Ideological reflection in S. Korean society
By Steve Chung
Last week, a South Korean politician, Lim Soo-kyung, told Joseph Baek, a North Korean defector, who happened to be dining in the same restaurant as her that he was a ``son of a bxxxx,’’ a ``senseless North Korean defector’’ and a ``bastard betrayer.’’ This aroused a heated discussion among South Korean netizens and a request that the newly elected National Assembly member should publicly apologize for discriminating the North Korean defector.
Though Lim later did apologize to the public saying she was drunk at the time and the ``traitor’’ remark was not directed at the defector, it did spark a new wave of reflection on the ideological difference between conservatives and progressives in South Korean society.
Ideologically speaking, contemporary South Korea maintains clear yet various views on North Korea, deeply divided among mainly three different general attitudes toward the inter-Korean relations for decades.
Due to several ups-and-downs however, a conservative attitude on the North Korean counterpart is still regarded as the most prevailing view among the elderly and veterans. Most of the supporters in the conservative ideology proclaim it’s essential to protect South Korea by defending the National Security Law and further strengthening South Korea military capability in preparing for any North Korea attacks on South Korea. But, they also predominantly welcome North Korean defectors to the South because it can be viewed as a triumph over the communist North.
With their collective experience in overthrowing the authoritarian regime under Park Chung-hee and Chun Do-hwan in the 1970s-80s and widely named as the ``486 generation,’’ progressives tend to liberally view North Korea as a dialogue partner instead of the enemy and encourage inter-Korean dialogue, economic assistance and cultural cooperation to the North. But, they disprove of any provocative action by South Koreans in arousing tension with Pyongyang, such as objecting to civil groups sending balloons (with anti-North Korea flyers) across the border. For some of the extreme leftists, such as the National Liberation (NL) faction, they even follow the North’s ideology of ``juche’’ and see the North Korean government as legitimate and regard South Korea’s independence as being incomplete due to what they see as American interference in Korean affairs.
Besides the two extremes, currently a more practical view on inter-Korean relations becomes the mainstream perception in South Korean society. Disillusioned by the failure of the ``Sunshine Policy’’ in stopping the North from going nuclear and the hard-line policy under President Lee Myung-bak nearly pushing the two Koreas into the edge of war, citizens now expect their government to keep a middle line between confrontation and cooperation with Pyongyang.
Despite a seemingly clear-cut ideological line in these three camps, Lim’s issue again reminds us that general South Koreans still relatively blur in differentiating the North Korean regime and its defectors. A conservative can view hostility against the Pyongyang regime, but he/she can welcome North Korean defectors to the South. However, similar to Lim’s belief, she takes a pro-North Korea view but arrogantly condemns people from the North defecting to the South. We know that unconditionally accepting North Korean defectors is still regarded as taboo in South Korean society, but it’s also unreasonable to discriminate against the defectors as they risk their lives in escaping under a series of threats, it will hurt the public perception of the leftists.
Including this, several events happened in the last few months to hurt the impression of the ``progressive camp’’ of the South Korean general public. Right after the National Assembly elections, there were reports that there was vote-rigging inside the Unified Progressive Party while nominating their party candidates for proportional representation has already damaged the general perception of the leftists, the endless quarrel, fighting, splits, resignations and betrayals afterwards even disillusioned their supporters. Now, the allegation turns to the slightly moderate leftists Democratic United Party, which will inevitably put further public pressure on the whole leftist camp.
As one falls, another rises. It’s apparentlthat citizens now may favor a more pragmatic line on inter-Korean relations. The refreshed and balanced image of the Saenuri Party under Park Geun-hye’s leadership named her vision on inter-Korean relations as ``Trustpolitik,’’ which takes a more middle and flexible approach between progressives and conservatives on the two Koreas issue. This largely helps her to attract the mainstream voters’ support. Their newly-elected party member, Cho Myung-chul, the first North Korean defector who has become a member of the National Assembly, also helps to boost Saenuri Party’s public image as they invite North Korean defectors to join the party in good faith. Besides, another widely popular presidential candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, also openly claims his inter-Korean vision is similar to the ``tit-for-tat’’ ideology during his guest talk in Busan National University.
No matter who becomes the next South Korean president, neither stubbornly clings to the ``Sunshine Policy’’ of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun nor the harder line of Lee Myung-bak and it will be a generally accepted road for inter-Korean relations in the long-term. A new inter-Korean policy with more flexibility and pragmatism can be expected after the presidential election this year.
Steve Chung is a Ph.D. candidate in Korean studies at University of Sydney. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.