[Column] Korea’s conservatives are forgetting how to govern

Posted on : 2024-05-22 16:48 KST Modified on : 2024-05-22 17:18 KST
The regressions under Yoon will inevitably lead not only to the decline of Korean democracy but also to the total atrophy of any ability to govern
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives a speech at a ceremony marking the 44th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, held at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju on May 18, 2024. (pool photo) 
President Yoon Suk-yeol gives a speech at a ceremony marking the 44th anniversary of the May 18 Gwangju Democratization Movement, held at the May 18th National Cemetery in Gwangju on May 18, 2024. (pool photo) 

By Shin Jin-wook, professor of sociology at Chung-Ang University 

A month has passed since Korea’s general elections. Sadly, we have yet to see the Yoon Suk-yeol administration implement any real changes, and the president’s dwindling 20-something-percent approval ratings reflect that. How much longer can this go on? What will our country look like in three years? Everyone I ask has expressed worry. Whether they voted for Yoon or not, it seems nearly all Koreans feel the same.  

The most important variable in the recent elections was the president himself. Many analyses show that those who voted for candidates with the opposition were motivated to go to the polls by their anger with the president, and even those who voted for Yoon in the presidential election were so disappointed with him that they either cast their vote for the opposition or didn’t vote at all. 

This kind of public opinion is not simply some personal vendetta against a certain person or opposition to specific policies. The problem is much more fundamental. We’re talking about the bullheadedness, abuse of power, and incompetence that's run amok of statecraft. We don’t have to look far: the controversies over Kim Keon-hee, Lee Jong-sup, Hwang Sang-moo, and even spring onion prices are concrete manifestations of this reality.  

No one has deluded them into thinking that punishing the president will make everything better. However, since Yoon currently sits atop the structure of South Korea’s governing power, he is the target toward which most people are directing their frustration with politics — frustration which is acting as the kinetic energy for change.    

Still, we need to stay objective when assessing how problematic the situation the Yoon administration has landed in is. This administration calls itself a conservative one, but for the past two years, it has failed to come up with any policies based on future-oriented goals or grounded in conservative governance philosophies.    

Instead, the only indication that anyone is still behind the wheel has been the near-weekly reports of raids on various figures, as directives from the president have taken priority over all else. In other words, the issues at hand concern the administration’s basic qualifications for running a country and the bare minimum of rules that a democratic society needs to function.   

At this stage, I cannot help but be struck with a feeling of déjà vu. I’m transported back to the year 2017, when the candlelight protests culminated in the impeachment of Korea’s president. The Park Geun-hye administration was not brought down by the failure of a particular policy. Instead, there was a growing belief that a person unfit and unqualified to run the country was vested with the power to govern it and was making a mockery of Korea’s state apparatus. At the time, Park’s approval rating was around 20%.  

It is important to note that not only does this situation repeat itself under conservative administration, but it’s now taking less and less time for them to reach this point. Lee Myung-bak’s approval ratings plummeted to the low 20% range shortly after he took office. Only his policies, based on pragmatism, helped him win back the support of the public, allowing him to successfully see through the end of his term. 

Meanwhile, during her administration, Park was constantly criticized for the state being AWOL and accused of bringing back dictatorship, until finally, in her fourth year in office, she was run out of the Blue House. Yoon, on the other hand, has been a lame duck since he took office, and is already at a crossroads with only two years in office.  

This trend shows us where democracy in South Korea is heading. Scholars have characterized the political system that emerged after democratization — the so-called “’87 regime” — as being a limited and unstable democracy. They argued that such features were characteristic of the transitional periods many countries go through to achieve more robust democratic systems. But now, it's getting harder to buy this argument. South Korean democracy has become more unstable, and the social consensus on the fundamental values of a democratic society is faltering. 

Despite the many limitations, there was a gradual improvement in Korea’s democracy, freedom, human rights and participation in politics in the period stretching from the Roh Tae-woo administration to the Roh Moo-hyun administration. There was also a social consensus that efforts must be made to continue perfecting democracy, and it was considered a moral taboo to break that consensus. 

However, South Korean politics changed markedly starting in the 2000s. A pattern started to emerge: Even though it looked like democracy had progressed by leaps and bounds, administration changes would send democracy plummeting. Now, few believe the once commonly held notion that South Korea’s democracy is immune to backsliding. 

In the internationally recognized Liberal Democracy Index collated by V-Dem, South Korea ranked No. 37 among the countries surveyed in 2017, the last year of the Park Geun-hye administration. Its ranking jumped to between No. 13 and No. 18 during the Moon Jae-in administration before plummeting to No. 47 in 2024.   

Reporters Without Borders ranked South Korea at No. 31 on its World Press Freedom Index in 2006, during the later years of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. That ranking then slipped to No. 69 in the second year of the Lee Myung-bak administration, nosedived to No. 70 in 2016, the later years of the Park Geun-hye administration, rebounded to No. 41-No. 43 under the Moon administration, only to once again drop to No. 62 in 2024. South Korea’s democracy has been seesawing like a madman on a teeter-totter.  

You may be asking how this has come to be the case. The root cause lies in the fact that instead of cutting all ties with anything that resembles dictatorship after democratization, Korea’s conservatives have chosen to do the complete opposite. 

Despite being conservative parties, the Christian Democratic Union of Germany and Spain’s People’s Party have embraced the values of democracy, human rights and diversity following the defeat of the Nazis and the end of Franco’s dictatorship. 

However, conservatives in South Korea have decided to ground their identities in the legacies of Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee, undermining the social achievements made post-democratization. 

“The forces of communist totalitarianism have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists,” Yoon stated during his 2023 Liberation Day speech, parroting the rhetoric Chun Doo-hwan-era propaganda that labeled the people of Gwangju in May 1980 as “manipulated by spies, subversives and mobs.” 

This kind of regression is completely out of place in South Korea’s highly developed and complex society and will inevitably lead not only to the decline of democracy but also to the total atrophy of any ability to govern. This is the “incompetent authoritarianism” manifest in the Park Geun-hye and Yoon Suk-yeol administrations. 

While there are myriad reasons that South Korea repeatedly allowed backward conservatives to take power, the biggest fault lies in how democratic political forces have failed to successfully implement crucial tasks that South Korean society must achieve. 

A prime example is the economy. Political scientist Adam Przeworski has theorized that democracies become stronger when democratized countries successfully solve economic problems, and this is exactly the message that South Korea should heed. 

Issues related to the economy have always been at the heart of why power changes hands between conservative and liberal administrations each election cycle in Korea. For example, the sudden increase of precarious contract workers, the surge in income inequality, and skyrocketing housing prices during the Roh administration motivated the public to send a conservative to the Blue House.  This phenomenon repeated itself during the Moon Jae-in administration, with skyrocketing housing prices and the worsening socio-economic divide prompting voters to seek a change of pace.  

Korea is stuck in a loop of repeating history: Disappointed with a democracy that doesn’t make everyone equal, Korea’s demos allow authoritarian forces to take power, only to once again cry for democracy after experiencing the kind of political turmoil we are witnessing now. It is high time we broke this vicious cycle. 

We have three years until the presidential election in 2027 to tackle issues concerning the economy, diplomacy and climate change. At this point, the fissures in the Yoon administration may worsen and exacerbate political turmoil. 

We cannot let the country drift aimlessly under an incompetent government that refuses to take responsibility for its actions. The opposition, with its majority of seats in the National Assembly — created to represent the will of the people — should demonstrate their ability to govern with trustworthy policies and a future-oriented vision. It is time to prove that democracy can indeed be powerful. 

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

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