[Column] Why is Yoon crawling further toward the far right?

Posted on : 2023-10-09 16:12 KST Modified on : 2023-10-09 16:12 KST
What’s prompting the alliance between conservatives and the far right is the political polarization we see today
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives an address at an event marking National Liberation Day on Aug. 15, held at Ewha Womans University. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives an address at an event marking National Liberation Day on Aug. 15, held at Ewha Womans University. (presidential office pool photo)
By Shin Jin-wook, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University

As concerns regarding the Yoon Suk-yeol administration’s persistent shift to the far right continue, the need to accurately understand the true picture, background, and significance of this phenomenon is also growing.

Administrations can be characterized as “far-right” the more they meet the following three criteria. First, those in power propound far-right logic in their public statements. Second, figures with far-right leanings occupy key government posts. Third, the government executes policy according to far-right principles.

In light of this, can the Yoon administration be considered far-right? Extremely.

As far as rhetoric goes, today’s ruling power doesn’t hesitate to attack political opponents by labeling them “anti-state forces,” “organizations that benefit the enemy,” part of the “pro-North Korea juche faction,” and “communists,” undermining the basic agreement that sustains a democratic society. Even when it comes to power distribution, positions like the chairs of public institutions including the Economic, Social and Labor Council, the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, and the Korea Communications Commission, in addition to ministerial roles at central government departments like the Ministry of Unification, the Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs, the Ministry of National Defense, and the Ministry of Culture, Sports and Tourism are being filled by far-right figures. Things are no less worrying in the policy sphere, where freedom of thought is being curtailed in public facilities, civic and labor groups have become targets of ideological offensives along with critical media, and far-right groups are cozying up with the administration.

Why is the Yoon administration going down the path of far-right politics? There are various theories, including the one that it is trying to unify its support base, the one that it is preparing for the upcoming general election, and the one that this shift stems from Yoon himself. However, fundamentally, what needs to be done is understanding the historical process through which the far right grew more and more powerful in South Korea society and politics and the current political landscape that resulted.

First, it should be acknowledged that the far-right politics of the Yoon administration isn’t simply an anachronistic comedy but one scene out of a massive backlash that has been going on for decades since South Korea’s democratization and is still in process. The sociopolitical changes that followed the downfall of dictatorships prompted three rounds of severe backlash.

The first backlash occurred immediately following South Korea’s democratization. Many right-wing organizations including the Christian Council of Korea and the Korea Freedom Federation were founded at this juncture, expanding their network and resources until now. A stronger second backlash took place during the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations. Cold War anti-communist, neoliberal, and Christian fundamentalist forces organized themselves, took collective action, and systematized their ideology on a large scale during this time. While these right-wing movements began from a sense of crisis, they armed themselves with plans of social reform and activism. These hostile right-wing forces joined the center of power during the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye administrations.

Although candlelight protests supported by 75% of the South Korean public impeached the conservative government of this time period, bringing it to an end, a third backlash soon erupted. This backlash was much more hostile and intense than that of the Kim and Roh administrations, with right-wingers connecting with each other through the internet and rallying together through political protests. Many different kinds of backlashes, such as those against North Korea, the left wing, welfare, labor, and feminism linked up. Like this, as the first, second, and third backlashes continued one after another, a sizable right-wing force that was both highly conscious and active was created. It is the very force running wild on the stage of power right now during the Yoon administration.

Hence, there is a structural backdrop to the anti-communist freedom slogans filling Yoon’s psyche, as well as Yoon’s appointment of so-called “old right” and “new right” warriors to public office. The far right dominates the spiritual and human resources of today’s South Korean conservative politics. Conservatives failed to become a force active and ideologically sophisticated enough to suppress extremism, and as a result, the far right came to hold outsized power unbefitting its qualifications and capabilities.

Though conservative elites sometimes express concern regarding far-right politics, keeping their distance from it, they ultimately condone and protect it. This is because the last thing they want is progressives gaining power. South Korean conservatives seem to prefer the guarantee of conservative power over protecting universal values by working together or competing against progressives, even if that means having to depend on the far right.

What’s prompting the alliance between conservatives and the far right is the political polarization we see today. The prosecution service and the far right, the two foremost powers of the Yoon administration, are groups that are highly knowledgeable about how to punish and attack others. A politics of hate is the structural environment in which political groups born from the prosecution service and the far right can launch themselves as the guardians of conservatism. It is deeply regrettable that the coalition between conservatives and progressives that formed through the candlelight protests that advocated for impeachment has dissolved so pitifully.

In conclusion, the Yoon administration’s far-right shift shows the process through which the backlash that has been growing since South Korea’s democratization grew even stronger amid today’s polarized confrontational politics, making its way to the nation’s heart. We must stand against this reality and protect our society’s democratic and moral values. At the same time, we must ask how South Korean society permitted the far right to grow so much and uncover what caused it.

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

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