South Korea’s Conservatives in Eclipse

The collapse of the conservatives in South Korea’s June 13 local elections was the result of a failure to respond to the Moon Jae-in administration’s reconciliation between the two Koreas and the overall peace offensive. Not only did the conservatives not respond properly to the changing security framework, they also did not perceive the chance to raise socio-economic issues.

This is important, because the future reorganization of South Korean politics will probably take place on the plane of socio-economic conflict -- the market approach versus the welfare approach.

After democratization, the major factors that propelled South Korean elections were structured along cleavages involving security, the Cold War and anti-communism vs.peace and coexistence, socio-economic conflicts over growth and wealth distribution, and a regional rivalry between Yeongnam in the southeast and Honam in the southwest.

Dynamism in the June elections was a combination of these cleavages, and the psychology of voters and the strategies of politicians formed through issues such as the political failure of incumbents, economic failures, political scandals, impeachments, or candlelight vigils.

As a result, the landslide by the Minjoo Party, also known as the Democratic Party of Korea, and the Liberty Korea Party’s crushing defeat in the elections should be analyzed in the framework of interactions between these cleavages and political issues.

From a Pro-North to a Peace Framework

Conservatism in South Korean politics has its roots in the paradox that equates anti-communism with liberal democracy, the result of the nation’s division following the Korean War. Since democratization, an ideology of security based on anti-communism and the South Korea-US alliance divided Honam and Yeongnam, deferred the civil rights and labor movements, and silenced debate over the rights of women and minorities.

The “Pro-North” framework resulted in conservatives dominating the lay of the land, despite the Kim Dae-jung administration’s engagement policy towards North Korea and the two summits between the Koreas in 2000 and 2007.

However, the Moon administration’s successful summit with North Korea and the summit between the US and North Korea in Singapore triggered groundbreaking changes in the security framework. It transformed the structure of contrast between the Cold War, war and hostility and peace, harmony and co-existence into the one between the past and the future.

Indeed, in the backdrop of the transition lie political events such as the personalization of state affairs between Park Geun-hye and Choi Soon-sil, candlelight vigils in which 15 million people participated, the subsequent impeachment of President Park, the inauguration of the Moon administration, and the imprisonment of former Presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak. The high approval rating of President Moon, at around 70 percent, has also played a role.

Adding to this, other issues, either central or local, were encroached upon by the reconciliation process and the path to peace that started with a single team in the PyeongChang Olympic Winter Games and the summits between the two Koreas and North Korea and the US. These dominated the elections.

This process has highlighted the flexibility of progressives. They stood against security arguments of conservatives with anti-American ideology, reflected in former President Roh Moo-hyun’s classic question, “And what about anti-Americanism?”

However, the Moon administration took a mediating role between North Korea and the US, claiming to be the “driver of the Korean Peninsula,” embracing the power dynamics of the South Korea-US alliance. He showed strategic flexibility by accepting realism in his idealistic view on South-North Korea relations and international relations. This was enough to wipe out concerns about progressive radicalism in the relationship between the two Koreas and the US and North Korea.

The conservatives, on the other hand, were helpless. They engaged in no introspection on their political failures and corruption over the last nine years. Regardless of being pro-Park Geun-hye or reformist conservatives, they were busy hoping that the raging waves of anger aimed at rooting out corruption would pass by. They had an extremely hard time finding nominees. They didn’t progress even an inch and were occupied with their old and outdated pro-North framework. They labeled the president’s bill to amend the constitution as “a show to turn the constitution socialist” and the summit between the two Koreas a “disguised peace show” or “a concealed agreement between North Korea’s Kim and his followers in South Korea.”

People found no reason to support a party that holds no regret for the past, no message for today, and no blueprint for the future.

Liberty Korea Party Inertia

During the local elections, the conservative parties failed to emphasize socio-economic issues. Although the peace issue dominated the elections, economic challenges lurk in South Korea, such as the sluggish manufacturing sector, the side effects of reduced working hours and an increased minimum wage, and unprecedented youth unemployment.

The beginning of socio-economic ideology in South Korean politics began alongside the era of neoliberalism. Economic liberalization after the 1980s, the 1997-98 financial crisis, and the 2008 global financial crisis led to the collapse of the middle class and economic polarization, as ideological conflict entered the debate over the economy. The liberal-conservative conflict has underscored the conflict between welfare states and the free market ideology, including redistributive equality versus productive efficiency, advocacy of market intervention by the state versus its rejection, and democratic regulation of market order versus deregulation.

However, this competitive discourse has not been properly reflected in elections, because they have been overshadowed by the security framework. The parties have not competed intensely enough to win the ideological contest in this area.

The conservative parties should have emphasized the socio-economic conflict in responding to the changes in the security framework. Although the Liberty Korea Party quickly changed its slogan from “will you hand over the entire nation” to “will you hand over the entire economy,” they were still trapped inside the security framework.

Worst of all, the party leader made blunt remarks such as “there are a lot of commies in Changwon,” “the North Korea nuclear show is a camouflaged peace show,” and “the US has been unilaterally played by Kim Jong Un.” They committed the folly described in George Lakoff’s book, Don’t Think of an Elephant, where he argues against using the language and framework of competitors, because it only strengthens that framework.

Where is Grassroots Democracy Headed?

In the local elections, the Moon administration and the Minjoo Party had a clear landslide victory, meaning they will tightly hold leadership over the future of state affairs. It is expected that the Moon administration will continue to move toward abolishing deep-rooted evils and toward creating a just society with a high support rating of 70 percent, based on the political landscape that has emerged from candlelight vigils that led to Park’s downfall.

However, the socio-economic issues in the shadow of inter-Korean issues will surely emerge more strongly in the future. The unemployment rate is not improving. Youth unemployment is increasing every day, and it is expected that the number of people who give up looking for work and the number of long-term unemployed will increase. Furthermore, the issue of increasing the minimum wage will be triggered again when the government arrives at a final decision, or from the early implementation stage. Consumer prices are also increasing every day. Moreover, the economic growth rate is not expected to meet predictions.

The candlelight vigils undoubtedly took procedural democracy to another level, but South Korean politics now faces a value debate surrounding substantive democracy from a socio-economic perspective. Economic growth does not guarantee democratization, but there will be conflict between the idea that democracy cannot survive without economic growth and demands for more welfare and redistribution of wealth.

It is certainly a dilemma that the Moon in administration will have to face. If there are not achievements in various public welfare issues, the future anticipated by the candlelight vigils may be stalled. From the socio-economic perspective, we can look forward to healthy competition between the re-introduction of conservative leadership equipped with the principles of new conservatism and the Moon administration and the Minjoo Party’s policies of “income-led growth.”

Finally, identity confusion can be found in local politics swept by the Minjoo Party. Some elected local leaders and assembly members from the Minjoo Party were part of the past conservative party or wealthy local powers from their areas. Their “swing” toward the Minjoo Party will without doubt produce policy confusion in local politics in the future. The consolidation of democracy is preconditioned on the development of consistent identity between local and central parties. Active monitoring by mature citizens will be necessary.

Sungdai Cho is a Professor of International Relations, Hanshin University. This was written for the East Asia Foundation, a Seoul-based think tank. The views expressed are those of the author.