Most South Koreans greeted Moon Jae-in’s election as president on May 9 with a huge sigh of relief. Not only does his comfortable victory close almost a decade of painful conservative rule, but it also might conclude perhaps the biggest — and certainly the most bizarre — political scandal since the country’s founding in 1948.
Moon won 13.4 million votes (41 percent) against his conservative rival Hong Jun-pyo’s 7.8 million votes (24 percent). The election represented a major defeat for South Korea’s reactionary conservative forces, but we will have to wait to see if Moon can meet the expectations of the millions of South Koreans who fought to throw his predecessor out of office.
Even if Moon sincerely means his election promises, he will find it very difficult to challenge the deep-seated structures that created South Korea’s culture of state-capital collusion and allowed the nation’s chaebols (conglomerates) to gain dominance. Further, Moon may prove unable — or even willing — to make the kinds of changes that would address the country’s most pressing issues: youth unemployment, soaring inequality, and a crisis-prone political system. Perhaps most significantly of all, it seems unlikely that Moon will cut the Gordian knot that binds South Korea to the United States and keeps it at the center of Northeast Asia’s geopolitical vortex.
Many observers have labeled Moon, a member of South Korea’s opposition Democratic Party, a liberal or even a progressive, but, as ever, these terms tend to be both vague and relative in their meaning. Compared to South Korea’s hardcore political conservatives — whom Hong, a member of the Liberty Korea Party, represented in this election — Moon holds liberal views. The son of refugees who fled the northern city of Hungnam during the Korean War, Moon is an activist for democracy and a human rights lawyer with a history of fighting South Korea’s authoritarian governments. During the campaign, he promised to negotiate with North Korea, improve conditions for South Korean workers, and clean up the country’s corrupt political system.
At the same time, however, he belongs to the Catholic Church and holds some socially conservative views. When asked during a debate about the military’s persecution of gay soldiers, Moon responded that he opposed homosexuality in general. On the campaign trail, he emphasized national security and played up his credentials as a former member of South Korea’s special forces, signaling that the country’s deep state had nothing to fear from his victory.
Many see Moon’s election as a return to the ten years of liberal rule under Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun (1998–2008), and Moon did serve as chief of staff to the latter president. But this prospect doesn’t fill those who remember what actually happened in that decade with much hope.
Moon’s liberal predecessors in many ways created South Korea’s current social landscape. Following the 1997 East Asian Crisis, Kim’s and Roh’s administrations casualized the workforce on a mass scale, dismantled elements of the developmental state, and began negotiating free-trade agreements, most notably with the United States and the European Union.
The subsequent reactionary administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye clawed back many of South Korea’s democratic gains in areas from human and labor rights to freedom of the press and relations with North Korea.
President Park is the daughter of the former dictator Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979. The older generation, nostalgic for the days before South Korea’s neoliberal turn, formed the core of her support.
Once in office, however, she did not turn the clock back on the country’s political economy or rein in the chaebol — which almost every newly elected South Korean president promises to do — but rather led an incompetent administration that stumbled from mistake to mistake and lashed out viciously at its opponents.
The Sewol ferry accident marked Park’s most tragic failure and almost certainly began her downfall. This disaster brought her incompetence and callousness as well as the deeper structural fault lines of South Korean society into stark relief. It created a general crisis of confidence among citizens, who suddenly realized that the state and the business elites not only can’t safeguard the lives of South Koreans but simply won’t take on such a responsibility.
The moment clearly illustrated that South Korea has become a peculiar hybrid of a Cold War–developmental state and hypercompetitive neoliberal dystopia. The government still places economic development and defending against the “red menace” as its most important tasks, just as it has since the country’s founding amid anticommunist massacres in 1948. However, neoliberal policies have joined this orientation, leading to a rapid deregulation of the labor market, finance sector, and educational institutions. This combination has created a rampantly competitive society that has the second highest suicide rate in the world.
The ever-increasing pressures of South Korean life, especially on young people, led to the sardonic renaming of the country as “Hell Joseon,” which refers to the autocratic dynasty that ended in 1910. The nickname implies that, despite all of the country’s suffering to achieve modernity and democracy, it has traveled full circle and returned to a new oligarchical and feudal system under which ordinary citizens have little hope of improvement.
Major resistance movements bookended the decade of reactionary rule. Lee’s presidency opened with a huge protest, ostensibly against American beef imports, and the Choi Soon-shil scandal sealed Park’s fate. Millions of South Koreans poured into the streets last fall to protest this epic political drama, which left the former president and the current de facto head of Samsung, Lee Jae-yong, in jail awaiting trial.
South Korea has seen a series of great popular uprisings, from the April Revolution of 1960 to the 1980 Gwangju Uprising and the democratic revolution of 1987. Unlike these, the government did not attempt to suppress the 2016–17 movement by force, probably due to the administration’s weakness and the splits that fractured the ruling class. Even the elite’s pet journal, the Chosun Ilbo newspaper, came out against the president.
It seems likely that a huge and popular movement will produce major changes in South Korean society, just as the June 1987 movement did almost thirty years ago. The key questions then center around whether Moon can fulfill the protesters’ demands and around what this moment means for the country’s left.
Challenges to Come
While we can’t yet assess Moon’s actual performance, we can read some early signposts. His acceptance speech deployed a series of empty platitudes: he promised to be a president for all the people and to bring unity to the country. At the same time, Moon enacted a number of popular measures in his first days in office that an optimist might take as evidence of his future direction: he abolished the hated history textbooks Park introduced, announced that all irregular workers at Incheon Airport would be given permanent status, and promised to participate fully in the upcoming memorial events for the Gwangju Uprising.
During the campaign Moon promised to raise the minimum wage, create 810,000 public-sector jobs, and prioritize hiring young people. Even if he fulfills these promises, however, he will struggle to tackle youth unemployment or the economy’s deeper woes — such as the shipbuilding industry’s near collapse — as long as he remains wedded to his liberal predecessors’ model of deregulation.
He must also face the international crisis surrounding North Korea, which much of the world has been obsessed with since the beginning of the year. Even though a recent poll showed that less than a quarter of South Korean voters saw North Korea’s nuclear weapons program or the THAAD antimissile system as the most pressing for the nation, Moon will have to deal with both.
This will be a difficult needle to thread: he must follow through on his promise to re-engage with North Korea without upsetting either US president Donald Trump or Chinese president Xi Jinping. His response to the THAAD system — which the United States hurriedly deployed during the presidential campaign in a clear attempt to preempt any decisions made by the new administration — will be an early test.
Moon criticized the antimissile system during the campaign and has promised to renegotiate it, but that doesn’t mean he will force the United States to withdraw it. Even the supposedly “anti-American” President Roh remained steadfastly loyal to the United States, sending troops to Iraq and signing the very unpopular free-trade agreement.
Moon has given no indication that he will be any different. He may improve relations with North Korea, but the relations between the United States, North Korea, and to an extent China will continue to impact any possible rapprochement. Even the best-intentioned South Korean president cannot sidestep American imperialism or the global conflict developing between the United States and China.
We might expect that an uprising on the scale of the candlelight movement would provide a major opportunity for South Korea’s social-democratic and radical left. Unfortunately, like a number of other popular movements in recent years, this protest wave did not lead to a dramatic revival of progressive politics or a significant overhaul of the constitution and political system, as occurred after the 1960 April Revolution. No new Podemos-like political force has emerged from Gwanghwamun Square, and all the movement can boast today is an electoral shift from the right to the center.
That said, the current incarnation of South Korea’s social-democratic party, the Justice Party, had the best showing of any left-wing party in the recent elections. Its candidate, Sim Sang-jung, took over two million votes and around 6 percent of the national vote.
This achievement could provide a good foundation in coming years, provided that the party does not associate itself too closely with the Moon administration or fall prey to the likely wave of co-optation that the liberal government will enact.
While the European left fights to revive its history of genuine social-democratic politics, South Korea has long struggled to establish a stable left political force. Decades of Cold War authoritarianism still weigh heavily on the country’s politics, manifesting as a red scare mentality, regionalism, and regular, state-led attacks on even moderate left-wing parties.
The South Korean labor movement has faced severe repression for the past decade, but it showed important signs of revival in the last years of Park’s presidency. The militant railway strike of December 2013 represented one high point. Inevitably, the state crushed even this tentative reemergence of working-class militancy. Park ordered an unprecedented raid on the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) headquarters and jailed its leader, Han Sang-gyun, for having helped organize protest rallies in 2015.
Despite this repression, the labor activists played an active role in the recent movement, planning some of the largest rallies last fall. The radical left also participated in the protests’ organizational apparatus, alongside a broader range of civil society groups and NGOs.
However, this renewal has not yet translated either into an upsurge of worker militancy — as happened immediately following the June 1987 democratic uprising — or into a general political radicalization that could reverse the long-term decline of South Korea’s radical left.
At the same time, the new administration will likely struggle to re-establish politics as usual. Many South Koreans want serious changes to their political system, and the geopolitical situation looks even less stable now that a provocative bully is directing US imperialism. South Korea’s best hope over the coming months will come from the movement of the streets and the squares.
People must stay mobilized not only to hold Moon to his promises on youth employment and casualization but also to maintain peace and reverse the THAAD deployment, which threatens to draw South Korea deeper into the US-China conflict.