like “North Korea” and “pro-North sympathizers”
People walk past a display on March 24, 2024, at the Suwon Convention Center in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, raising awareness about the upcoming general elections on April 10 and getting out the vote. (Yonhap)
People walk past a display on March 24, 2024, at the Suwon Convention Center in Suwon, Gyeonggi Province, raising awareness about the upcoming general elections on April 10 and getting out the vote. (Yonhap)

South Korea’s 22nd general elections are less than 10 days away.

A total of 45 parties are taking part in the race. Twenty-one are running for local constituencies, while no fewer than 38 are taking part in the proportional representation election.

From the standpoint of a democratic system, it’s definitely a positive development to have multiple parties representing different political views. But the lack of rational opinions and policies among most of the parties participating in the election is also a grim indictment of the state of South Korean democracy today.

The South Korean Political Parties Act defines a party’s responsibility as being “to promote responsible political assertions or policies for the benefit of the people.”

But rather than pondering their public roles and responsibility for the people’s benefit, many of the parties competing in this year’s election have instead focused on representing only their own interests or on stoking feelings of hatred toward others in order to rally supporters.

With everything from hastily slapped-together parties boasting bizarre names to the increasingly crude messaging coming from the two biggest parties, the situation has gone beyond frustrating to provide self-deprecating laughter. Something has clearly gone very, very wrong.
Antagonizing to win votes

Many see the latest elections as taking on a very different look from past ones. In particular, they point to the way that the frames of “passing judgment on the administration” and “passing judgment on the opposition” have swallowed up the entire agenda and overshadowed the individual races, figures and policies.

The opposition parties have been calling on voters to pass judgment on the Yoon Suk-yeol administration and rein in its “tyrannies.” The ruling People Power Party (PPP) has been urging them to support the administration over an opposition that has been working against its policies.

In an election where “passing judgment” has become an all-encompassing issue, it has been difficult to find any room for different political views or policies.

This is apparent in the way the so-called “third position” has been reduced to a nominal presence at best. Rather than picking fresh faces, the parties have cut women, young people and minorities completely out of their nomination process — a practice that has been tolerated in the interests of “passing judgment” on the other side.

There has been no sign from either the ruling or opposition sides of visions and solutions for the pressing issues in South Korean society. Instead, things have devolved into a race where each side is telling voters how much worse the other one is.

Whenever PPP interim leader Han Dong-hoon is asked a vexing question, he simply replies, “What about the Democratic Party? What about Lee Jae-myung?” But Lee, the Democratic Party’s leader, has been acting like a mirror image of that by attacking Yoon as someone who “doesn’t even know the price of onions.”

The nature of an election is such that only one side will get a majority of support from voters. In this election battle over “who is worse,” the judgment is very likely to come down to which side has been more devastating in its impact on everyday lives. Ultimately, it is a question of how reasonable voters see the two main parties as being with regard to the parties they are singling out for “judgment” and the reasons why.

In its calls to hold the current administration accountable, the Democratic Party has been emphasizing the “dictatorship of the prosecutors” as a reason for passing judgment. Early on in the race, the PPP tried to make an issue of “ending the parliamentary dictatorship” — but when its approval ratings failed to gain traction, it once again resorted to calls to hold “pro-Pyongyang forces” to account.

The names they call their opponents show how they define each other, and they also show where their support bases lie. While the Democratic Party is asking for support from voters angry about the authority wielded by prosecutors, the PPP wants to rally its forces behind a straw man by characterizing the other side as being “North Korea sympathizers.”

This goes beyond their respective campaign strategies. The same tendency is seen in both the policy initiatives of the PPP and the Democratic Party. 

The Democratic Party has explicitly called for the reformation of the prosecution service, the independence of public broadcasters, the political neutrality of the Korea Communications Standards Commission, and democratic checks on the police. Their political banner is essentially a purge of a political system that gives too much power to prosecutors. 

The PPP, conversely, is calling for scrapping the special privileges enjoyed by National Assembly lawmakers and a public reckoning of the Democratic Party. They are also waving banners of “freedom” when it comes to policies regarding North Korea. The PPP appeals to human rights issues regarding North Korea. 

They have promised to support North Korean defectors, people with family members across the border, and people whose family members have been abducted by North Korea — the biggest victims of the divided peninsula. Yet they refuse to elaborate on how they will bring North Korea back to the negotiation table and de-escalate inter-military tensions. 

The PPP merely aims to emphasize the superiority of a “free” Korea over a politically repressed Korea. Their celebration of a “free and peaceful Korea” is based on overt hostility toward North Korea, which is “anti-freedom.” 

Since the PPP relies on the threat posed by North Korea and “pro-Pyongyang forces” to win over voters, they had no intention of engaging diplomatically with North Korea in the first place. The only acceptable method of unification to them is one of absorption, where “unfree” North Korea is absorbed into a “free” South Korea. The PPP fans the flames of inter-Korean hostility to pick up more votes.

What comes after judgment day?

Opinion polls show that the PPP’s “anti-North Korean sympathizers and pro-freedom” campaign strategy is less effective at convincing voters than the Democratic Party’s platform of “purging the dictatorship prosecutors.” This likely shows that voters view the dictatorship by prosecutors as a bigger threat than North Korea and pro-North sympathizers, which have likely disappeared from most voters’ political perception. As far as they’re concerned, prosecutors can sweep in and take their lives away at any point in time, North Korea and pro-North sympathizers are a vague concept — and even if they exist, they don’t present a direct threat in day-to-day life. 

The contemporary voting public represents a wide spectrum of interests, concerns and identities that cannot be summed up by a single nationality. In such an environment, a campaign strategy that relies on an ideological hatred for a shared enemy is demonstrably losing its purchase. 

The contemporary South Korean individual, a product of decades of democratization and neo-liberalization, is as free as she’s ever been in the country’s history. To that kind of voter, it’s likely that a class of prosecutors that reigns with political impunity presents the biggest threat to freedom.

Hopefully, this is the last election that calls on people to vote in collective opposition to North Korea and pro-North sympathizers. The same goes for the “dictatorship of prosecutors.” Any call for “judgment day” regarding a specific class or group is a call to exclude nuance and difficult debates on difficult issues and policies. 

In this election, the people of South Korea need to clearly demonstrate to our political class that they can no longer be stirred up by words like “North Korea” and “pro-North sympathizers.” That is the only way we can restore stability and guarantee inter-Korean peace by allowing creative and varied policies and opinions to enter the conversation.

One last question remains. What happens after the general election? What does South Korea look like post-judgment day? Will it be a better place? Once “judgment” takes place, will our elected leaders finally turn an ear to the demands and needs of the people? Demands and needs that are irrelevant to punishing the other side? Are they even capable?

Regardless of who emerges victorious, I hope that both parties realize just how dangerous victory will be. The slightest slip-up, and the calls for “judgment” they so loudly pronounced in their campaigns may soon be lobbed at them. I sincerely hope that both parties will reform into parties that compete for the best policies that best serve the people. After the general election, I hope we see a resurrection of genuine politics. 

By Kim Sung-kyung, professor at the University of North Korean Studies

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