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Argument

South Korea Is a Liberal Country Now

Moon Jae-in’s crushing victories have permanently reshaped his nation’s politics.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in discusses a coronavirus response with global leaders and shares South Korea's strategy during a virtual summit in Seoul on March 26.
South Korean President Moon Jae-in discusses a coronavirus response with global leaders and shares South Korea's strategy during a virtual summit in Seoul on March 26. South Korean Presidential Blue House via Getty Images

South Korea’s Democratic Party had a good start in its election night on Wednesday, as the exit polls for the National Assembly—South Korea’s unicameral legislature—predicted a solid win for the liberals. Then, as has frequently been the case with politics around the world, the exit polls were wrong. By the end of the night, President Moon Jae-in’s Democrats did not have a solid victory; instead, they had an overwhelming, history-making one, of the scale of Ronald Reagan versus Walter Mondale in the 1984 U.S. presidential election. As of this writing, Moon’s party is projected to win 180 out of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, after the exit polls predicted a range of 155 to 173.

To be sure, the Democrats, the main liberal party, were expecting a good result. They comfortably led the conservative United Future Party in the polls by around a 10-15 percent margin leading up to the elections, while the implosion of the center-right Bareun Mirae Party meant the Democratic Party was slated to pick up many of the former party’s 30-odd seats. The administration’s successful containment of the coronavirus outbreak has pushed Moon’s approval rating to a 17-month high. Nonetheless, few expected the Democrats to win in a walk. South Korea’s conservatives seemed to be putting behind them the damage they sustained from previous President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment, which split Park’s Saenuri Party into several different camps. Under the new banner of the United Future Party, South Korea’s conservatives were promising a good fight, hoping the shine had come off Moon’s presidency in the third year of his five-year term.

Instead, the result was an unprecedented landslide. An outright majority of 150-plus for a single party is rare enough, as minor parties and independents usually win between 20 and 30 seats, requiring the two major parties to battle over the remaining 270-280 seats. Since South Korea became a democracy in 1987, the largest legislative election victory for the main conservative party was 153 seats in 2008, while the largest one for the main liberal party (until this election) was 152 seats in 2004. To find a comparable legislative win, one has to trace back to South Korea’s pre-democracy era: The opposition Democratic Party won 175 seats in 1960, in a chaotic election after the fall of the dictator Syngman Rhee that was rapidly superseded by Park Chung-hee’s military coup in 1961.

One hundred and eighty seats, or three-fifths of the legislature, is a procedurally significant benchmark. Under South Korea’s legislative rules, a three-fifths supermajority can fast-track bills, essentially allowing the bill to cut short the legislative committee deliberations and be presented for a final vote before the whole National Assembly, where the bill’s passage is all but guaranteed. Before this election, the Democratic Party held 129 seats, making it a plurality but not the majority. Although Moon did manage to cobble together a coalition with the minor parties to pass a handful of significant laws, such as establishing an independent investigative bureau for crimes committed by public officials, the lack of an outright majority hampered the Democrats from pursuing a more ambitious legislative agenda. With this win, Moon and his party are likely to pursue their long-standing legislative goals, such as judicial reform and anti-discrimination laws.

But discussing this election solely in terms of near-term policy implications diminishes its significance. Until recently, it was fair to say that South Korea was fundamentally a conservative country. The noted liberal commentator Yu Si-min lamented that being a liberal in South Korea meant “playing soccer on a tilted pitch.” When the liberals did win, it was either because they entered into a strategic alliance with moderate conservatives or because the conservatives fell into a civil war. Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in 1997 because he allied with Kim Jong-pil, the former right-hand man of military dictator Park Chung-hee and because the independent candidate Lee In-je siphoned off the conservative vote. Roh Moo-hyun won his presidency in 2002 in a similar manner, by allying with the centrist Hyundai scion Chung Mong-joon.

This time, however, the conservatives presented a single front, with their new party name “United Future” indicating the aspiration that they would set aside their differences regarding the former president’s impeachment in order to defeat the Democrats. The turnout for this election was 66.2 percent, the highest turnout for a National Assembly election since 1992. In other words, this was an electoral version of a total war—each side bringing out its maximal capacity, pitting full strength against full strength. Yet the result was an unprecedented victory for the Democrats and a crushing defeat for United Future.

Moon, as the face of the Democratic Party, has led a political transformation. From 2016, the Democrats decisively won four national elections in a row: the 2016 legislative elections, 2017 presidential election, the 2018 local elections, and the 2020 legislative elections. In the history of South Korea’s democracy, no other party has won four national elections in a row. These victories were not a result of short-term tactical moves but a fundamental realignment. With each victory, Moon nudged South Korea toward being a center-left country in which the liberals are the new mainstream and the pitch is finally tilted toward their advantage.

This transformation requires a reassessment of the assumptions underlying South Korean politics. Especially in the eyes of international observers who do not follow day-to-day South Korean politics, the caricature of the liberals is stuck in the 1990s: North Korea-admiring student activists who had just put down their Molotov cocktails to enter politics, long on rhetorical incitement and short on stable governance. On the eve of this year’s National Assembly elections, it was not difficult to find English-language analysis about South Korean politics that claimed liberal constituents were ideologically aligned with North Korea.

Such a view was already outdated several years ago; after this election, it is completely indefensible. True, the center-left politics of South Korea originate from its democratization movement, and many of its prominent politicians—including Lee Hae-chan, the Democratic Party chair whose strategic mind led his party to victory—were student activists before they entered politics. It is also true that in the early stages of their careers as politicians, they struck an incorrect balance between idealism and pragmatism. But that stage of South Korean politics ended long ago. Today, the Democratic Party is the party of the middle class, with an overwhelming level of support from urban voters in their 30s and 40s. As can be seen from the Moon administration’s strong response to the coronavirus pandemic, the Democratic Party is also the party of professionalism and competence.

In contrast, the conservatives are increasingly trapped in their regional stronghold in the southeast and marginalized as the party of the old and the bigoted. The international acclaim that the Moon administration is earning for its COVID-19 response serves a daily reminder of how bumbling and ineffective the conservative Park Geun-hye administration was at handling the MERS (Middle East respiratory syndrome) epidemic less than five years ago. Simply put, Korean conservatives are increasingly becoming too big of an embarrassment for ordinary Koreans to support, which in turn pushes the conservatives further into being extreme and outlandish.

Nothing is final in politics and especially in the famously dynamic South Korean politics. But it will be a long time before South Korea’s conservatives can dig themselves out of this hole. All of United Future’s senior leadership—including party chair Hwang Kyo-ahn, minority leader Na Kyung-won, and former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon—lost their elections, leaving the party rudderless. Nor does it seem likely that the conservatives can find in the near term a positive political message that does not center on the stale red scare that accuses every opponent of being a communist sympathizer. With the latest victory, we may be witnessing South Korea’s version of the Reagan Revolution: an electoral victory that may well set the course of politics for the next generation toward an entirely new direction.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney at Kobre & Kim LLP based in Washington, D.C., and an expert in East Asian politics and economy.

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