“The sovereignty of the Republic of Korea shall reside in the people and the authority shall emanate from the people.”
-Section 2, Article 1, Chapter 1, Constitution of the Republic of Korea
Populism as defined in Benjamin Moffitt’s The Global Rise of Populism: Performance, Political Style. And Representation is the use by popular leaders of the strategy of pitting the “people” against the “elites” in the name of popular sovereignty. Together with their anti-elitist and anti-pluralist rhetoric and their reliance on new media technologies like social media most populist gains support from people who are no longer satisfied with the establishment due to inadequate management of issues, such as corruption, high unemployment rate, mass immigration, etc., that have highly affected the people. With the current and emerging international and domestic challenges that require more than the usual actions, the rise of populism has become more evident than ever with populist leaders like Donald Trump of the United States, Rodrigo Duterte of the Philippines, and many more came into power. Has this populist trend also have reached Northeast Asia, particularly South Korea?
In December 2016 until March 2017 the world witnessed one of the largest protests in the history of South Korea since 1987 where the South Koreans mobilized against the military junta in order to achieve democratic reforms. Also known as Candlelight Revolution, these series of protests mobilized millions of South Koreans throughout the country to the streets holding candle lights in response to the corruption, cronyism, and influence-peddling scandals of then-South Korean President Park Geun-Hye and her confidante, Choi Soon-Sil. Every Saturday, for several weeks, people gathered at city centers calling for Park Geun-Hye’s impeachment and often singing the first article of the South Korean Constitution. Such an event was a success for democracy that with the power of the people, a state leader who broke the public’s trust was taken down from her office in a nonviolent way and faced several legal charges against her.
Then enters Moon Jae-in, a liberal human rights lawyer of the progressive left Minjoo Party (Democratic Party of Korea) who won the 2017 presidential elections, ending the nine years of conservative rule of the Saenuri Party (Liberty Korea Party). During his presidential campaign, President Moon pledged to ease tension with North Korea through open dialogues and work on its denuclearization, and to strengthen diplomatic and economic relations with the United States, Japan, China, and Russia. Domestically, he pledged to increase in employment opportunities and to reform the chaebols or large family-owned business conglomerates. The South Koreans seemed hopeful with the presidency of President Moon that a year after he came into office, according to Realmeter, more than three in every four voters approved of the Moon administration. He was seen as a hero of the masses with an image of a corruption fighter in South Korea’s long history of government corruption. He used populist strategies such as having close dialogues with the people through social media and implementing policies that are favorable to the people, but not to the chaebols such as raising the taxes for corporations and individuals in the highest income brackets and improving welfare programs for the working class.
Nonetheless, similar to his predecessors the second half of his single five-year term has been tarnished by scandals. The first scandal was in December 2018, when the Saenuri Party revealed a petition on the blacklisting by the Ministry of Environment of twenty-four public servants based on their conservative political leaning. The second was the opinion rigging scandal of South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, an ally to President Moon, conducted before the 2017 polls. The latest scandal that dealt another heavy blow to the Moon administration is the corruption scandal of President Moon’s appointed justice minister Cho Kuk’s family. Although President Moon is not directly involved still amid all these, in a survey conducted by Gallup Korea, his approval rating has dropped to 39% with 53% stating that they disapprove of the Moon administration. To further add fuel to the fire, frustrations over the stagnant economic growth, widening income inequality, soaring youth unemployment, the deadlock dialogue with North Korea over denuclearization, arguments over the deployment of a U.S. anti-missile system known as Terminal High-Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) with U.S., China’s economic coercion and boycotts as a result of the THAAD deployment, and then back to square one negotiation with Japan over the comfort women issue has really put the Moon administration in a tough place. In addition, he is facing pork-barrel allegations as a result of rushing 23 state-led projects which cost around the US $2.5 billion without undergoing feasibility studies. It seems that the Moon administration also would not be able to stop the boom-and-bust cycle of South Korean presidents.
In the populist playbook, with his popularity during the first year of his presidency and his populist policymaking approach such as his chaebol policy, President Moon is a populist leader, but not the same kind of populist leader usually seen in Europe and Latin America. South Korea’s populism, as described by Sook Jong Lee’s South Korea’s Tamed Populism: Popular Protests From Below and Populist Politics from the Top is the kind of vertical populism that possesses the element of anti-elitism where popular decision holds more legitimacy than the elites. More often South Korean politicians use this scenario in gaining direct and emotional support from the people. As the dropping of President Moon’s approval ratings and similar to the case of his predecessors, the country’s populism seems to not have a charismatic populist leader at its center. Most of South Korea’s political discourse was on the moral debates where most popular protests against the establishments are on issues of corruption. However, as the high degree of mass mobilization executed during the Candlelight Revolution, growing impatience on the establishment’s long cycle of corruption is now being fueled with issues in the country, particularly the stagnant economic growth and the soaring unemployment rate among the young generation of South Koreans.
Furthermore, amid the Candlelight Revolution against then-President Park Geun-Hye, some political neophytes like Seoul mayor Park Won-soon and Seongnam Mayor Lee Jae-Myung have emerged with the populist rhetoric of blaming the current turmoil in the country to the chaebols. Although they did not seem to be as charismatic enough. Sook Jong Lee warned about the danger of overwhelming power of popular support that could undermine the norm of institutional forbearance in a democracy. With the growing popular dissatisfaction towards the establishments, humans by nature might tend to prioritize practical issues like unemployment rather than moral debates on democracy. Thus, as long as the international, and mainly the domestic issues in South Korea have not been adequately addressed by the present administration and in the long run between the two main political parties, there is still a possibility of a dark horse emerging and a different kind of populism might then stand a chance in South Korea. Even so, there is still the tenacious watchdogs, the media that guards South Korea’s democracy.
Moffitt, B. (2016). The global rise of populism: Performance, political style, and representation. Stanford University Press.
Lee, S.J. (2019). [Working Paper] South Korea’s Tamed Populism: Popular Protests From Below and Populist Politics from the Top”. Working Papers Series: Populism in Asia 1.The East Asia Institute.
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Kim, H.A. (2019). “Political scandals hang over Moon’s rush to populist projects”. East Asia Forum. Retrieved from: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2019/03/11/political-scandals-hang-over-moons-rush-to-populist-projects/
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Lee, J. (2019). “South Korea’s Moon sees approval rating hit new low amid scandal”. Bloomberg. Retrieved from: https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2019-10-18/south-korea-s-moon-sees-approval-rating-hit-new-low-amid-scandal
Kim, C. and Chung, J. (2017). “Factbox: South Korean President-elect Moon’s main policy pledges”. Reuters. Retrieved from: https://www.reuters.com/article/us-southkorea-election-moon-policies-fac/factbox-south-korean-president-elect-moons-main-policy-pledges-idUSKBN1851M4
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Photo Retrieved from: https://www.scmp.com/week-asia/politics/article/3032382/south-korean-justice-chief-scandal-inflames-anger-countrys
This article raises an important point regarding the type of populism currently prevalent in South Korea. Unique to this country case is the observation that Moon Jae-In does not have the charisma so common to populist leaders across the world regardless of political orientation. It calls to mind then the question that if he does not possess the usual populist charisma, how is he still in power? Was his political ascent mainly a backlash to the corruption allegations faced by his predecessor, Park Geun-Hye? Given the point on morality stressed by the article, is there then a trend that South Koreans currently appear to be single issue voters specifically on the matter of corruption? How can that still be the case when South Korea faces so much geopolitical insecurity as well as the rising unemployment among younger generations as emphasized in this article?
This article also presents an excellent framing of the polarization in South Korean society – the divide between the chaebols and the masses. The point is interesting not in the least because of its uniqueness – the specific concept of chaebols exists nowhere else. As the article states, the current leaders of South Korea have not been able to capitalize on this polarization as a means of strengthening their hold as populists. While that may mean a future loss for Moon Jae-In, it is also good news for South Korean democracy that it has neither been captured by opportunistic populists nor divided irreparably by pernicious polarization.