Korea’s new right-wing president

January 30, 2013

The election of the daughter of a former dictator as South Korea's new president has to be seen in the context of years of neoliberal attacks, writes Chris Kim.

MAINSTREAM SOUTH Korean politics has shifted to the right with the election in December of Park Geun-hye, the candidate of far-right New Frontier Party (NFP), as president.

Park, who will become South Korea's first female president when she takes office in February, is the country's 18th president and the daughter of late military dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled the country from 1961-79. Park Geun-hye defeated her liberal opponent Moon Jae-in of the United Democratic Party (UDP) with 51.5 percent of vote to Moon's 48.8 percent, with 75.8 percent of eligible voters turning out.

Many South Korean conservative newspapers celebrated the election result, which broke a 15-year span in which a turnout of more than 70 percent spelled defeat for conservative candidates. Park is first presidential candidate to win a majority of the vote since South Korea adopted a democratic constitution in 1987.

While Park's inauguration isn't until February 25, her selection of a transition team for the new government is giving the impression of becoming the "second generation Park Chung-hee regime," as some have called it. Of the more than 100 estimated subcommittee positions, approximately one in six candidates that Park has selected are the sons (and one son-in-law) of former senior members who've served under her father's regime.

South Korea's newly elected President Park Geun-hye
South Korea's newly elected President Park Geun-hye

Although Park's leadership won't be in the form of her father's dictatorship, her right-wing agenda is on full display. Park's choices for various government positions include an anti-democracy figure, a supporter of dismantling South Korea's universal health care, and an advocate of market deregulation.

One notable character is Yun Chang-joong, a spokesman of the transition team who is notorious for characterizing Park's opponent as "anti-Korean," while also supporting U.S. military presence in the Korean peninsula in order to "to stop communism." Additionally, nine out of 13 members of Park's "Committee of Great People's Unity," a substructure of the transition team, are members of the New Right--a far-right group that are notorious advocates for Park Chung-hee's regime and that celebrates the 1961 military coup that brought him to power as a "revolution." New Right member Park Hyo-jong (not related to Park Geun-hye), is now a secretary of the transition team.

PARK'S VICTORY has dealt a blow to liberals and leftists, which has led to finger-pointing within UDP. Disarray has spread beyond the party to progressive voters and activists, who have been shocked by the fact that conservative leadership was maintained despite five years of extremely unpopular leadership of outgoing President Lee Myung-bak, whose approval rating had declined to just 18 percent by the last year of his presidency.

One of reason for the outcome was the mobilizing capability of the conservative, who united into a "grand coalition of conservatives." This coalition included various think-tanks and conservative politicians, including Lee and his Grand National Party(GNP), as well as former military dictator Chun Doo-hwan, who was backed by the major mainstream media.

Liberals, however, had difficulty uniting behind one candidate until days before the campaign officially started. Left support was divided between minor candidates and those who looked to Moon as a "lesser evil."

South Korea's left reformist parties have suffered years of fragmentation. After Lee Myung-bak won the presidency in 2007, the Democratic Labor Party (DLP)--the formation of two Stalinist factions: the National Liberation (NL), which stresses national reunification; and People's Democracy (PD), which advocates various social issues--suffered as the PD faction departed to form the Progressive New Party (PNP) due to years of differences in organization and perspective over the question of North Korea.

While DLP, along with liberal People's Participation Party (PPP) and some members of PNP, re-merged into the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) in December 2011, the UPP also faced their own internal turmoil when the party's dominant NL faction tried to establish unilateral hegemony and manipulated an election in May 2012.

This caused a serious blow to the party's credibility, with severe disappointment and criticism from left in both inside and outside of UPP, which led to departure of liberal and PD factions to form Progressive Justice Party (PJP). This also led to the left-wing Korean Confederation of Trade Unions' (KCTU) withdrawal of its support for UPP, adding to the party's impotency in the presidential election.

Despite such fragmentation on the left, a majority of voters do not see Park as a figure to necessarily trust. With her similarity to Lee and her resumé as a former member of the GNP, Park is not seen as particularly trustworthy to many Korean working people, who have suffered under five years of Lee's neoliberal attack on workers that increased unemployment as well as the unstable, underpaid and typically de-unionized employment of irregular workers and an increase of privatization.

As the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD)'s "Economic Survey of Korea 2012" reported, "Income inequality has risen to the top of Korea's political agenda, driven by such issues as high university tuition fees and labor market dualism...Meanwhile, relative poverty--the share of the population living on the less than half of the median income--rose to 15 percent in 2008."

There has been an undeniable rollback of democracy under Lee, including the imprisonment of journalists, banning celebrities from TV appearance for criticizing the president, forcefully replacing network television executives with Lee's cronies, the crackdown and arrest of activists, and even attacking Internet freedom of speech with the prosecution of blogger "Minerva" for criticizing the government's economic policies.

Such policies gave many Koreans flashbacks of military dictatorship. Lee also is rightfully considered to be responsible for destabilizing relations with North Korea that led to the prowar atmosphere following the North's supposed attack on South Korea's Cheonan warship in March 2010.

THE SOUTH Korean working class has been deeply effected by last decade of neoliberalism that has made the country's gap between rich and poor the third-highest among OECD nations, even while ranking tenth among the fastest growing economies in the world. The Samsung Economic Research Institute admitted that Korean workers suffer from the highest stresses and lowest job satisfaction among developed nations, while ranking as having the longest working hours among OECD nations.

South Korea's suicide rate is the highest among OECD countries--a result in part of the effects of neoliberalism and increasing contradictions of South Korean capitalism. According to Social Survey Reports, "economic difficulties" is listed as the number one reason for suicidal thoughts among those aged 20-50.

Many Koreans also have vivid nightmares of the neoliberal policies the country experienced under former-President Roh Moo-hyun, who ruled from 2003-2008. Moon was Roh's former chief of staff and celebrated Roh's "successful" leadership during his presidential campaign.

While Moon attacked Park as being "a dictator's daughter," the country's nostalgia for Park Chung-hee (for economic reasons) actually rose during Roh's presidency. Moon's position regarding the building of the U.S. Gangjeong naval basis on Jeju Island, which nearly 80 percent of Jeju residents opposes, also attracted doubts from voters. His opposition was based on the location of naval basis, and not the building of the U.S. naval bases itself.

It's impossible to consider Park Geun-hye without also considering her father's legacy in South Korean politics. Park Chung-hee was the product of Japanese imperialism and graduated from the Manchukuo Imperial Army Academy, later serving as a lieutenant under the name of Masao Takaki during the 1940s.

The apparatus of Japanese imperialism materialized into Park Chung-hee's dictatorial regime with intense police surveillance and the secret operations of the Korean Central Intelligent Agency (KCIA). His regime also reintroduced the National Security Act--the law that gives the government the justification to imprison those who were considered "anti-government" and thus "enemy aiding." While his national economic planning was very beneficial for "chaebol" (various multinational business conglomerates) through intense capital accumulation and tax cuts, South Korea's workers suffered through ramped up exploitation and political oppression.

For years, Park Geun-hye refused to apologize for the brutal repression that many activists suffered under her father's reign. Instead, she defended her father's actions by claiming that different periods required different methods of leadership. It was not until she decided to run for presidency that she was finally forced to apologize.

DURING THE election, many on the organized left believed it was crucial to avoid any illusion about Moon, while also not understating the deepening threat to democracy that Park Geun-hye's election posed.

Many progressive social groups and trade unions united with Moon supporters to attempt to prevent Park's presidency. Progressive parties such as the UPP and PJP gave up their candidacies to try to help bolster Moon's chances, while South Korea's International Socialist Tendency, Workers' Solidarity All Together (ATG), expressed critical support for Moon. Internationally, some 552 intellectuals from 58 countries also expressed their opposition to Park and concern for the future of South Korea's democracy in an open statement.

Park's camp, meanwhile, attempted to downplay the association between the candidate and her father's dictatorial regime. When the Asian edition of Time magazine featured Park on the cover with the title "The Strongman's Daughter" on December 17, the NFP translated it as "The Strong Leader's Daughter." Such "mistranslation" aroused criticism of NFP's political honesty. From early 2012, foreign journalists reported being pressured by NFP members to refrain from using the term "dictator" to describe Park Chung-hee.

And while South Korea's conservative media typically has shown little concern for women's issues, they didn't hesitate to trumpet Park's victory as a step forward for women.

According to the World Economic Forum's "Global Gender Gap Report 2012," South Korea ranks 108 out of 135 countries. While Park's victory may seem like an ideological advance for Korean women who've been forced to endure daily sexism, it's doubtful whether Park will make any significant changes to better the lives of ordinary South Korean women.

Last August, for example, Park stayed silent when the country's Constitutional Court ruled abortion a criminal offense. And when the Korean National Council of Women (KNCW), along with the Korean Women's Association United (KWAU) and Women News invited presidential candidates to a discussion on the policies of gender equality, Park was the only candidate to repeatedly ignore the invitation.

According to a December 13 statement from KWAU, "Park has never proposed any bills that are related to women's interests despite her emphasis on becoming the 'female president.' We are warning Park not to take any free-ride on 'femininity,' which was built out of the deaths and sufferings of women that she has neglected."

Indeed, women's issues are beyond the scope of Park's political interests, considering her record of supporting budget reductions for the government's Ministry of Gender Equality. Likewise, it is telling that Park's campaign attracted endorsement from Men's Solidarity, a group committed to fighting "feminism" as a core problem of Korean society, due to their common opposition to Ministry of Gender Equality.

And as a country with the highest wage gap between men and women among OECD nations, and where female labor represents 70 percent of all irregular workers, recognizing the connection between gender and labor issues is absolutely crucial.

South Korean economist Kim Sang-jo stated, "[Park] doesn't have any plans to alter the structures of chaebol ownership and their concentration of economic power." Considering that these "concentrations of economic power" are being maximized with surplus labor through labor market flexibility and wage discrimination in particular against female workers, it's very obvious where Park stands.

Indeed, Park's victory has attracted different responses based on various class interests. The chaebol and other dominant capitalists showed signs of relief at Park's victory, and didn't hesitate to send their congratulatory messages immediately after Park's victory

Meanwhile, 12 different women's labor organizations gathered on January 3 to issue statements focusing on the urgency of layoffs and irregular workers' issues. Kim Hyun-mi, KCTU's commissioner of emergency preparation stated "We are going to declare our struggle against the female president if she doesn't anticipate to come up with solutions for labor issues and for female workers."

BESIDES THE chaebol, Washington is also happy about Park's victory. Obama congratulated the new president, saying, "I look forward to working closely with the Park administration to further enhance our extensive cooperation with the Republic of Korea (ROK) on a wide range of important bilateral, regional and global issues."

Obama also praised Lee for his efforts "to strengthen U.S.-ROK relations and promote a global Korea." Obama has good reason for the kind words for Lee: it was his administration that helped increase the role of U.S. military in the region, using the pretext of North Korea's supposed attack on the Choenan in 2010.

The U.S. has exploited tension between North and South Korea to increase its hegemony in the region--including increasing its military presence on the island of Okinawa, Japan, and building naval bases on South Korea's Jeju Island. As a leader who once vowed to turn Jeju Island into the "Hawaii of the East," Washington has good reason to believe that Park will be compliant with U.S. military aims in the region.

So what should one get take away from the results of this election? South Korean conservative newspaper Chosun Ilbo wrote, "This election, which was the collision between 'Park Chung-hee's daughter' versus 'Roh Moo-hyun's chief of staff,' was also a fight between the memories of Park Chung-hee's era versus Roh Moo-hyun's era."

But for many, "memories of Park Chung-hee's era" were set in relief against economic insecurity under Roh's neoliberal policies, while nostalgia for Roh also developed out of increasing attacks on democracy under Lee. Thus, this election was essentially about bitterness against today's neoliberalism versus bitterness against an historic dictatorship.

Park's presidency will be particularly challenging for the South Korean left. Committed activists are expecting increased attacks against the working class and an intensification of "red scares" through a ramping up of a witch-hunt against a "pro-North Korean left" aimed at dividing the radical left.

But Park's presidency won't go unchallenged either. On the road to victory came revelations about Park's past corruption, including receiving huge sums of illicit money from former dictator Chun Doo-hwan and her ties to a scandal-ridden foundation.

As ATG commented in a statement after the election, "Already Park had to get rid of many of her associates in the course of her campaign to prevent corruption scandals turning into [presidential road] nightmares. Such divisions among the ruling class can give workers the confidence to fight back."

Such divisions may also provide the momentum to help overcome the current disarray that many South Korean progressives face, while helping to organize the broad left into solidarity and a united front. While Park may have won the election, this fight is far from over.

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