South Korea is an essential player in the economic and military equilibrium of the Indo-Pacific, think for example, of the importance of multinationals such as Samsung and LG in the telephony and microchip sector. Beyond the 38th parallel, the Pyongyang missile tests while the rising assertiveness of Beijing remind Seoul that perhaps the time has come to make a firm and decisive decision within the Asian chessboard. In this regard, we interviewed Prof. Giuseppina De Nicola who teaches Modern and Contemporary History of Korea at the Department of Literature and Philosophy of Sapienza and the Italian Institute of Oriental Studies.
The presidential elections of the Republic of Korea come at a historical moment in which internal problems and international dynamics overlap. Polls predict a leadership change at the Blue House, with Attorney General Yoon as the likely new Head of State. In the contemporary history of the Republic of Korea, are these changes of ruling parties associated with radical changes in the country’s internal and foreign policy?
Korean politics identify in two important political forces, the one that defines itself as “conservative” or “right, centre-right” and the more “liberal” one called “left, centre-left”. These political forces have always taken two different positions in domestic and foreign politics.
The former has always domestically favoured the big industrial giants, the upper-middle-class elite, and, in its foreign policy, has always been very close to the United States and in principle not very reconcilable with North Korea. The left or liberal current has favoured the working class, social welfare, the gender issues, has always been very conciliatory with North Korea and in recent times also with China, therefore apparently less pro-American.
Since the birth of the democratic state in South Korea in the 1990s, the change in political power has always materialized in a drastic change in both domestic and foreign politics, a characteristic that has historical roots, that is, access to party-based factionalism, dating back to to the Joseon dynasty. This period, which goes from the fifteenth to the end of the nineteenth century, an era defined as “pre-modern”, was characterized, in fact, by aggressive political factionalism. When different factions seized power in the king’s court, there were violent upheavals in leadership, represented by real purges of the opposition.
Today, we still find this characteristic strongly present even in the democratic process. The two main parties do not spare critical blows to their opponents, especially in the immediate moment following the electoral reversal. We saw it with Lee Myung-bak, when the left, which first ruled with Kim Dae-jung in the late 1990s and then with Roh Moo-hyun in the early 2000s, once the regime changed, initiated legal processes against him and president Park Geun-hye.
Factionalism is a feature of South Korean politics that currently scares the national electorate, highly questioning it. For example, although candidate Yoon is slightly ahead in the polls, his voters are afraid of this traditional component of politics, namely the pillory and arrests of opposition members.
Another critical component of South Korean politics is regionalism, which determined the country’s political fortunes in the past. However, the relevance of this element has gradually diminished since the real political game is played in the metropolis of Seoul, where we find a melting pot of regions. Within the city, the candidate’s regional membership issue gets lost.
This characteristic also has its roots in traditional localism, a legacy of pre-modern culture that some scholars interpret as an extension of the Confucian family’s ideology. This ideology underlines the importance of relational ties in forming one’s political vision. Regionalism is therefore seen as a sense of belonging. However, today this phenomenon tends to be less relevant since the new generations no longer recognize themselves in that value of collectivism and community but are increasingly projected towards forms of individualism.
The proposals, the generational factor, which will be decisive, especially in these elections, and the gender issues present on the political agenda of both sides, become so relevant.
I believe that in foreign policy, the situation will not change. Even if, as mentioned above, the Conservative Party and the Progressive-Liberal Party have different views, both recognize the importance of the alliance with the United States and China’s volume on an economic level vis-à-vis South Korea.
As the needs within the country have changed considerably since the last elections, The North Korean question, a bulwark of the Moon Jae-in campaign, becomes secondary compared to today’s Korea’s problems: A truly significant generational change. Perhaps more than in other countries, this shift is characterized by a demographic crisis.
The latter is determined by one of the lowest birth rates in the world, with an ageing population that needs to regenerate all policies. It is on these points that it will be necessary to observe the positioning of whoever wins, concerning the needs of the real country, to understand the future dynamics of the sides.
Therefore, the political game will be played above all on domestic politics. If candidate Yoon wins, surely there will be problems relating to the gender issues since the former prosecutor has already declared that he wants to abolish the Ministry of Equal Opportunities. This declaration raises the concerns of feminist moments, which are very active today in Korea. This factor represents an unknown: the female audience, who will vote?
It is known that both candidates are not the best candidates that Koreans expected, which throws even more uncertainty about the actual outcome of this election. Even within the youth audience, we may find many undecided. However, both will have to deal with significant problems, such as a certain feeling of instability from the younger generations and an ageing society.
I would expect more changes internally than from a foreign policy point of view; I add some big changes, in this sense, and the margin of difference in preferences, which was so evident in the past between the two political forces, tends to shrink more and more as the elections approach.
The victory in 2017 of Moon Jae-in was strongly influenced by the scandal that involved President Park Geun-hye, Choi Soon-sil, leader of a sect close to the Park family, and several exponents of the chaebol, the Family-run multinational conglomerates typical of South Korea. In your opinion, how much the real estate scandal that today involved various members of the ruling party may have influenced, and how much, instead, the policy of reunification of the peninsula, a workhorse of outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s election campaign?
First of all, it must be borne in mind that Moon Jae-in has been elected in a rather peculiar situation, with the scandals that hit President Park Geun-hye and the related impeachment. Moon Jae-in was an activist in the then “candle lights” movement, a movement that brought Koreans to the streets and actively participated in the impeachment of President Park.
Indeed the current president, at the time, had great support from the new generations who from that moment on became much more active and decisive in Korean politics. These have stayed away from political games within the country for a long time. Still, the question of President Park has inflamed the minds of the youngest, including the participation of teenagers.
Moon Jae-in, therefore, both for its history, which was preponderant in the participation of these movements, played “at home”. That is, he had enough fertile ground to win the elections. Indeed today, precisely those young people who had been close and had placed many hopes in him are very disillusioned and disappointed by these scandals, especially regarding the speculations on the real estate sector, which have put a strain on all Koreans. So much so that even in Korea, we are starting to see the phenomenon of young people staying in their parents’ homes for a long time precisely because there is no possibility of buying a house. This issue represents a new situation for the Korean population.
In addition, to contest the work of Moon Jae-in, the popular idiom “Naeronambul” (내로 남불) has spread throughout the country. This idiom can be translated as “when I do, it is a romantic adventure, when someone else does it is adultery”, a sort of “you don’t practise what you preach”. He preached the end of corruption, greater transparency and so on. Instead, he also found himself involved in various scandals. Undoubtedly this led a lot of the electorate that had supported him to change direction.
The question of the reunification of the peninsula also arouses many disputes. According to many polls and interviews, there is a widespread sentiment that pushes more towards accepting two distinct and separate states and not pursuing this reunification so coveted by Moon at all costs. Reunification is definitely no longer a priority for Koreans. Turning the spotlight on the North Korean question again, I don’t think it would bring more votes into Moon Jae-in’s party coffers.
In this case, the direction of the political narrative of the Democratic Party must be changed if the latter is to regain support. The game is still open: There still are many undecided voters. Both candidates ended up in that factionalist vortex even before being elected, with mutual scandals shared to the public. Within my acquaintances in Korea, some people have been displaced by this situation and fall within the undecided.
2021 was the year of the disappearance of two former presidents of the Republic: Roh Tae-woo and Chun Doo-hwan, in the space of about a month. Both were military and controversial figures in recent history, but they have known a different farewell from the government. The former received a state funeral because he repaid his debts towards society and had continually expressed, even within his last wishes, remorse for his involvement in the Gwanju Massacre of 1980. The latter, on the contrary, neither paid the compensation due for his corruption sentence nor made amends for his involvement in the event. Can it be said that a particular and controversial historical period has ended for Korea, or, on the contrary, the Country of the Morning Calm still has some accounts with the past risking influencing the course of its history for the years to come?
Indeed a painful chapter in Korean history ends, linked in particular to Chun Doo-hwan, in which Roh Tae-woo had a part, but the bulk of the faults regarding not only the Gwangju Massacre are attributable to the first. The year 2021 closes issues regarding that particular period of the 1980s internally. However, some open issues from the past may not be closed immediately, especially regarding relations in foreign policy, primarily with Japan.
We know well that the conservative party is much closer to the Land of the Rising Sun than the democratic one and, therefore, more welcoming about the issues of the colonial past. Still, we must not forget the pain caused by the profound wound in the sentiment of South Korean citizens, which they don’t let this aspect pass that easily.
We have also experienced it with President Park Geun-hye since her agreement about the comfort women with Tokyo joined all the discomforts South Koreans already perceived towards her government. Therefore, issues relating to the colonial period, which runs from 1910 to 1945, remain an open and unresolved wound.
As much as one wishes to ignore the North Korean matter, or to embrace it, in reality, it cannot be denied that South Korea is in a constant state of war. Visiting the country, one cannot perceive this feeling on a superficial level but only on a more profound tier. Just think of the north of Seoul, where you can see constant deployments of military forces or the large presence of American soldiers on the territory. These are situations that Koreans have to deal with daily, which are inevitably linked to the past and, therefore, to the history of the country.
Another issue to consider is the relationship with China, witnessing, at first, a moment of great harmony. However, the popular mood regarding this matter has led to a thaw in Sino-Korean relations. Although the right tends to be less pro-Chinese, in the event of Yoon’s victory, it will be necessary to renegotiate the political apparatus relating to relations with China ultimately; as already mentioned above, the relations with the Dragon are significant and cannot be completely ignored. The Conservative Party is well aware of this.
Although it had pretty close and vital relations for a while, even the left experienced frictions, such as China’s policy of boycotting even Korean cultural products. For example, the vision of the so-called k-drama, Korean soap operas, has been forbidden in China, although President Xi Xinping recently readmitted these cultural products. With the Dragon, relations are characterized by a fluctuating trend, which both factions will have to revise since the popular mood in Korea is very decisive in electoral terms. These historical and current issues are fundamental in understanding Korea’s path.
A final aspect to consider in analysing Korean politics is undoubtedly generational stratification. Most of the voters are divided into three generations: the over-fifties, the forties and the generation, which is acquiring a strongly socio-anthropological meaning, of the thirty-twenty-year-old. These bands reflect the electoral preferences of the population.
The over-fifties group tends to be conservative, therefore linked to anti-communist issues and, therefore, strongly anti-North Korean. The forties represent the post-democratic generation. The generation of civil rights, the “Generation X“, is the first to move away from the pillars of collectivist nationalism, or hierarchical organisational culture, favouring this individualism that is becoming increasingly popular in South Korea. This generation, oriented slightly more to the left, centre-left, acts as a bridge between the other two.
Young people between the ages of twenty and thirty today are the most crucial group were we to predict the future of South Korean democracy. This generation, highly educated, digital natives (the so-called millennials), is also the most vulnerable in the country due to the growing insecurity of work, increasingly inaccessible housing, as mentioned above, and the rapid automation of workplaces. This further problem also shifts electoral preferences. Many young South Koreans are also delaying the age of marriage, marrying late in life, having no children, or even giving up these aspirations completely, so much so that the term “Hell Joseon” was born.
Joseon is an archaic term that indicates the ruling dynasty in the peninsula and is also used to refer to the Korean state in pre-modern times. The expression in its entirety, “Hell Joseon”, connotes a hellish reality, characterised by intense socio-economic and class competition. These issues are prevalent among millennials and push many young people to emigrate abroad, deriding what they consider condescending and presumed superiority behaviours of the so-called “Baby boomers”, which are identified with the term kkondae (꼰대). There is a revolution and a generational clash currently in Korea that the political groups will certainly have to consider.
In these particular elections, however, a completely new phenomenon occurs for Korea: Many twenty-thirty-year-old, and in particular male voters, are oriented towards the right. To remain resilient and resist these socio-economic conflicts, the South Korean democracy must urgently and categorically address two general imperatives: To provide a sustainable economic future for young people and meet older generations’ material needs.
These are problems to which both sides are called to respond, and Korean politics, in the coming years, will focus precisely on the monumental task of bridging the gap between these two divergent demographic groups and responding to their different political needs.
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