This is a re-post of an op-ed I recently wrote for the Dong-A Daily newspaper. It is follow-up to my post from two weeks ago on the future of the South Korean conservative party.
The post of two weeks ago was a diagnosis of the Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) ills. I argued that post-Park Geun Hye, the LKP had no real ideology or platform beyond old-style anti-communism. Its devotion to the chaebol is passé and reeks of corruption, and extolling Korea, Inc. yet again is just not enough when issues like terrible air quality, spiraling consumer debt, and ‘Hell Joseon’ are the issues on voters’ minds.
So in this op-ed, I look at some possible models for the LKP to follow as it comes back from the wilderness. The one which strikes me as most likely, unfortunately, is a Trumpist-populist turn. The LKP presidential candidate of 2017 already test-drove this idea, calling himself the ‘Donald Trump of Korea.’ Other models either culturally don’t fit well, like a Christian conservative party, or represent no real change, like copying the LDP of Japan.
Maybe we’ll get lucky and the LKP will come back as pro-market, pro-globlization party ready to open South Korea’s economy and support better corporate governance. But I doubt it. The Trumpian path of racism, damning immigrants and out-groups, and plutocracy is so much easier. The extremely harsh backlash to the Yemenis in Jeju suggests this would be a fruitful path to follow. Too bad…
The full essay follows the jump…
In this space last month, I argued that the Liberty Korea Party is facing an existential crisis. The LKP is now in what American political science calls the ‘wilderness’ – where a party out of power wanders in exile for a few years to reconstruct itself after a major defeat in order to become competitive again. The question is: how the LKP will come back? Will a post-Park Geun-Hye LKP speak to South Korea’s current domestic priorities, and not its own internal obsessions?
The LKP’s last occupant of the presidency was impeached for a staggering corruption scandal, which many party voters disturbingly continue to insist was actually a communist plot. The party then got trounced in the 2017 presidential elections, and then trounced again in the 2018 local elections. Its ideology of mccarthyite anticommunism and pro-chaebol statist developmentalism is tired and has little appeal to younger and female voters.
On a host of major issues facing South Korea, the South Korean right today has little to say or is simply reactionary. South Korea needs creative thinking on issues such as:
– ‘Hell Chosun’: I see this problem regularly among the students I have taught for more than a decade at Pusan National University. Many pine to attend a school in Seoul simply for prestige. Many wish to live, work, or attend school overseas. Everyone is obsessed with working for a chaebol, Samsung above all, again because of the prestige. Those whose families do not have the resources for hagwons and tutors suffer. South Korea’s intense stratification is brutal and far too humiliating for the less well-off.
– Skyrocketing household debt: A speculative real estate market here punishes the poor and lower middle class without the resources to rent or buy. Practically everyone is in debt now because of real estate and extraordinarily high consumer prices. Seeing Costcos in Korea flooded with Koreans all the time is revelatory about just how expensive South Korea is for consumers.
– Appalling air quality: The usual excuse is that the dust comes from China, but we know now that that is not true, that much of it is home-grown from the use of coal and LNG. Everyone talks about this, but the problem has gotten much worse in my time in South Korea.
– Crashing birth rate: South Koreans are not replacing themselves. Fertility is now below one live birth per female. South Korea will start to contract demographically in less than five years. Some contraction of birth rates under modernization is typical, but South Korea’s contraction has been extreme. The government’s response has been tepid – controversial, under-resourced natalist programs; tepid multiculturalism; and vague hopes for unification with higher fertility North Koreans.
This is just a partial list of concerns which strike me as the most important domestic issues here. But one might include other obvious concerns, such as: traffic and pedestrian safety, cleaner streets, corruption, family leave, pregnancy and labor market participation, relations with Japan, the world’s highest rate of alcohol consumption, corporate governance reform, the treatment of minorities such as immigrants or homosexuals, and so on.
In short, South Korea faces some pretty serious domestic issues where a normal political party would make interesting or at least relevant policy proposals. And to the credit of the South Korean left, its parties have floated various ideas about these concerns over the years. Park Won-Soon, the mayor of Seoul, for example, has prioritized these sorts of lifestyle issues, including outreach to minorities and the less well-off. Moon Jae-In has at least rhetorically recognized the need to discipline the chaebol and reduce corruption.
Here is where the South Korean right needs return from its exile with something interesting to say. How would it win over the votes of my students with limited resources who want to find dignity and social mobility in a stratified society? How will it speak to young women who would like to have children without losing the jobs they fought so hard to achieve in a patriarchal society?
Looking at other democracies, I see four possible models for a conservative party:
1. A libertarian, pro-market, pro-globalization party. The best examples here are the post-Ronald Reagan/pre-Donald Trump Republican party in the United States, and the Free Democratic Party in Germany. The LKP would return from the wilderness as a classical liberal, low tax/low regulation party determined to free up the South Korean economy from heavy hand of South Korea’s state-led development.
Unfortunately, this model has limited appeal. Voters like the social safety net, the state’s provision of services, and progressive taxation. The FDP has always been a minor party in Germany, and the American Republicans have often had to cover their pro-corporate agenda with more populist policy proposals.
2. A religious party. Politically active Christians in the West have organized themselves politically for two centuries, and certainly South Korea’s Protestant groups are both politically engaged and reliable conservative voters. But South Korea is religiously quite diverse, with many Buddhists and non-religious voters. There are probably not enough conservative religious voters for this strategy, and politicizing religion would increase sectarianism in South Korea, as Protestants, Catholics, and Buddhists sought to capture the party’s agenda.
3. Tepid Christian democracy. European postwar conservatives organized themselves around the church after fascism had discredited nationalism. This Christian democratic strand dissolved into a general patriotism, traditionalism, and anticommunism. The current LKP is somewhat like this, although it is more akin to the Liberal Democratic Party of Japan than Christian democracy in Europe. However, this vague, backward-looking conservatism is losing out to the new populist/Trumpist model.
4. Populism/Trumpism. The excitement on the global right today is around populist parties, most obviously Trump’s remaking of the Republican party. But the Brexiteers, and the National Front in France, are also well-known models, while Brazil and the Philippines have ‘Trumpist’ presidents too.
The LKP has already flirted with this model. Hong Joon-Pyo, the LKP 2017 presidential candidate, marketed himself as the ‘Donald Trump of Korea.’ There is definitely some overlap. Trump and the European populists emphasize nationalism, mercantilism, xenophobia, sovereignty, hostility to Islam, and so on. All of this would have obvious appeal to South Korean conservative voters. The sharp xenophobic response to the 550 Muslim refugees on Jeju in 2018 suggests Trumpist populism might work here.
The downside is pretty obvious though. Trump, the Brexiteers, the National Front, and the other populists are either openly racist and obviously flirting with racism. Most have authoritarian and gangsterish instincts. All have disturbing relations with Russia. Populist policy solutions tend to be pretty short-sighted – trade barriers, reduced immigration, looser money. For an export dependent economy like South Korea’s, which fought hard to free itself from both authoritarianism and corporate corruption, the Trump path would represent a step backward.
These strike me as the four most obvious paths for an LKP reconstruction. None of them fit Korean circumstances exceptionally well, but if the LKP wants to start winning again, it needs to start thinking how it might address the many pressing issues discussed above.