South Korea Is an Ally, Not a Puppet
Washington's image of Seoul is stuck in the 1970s. It's time to move on.
As a young man, Moon Jae-in had a sterling record of fighting for democracy and human rights. In college, he was repeatedly imprisoned for protesting South Korea’s dictatorship and learned he had passed the notoriously difficult South Korean bar exam while sitting in prison. As an attorney, Moon turned down offers from major law firms in Seoul to open his own law practice in Busan, partnering with another up-and-coming young lawyer named Roh Moo-hyun. Moon and Roh’s practice became the leading human rights firm in South Korea under the dictatorship. Moon won the South Korean presidency by leading a highly effective opposition against former President Park Geun-hye’s aspiring authoritarianism, which resulted in her impeachment and removal.
Which makes it all the jarring to see the claim that, somehow, Moon is plotting to become a dictator himself. Yet that is precisely what’s being advanced —loudly—by some corners of the U.S. foreign-policy establishment. To be sure, much of it is advanced by the foreign-policy gadflies with little credibility among the informed. To the learned judgment of Gordon Chang, who has been unsuccessfully predicting the imminent collapse of China for the past two decades yet continues to appear on Fox News and in the Daily Beast, Moon “would like to have dictatorial powers and will stop at nothing to gain control of [South Korea].”
Yet the charge that Moon is an aspiring authoritarian is gaining some purchase among the more serious people. Recently, the highly respectable American Enterprise Institute (AEI) hosted a talk titled “From right authoritarianism — to left?” with a panel discussion titled “Toward illiberal democracy? South Korea under the Moon administration.” The overview of the event asked grimly: “South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration has reportedly clamped down on media outlets, restricted freedom of speech, and encouraged partisanship in the judiciary and civil service. Is the ROK government on a path to limit freedoms in the South?”
But this rhetorical question posed by AEI reveals the lack of understanding on the extent to which the two consecutive right-wing presidents prior to Moon damaged South Korea’s liberal democracy in the U.S. foreign-policy circles. In reality, Moon is working to heal the damage done to South Korea’s democracy, not to corrode it. The international media coverage of the farce around Park’s confidante Choi Soon-sil, the daughter of a shaman who claimed he could speak with Park’s dead mother, tended to eclipse her appalling assaults on South Korea’s hard-won democracy.
To name but a few examples: In the aftermath of the Sewol ferry disaster—in which more than 300 people, most of them high school students, drowned in a sinking ship due to the crew’s negligence and incompetent rescue efforts—Park’s government ordered its military to spy on the parents who had just lost their children, lest they turn into a political liability. (And they did.) Yang Seung-tae, who was the chief justice of South Korea’s Supreme Court during the Park Geun-hye administration, operated a back channel with the Blue House and steered the result of politically sensitive cases by pressuring the lower court judges. When the Korean public reacted to the Choi scandal by staging massive but orderly candlelight protests against the Park administration, Park’s Defense Security Command had a plan to push hundreds of tanks and thousands of soldiers into Seoul, awaiting Park’s decision to declare martial law—in a country that still remembers the massacre of its own citizens by the military in 1980.
The right-wing assault on South Korean democracy was made possible through a systematic coordination of Korea’s conservative institutions, including the government, civic groups, and the media. The arc of Park’s administration may be eerily familiar to observers of U.S. politics. It was through a heavy assist from the spy agency of her predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, that Park was able to squeak out a victory in the 2012 presidential election. The National Intelligence Service (NIS) operated a psy-ops division that generated massive numbers of fake message board posts and tweets. (Particularly effective were the NIS’s photoshopped images of liberal politicians and activists, which the spy agency created by consulting with psychologists.) The Lee and Park administrations paid veterans’ groups, which then paid older Koreans in the countryside to board buses to Seoul and stage pro-Park rallies. Conservative newspapers gleefully ran stories in favor of the presidents in their camp, reporting on the internet storylines planted by the NIS and the pro-government rallies paid for by the government. In one particularly egregious case, the Lee administration paid the seed money for a right-wing pundit, Byun Hee-jae, to start a right-wing internet outlet called Media Watch, which became a fount of notorious falsehoods aimed at damaging liberal politicians. The NIS under the Lee administration then continued to fund Media Watch by ordering government workers to subscribe to the website and pressuring corporations to put on advertisements.
The Moon administration’s actions are an attempt to restore liberal democracy, rather than an unduly partisan interference in the affairs of the civil service and the judiciary. Contrary to AEI’s fretting, dissolving the military command that plotted to roll into Seoul with tanks and arresting the judiciary staff who acted as a back channel between Park and her chief justice are not “encouraging partisanship.” They are essential acts of restoring the liberal democratic order, governed through popular elections and a separation of powers. The same is true for when the Moon administration vowed to fight “fake news”—a term that, in the United States, took an Orwellian turn to mean “real news that the president hates” thanks to Donald Trump’s habitual mendacity. But for South Korea’s right-wing administrations, deliberate falsehoods disguised as news were one of their most powerful weapons. And the U.S. concept that intentional falsehoods for political gain are legally protected is an almost unique one worldwide. It is not an assault on press freedom that the South Korean court convicted Byun—the aforementioned pundit on the government payroll—of criminal defamation for repeatedly making provably false claims that the physical evidence that led to Park’s impeachment was doctored. Indeed, South Korea’s press freedom index ranking for 2018 jumped 20 places, to 43 from 63 in 2017, according to Reporters Without Borders. (The United States ranked lower than South Korea, at 45.) In the Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2018 Democracy Index, the health of South Korea’s democracy outranked that of the United States and France.
But ultimately, the claim from some corners in the United States that Moon is an aspiring authoritarian stems from the U.S. foreign-policy establishment’s outdated framework of viewing South Korean domestic politics. For far too many U.S. analysts, the image of South Korea is stuck in the 1970s during the height of the Cold War. In this rendition, South Korea has no meaningful democracy, only an alternation between an anti-communist dictator who must be protected as “our bastard” and a left-wing authoritarian who is ready to sell out the country to the communists in the North. Moon’s moves toward peace with North Korea—widely popular at home—are cast as selling out to Pyongyang. Moon’s popularity, which dropped from his initial massive high, has recovered to back over the 50 percent mark since the beginning of the year, and his fans cite his North Korea policy as the biggest reason for their support.
The U.S. foreign-policy framework is not only false but also insulting to the South Koreans who won democracy for themselves in 1987 and fought to keep it in 2017. For all the arm-waving from South Korea’s conservatives and their allies in the United States, the facts on the ground are simply that the Moon administration is a run-of-the-mill center-left one, pursuing some moderately leftist policies, such as raising the minimum wage, while generally maintaining a friendly stance to big businesses. (In fact, the progressive faction of South Korean politics loudly complains that Moon is not hard enough on South Korea’s massive conglomerates.) Despite his reputation of being friendly to North Korea, Moon has expanded the Korean military at a greater clip than any of his right-wing predecessors did.
South Korea changes fast. It is no longer a U.S. client state but a world-class economy, a U.S. ally in the world’s most important region, and a revitalized liberal democracy. The framework Washington uses to understand South Korea needs to change as quickly as the country does. An unwarranted charge against South Korea’s liberal leader is not merely incorrect but also damaging to a key alliance.