[Column] Why does S. Korea keep veering right?

Posted on : 2021-12-01 18:09 KST Modified on : 2021-12-01 18:09 KST
Young people in the US and Europe are turning to socialism in response to the multiple crises they face — so why is conservatism experiencing a resurgence in South Korea?
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung
Illustration by Kim Dae-jung

Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov)
Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov)

By Pak Noja (Vladimir Tikhonov), professor of Korean Studies at the University of Oslo

I’ve noticed an intriguing phenomenon these days. In most of the societies I’m familiar with, socialism is being reappraised and viewed in a more positive light.

Combining the results of several recent polls shows that socialism gets more support than capitalism among young Americans (aged 18–24), with around 50%–55% of that age group favoring socialism. To be sure, socialism for Americans probably means social democracy along the lines of Norway. Even so, this tendency is significant in a neoliberal bastion such as the US.

In Norway, which is already a social democratic society, radical leftism is soaring in popularity. At the University of Oslo, one-third of the total student body support the Socialist Left Party or the Red Party — a radical socialist party.

The foreign country that Norwegians pay the most attention to is probably Germany. When the German capital of Berlin held a referendum on expropriating 200,000 houses held by mega landlords and converting them to public ownership, the referendum passed with a majority of support. In short, expropriation and municipalization are once again becoming popular slogans.

Even in authoritarian Russia, the group that’s emerging as a counterbalance to the dictatorship is none other than the Communist Party, which made considerable gains in recent parliamentary elections. Wherever I turn my gaze, leftists seem to be gaining ground amid the pandemic and economic and environmental crises.

There are two exceptions, though — Japan and South Korea. In Korea, the hard-line conservatives who were ousted by the “candlelight revolution” four years ago are experiencing a revival and have become the leading contender in the upcoming presidential election.

In the West, socialism has gradually come to signify hope, but for Korea’s conservatives, it’s the ultimate insult. Objectively speaking, the affiliation of Korea’s current administration could be defined as a moderate form of social liberalism. But when the conservatives attack, they always unleash criticism about “socialist policies” — even though not a single policy that could be characterized as “socialist” has been implemented during the past four years the liberals have been in power.

As the conservative hardliners flex their muscles amid Korea’s seeming shift toward the right, foot soldiers of the far right sometimes take steps that would have been unimaginable in the past. A few weeks ago, members of a far-right group that goes by the grandiose name of People’s Solidarity of Liberty appeared at the Wednesday rally organized by the former comfort women waving Japanese flags and holding placards that said, “The forcible mobilization of the comfort women is a lie.” As I watched online videos of the incident, I could hardly believe my own eyes.

Just a few years ago, members of the right-wing fringe would never have dared insult the former comfort women so openly while brandishing the Japanese flag. But social structures have weakened to the point that such actions can be performed openly. Slandering victims of the war while holding the Japanese flag is no longer sufficient to provoke the kind of civic outrage that would prevent such brazen behavior.

It’s easy to understand why radical leftism is growing in popularity, especially among young people, in many Western countries. First, there’s a growing sense that global catastrophes such as the climate crisis can’t be resolved through a system based on the pursuit of profit.

Second, the neoliberal policies of the past few decades have gradually forced the younger generation to abandon dreams of getting a stable job, buying their own house, and starting a family.

Today, typical twentysomethings in the Anglo-American world make up a modern-day proletariat, working in uncertain jobs or the platform economy, unable to put any money aside as they pay back their student loans and keep up with rent that keeps getting more and more expensive. Isn’t it logical that those who don’t own any property would be more supportive of the idea of sharing social resources?

A third impetus that’s facilitating the rebirth of the left is historical memory. The Western masses experienced a major improvement in their quality of life during the implementation of large-scale redistribution policies in the 1950s and 60s, and the collective memory of that experience has been sustained through history education and the press.

In countries such as Norway that have long been governed by social democrats, young voters expect that if the radical leftists came to power, they would adopt policies that would favor those who are worse off, improving the lives of many. The remarkable rise of the left in Russia also largely depends on memories of Soviet times, when everyone had a steady job and was given free housing by the state.

The situation in Korea is quite different. First, Korea’s mainstream newspapers have diligently disregarded the severity of the climate crisis. And for many of Korea’s young people, who are floundering in unbelievably exhausting routines, worrying about the future itself might feel like a luxury.

In the end, the current administration’s Green New Deal is not a policy of degrowth, but only a new kind of technology-intensive growth that the government expects will reduce carbon emissions. A large number of Korean young people don’t seem to be particularly dissatisfied with this entirely non-radical climate policy.

Second, while young people in Korea have a greater sense of deprivation than in the West, the problem is how the press and public opinion makers package the fact of deprivation. Among Koreans in their 20s, the homeownership rate is just 24%, compared with 30% for Americans in that age group. A full 40% of Koreans in their 20s have irregular jobs; in Norway, the rate is 27% for workers aged 15–24 and just 15% for workers aged 24–29.

So why is it that young Americans and Norwegians are much more radical in their political orientation than young Koreans? That just shows how successful Korea’s opinion makers have been at placing the blame for skyrocketing housing prices and the surge of irregular jobs on the “progressive administration” or the “labor aristocracy.”

How progressive could President Moon Jae-in really be if he can’t even roll back the tax breaks for apartment landlords that were installed under his predecessor, Park Geun-hye? Should labor unions be called an “aristocracy” when they can’t even participate in management, as they do in Europe?

But such questions don’t often present themselves to those who are already accustomed to the narrative presented by the conservative opinion makers.

Third, political parties more radical than the current administration — which has already disappointed many voters, despite not even being “progressive” in the true sense of the word — have never held power in Korea, as they have in the West. It’s immensely difficult to instill confidence in supporters who can’t draw upon memories of victory.

Unfortunately, Korean voters tend to swing like a pendulum between the two options of hard-line conservatism and social liberalism. When voters get fed up with the corruption of the conservatives, they opt for the liberals, and when the liberals fail to resolve issues of real estate and labor insecurity, the conservatives regain their popularity. Is there any hope that Korean politics will ever break out of this closed circuit?

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

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