University of California, Los Angeles

“South Korea, the Timely Greenhouse for Populism” by Jaeyoon Min @UCLA

When the candlelight vigil had finally led to the impeachment of South Korea’s 18th president, Park Geun-hye, its people staged to the world that their democracy prevails. However, the 2016 Park Scandal also revealed how easy it was to manipulate faux democracy under the name of “liberal democracy”. Indeed, the great contrast to its dictated counterpart in the north and the economic development following the superficial patterns of the largest democratic nations had empowered South Korea’s democratic mask, to begin with. Now with Park and her friends trialed and multiple factors of democratic erosion revealed, it seems reasonable to anticipate a more transparent democracy. However, the truth is that the Populist air still looms over the Southern Peninsula.

After Park was impeached in 2017, an earlier 19th presidential election was carried out. The battle was mainly between the progressive leftist, Democratic Party of Korea, and the conservative rightist, Liberty Korea Party. During this period, social divisions such as the regional divide between the Southern east Yeongnam and Southern west Honam, generation gap between the young and the old and the economic elites versus the working class surfaced again. On account of this, Moon Jae-in from the Democratic Party of Korea was elected as the next president.

President Moon received large support from the Honam region, the young generation, and the working class. His background as the leader of student demonstrations against dictatorship in the 70s and as an intimate comrade to the greatly missed humanitarian, ex-president No Mu-hyun played as significant factors in gaining these supporters. Thus, it is undeniable that he has an image of a hero, who symbolizes the victory of democracy and the welfare of the mass. It is not surprising that he has his birthday celebrated in Times Square ads by fans like a Kpop star and the First Lady’s fashion ranking first on search portals. In addition, his frequent appearance in public events and interactions through the Facebook page “establishes a face-to-face contact with a large number of citizens” as quoted by Kurt Weyland. Indeed, it is fortunate that the leader of a country is loved by many, but the tendency to idolize a politician is a little worrying. Moreover, populists tend to idolize a leader with a strong persona.

Likewise, President Moon’s policies give a shout-out to those ‘ordinary people’ in the middle and lower class. Private companies that had controlled the market monopoly are now tied in the hands of the government and education is fated by the Minister of Education who argues for the abolishment of Special purpose/ Private High schools. People can buy private products with lower price and could anticipate a fairer chance for high-quality education. Supposedly, the elites are furious and the middle class are satisfied. However, whether these policies are effective solutions to the majority or are mere populist ideals is yet to be proved. So far, the economic backfire from forcefully controlling the financial industry remains a skeptical solution even for the mass. That is, the ideals for “everyone” is still on the clouds.

In addition, the minority immigrant population are still legally muted and discriminated. Legislations against crackdown deportation or for unregistered immigrants have not been established and immigrant women still need to have her husband’s guarantee of identity in order to stay. These issues stay untracked due to concerns about job opportunities for Korean citizens.

These concerns could seem absurd, as President Moon’s government look transparent enough on the outskirt. Some people say, “What can be worse than the two previous administrations that corrupted our democracy?” However, as mentioned above, there are elements of populism that makes a populist government possible. Also, considering the long history of the conservative being the ruling party, there stands a danger of the rightist populism in the near future too.

Firstly, the deep-rooted regionalism and organized patrons of the Park family make the nation vulnerable to rightist populism. The regional voting culture in the Southeastern part has many voters blindly supporting the right party. For instance, Hong Jun-pyo candidate from Liberty Korea Party received around 47% of the votes while Moon Jae-in got only 21%. Mr. Hong was compared with Donald Trump at that time, as he made sexist and absurd comments like “dishwashing is for women”. But despite his characteristics and doubtful abilities, he scored high in that region. The right party has an insured population of supporters they could mobilize if they want. Regarding Park family adherents, there are groups such as Taeguekki (Korean national flag) units and Parksamo (a group of Park lovers). They spread propaganda similar to that of the North Korean sanctification of Kim family and elevates Park’s father and herself as powerful figures. This is very much like the populist way of forming a group of supporters and maintaining it. Furthermore, if the economic recession continues during the Moon administration, the far right’s vote will increase. The likelihood of the formation of new far-right populist parties will go up too.

It hasn’t even been a year since the new administration anchored its new policies. People triumph the fall of the corrupt government and anticipate a different picture during Moon’s presidency. In the hope for a more democratic nation, these populist factors that are rather unheeded by celebrations towards the new phase should be looked out for.

Reference Links


The Threat from the Populist Left -Kurt Weyland

Ads Celebrating President Moon’s Birthday Appears in Times Square

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