Author: Kee-seok Kim, Kangwon National University
The international media spent 2015 criticising South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s government and its policies, and the criticisms are visibly increasing in frequency. The topics range from history textbooks to excessive use of force by riot police, but they share one theme: serious concern for South Korean political democracy.
The New York Times even contended that ‘the biggest risk to South Korea’s reputation abroad … is not economic but political, chiefly Ms Park’s heavy-handed attempts to rewrite history and quash dissent’. So why is domestic public support for Park still strong?
To observers and commentators of South Korean politics, the frequent international criticism of South Korean governance is reminiscent of the Yushin period in the 1970s, ruled by former president Park Chung-hee, father of the incumbent president Park Geun-hye.
Using the North Korean threat as justification, the authoritarian Yushin regime seriously restricted human and civilian rights. Any direct criticism of the president was strictly banned and could even warrant the death penalty. The president could lawfully designate one-third of the National Assembly members himself. The only history textbooks allowed were government versions and the South Korean intelligence agency strictly censored the media in case of anti-governmental or anti-presidential reporting.
What happened in South Korea in 2015 has some unsettling similarities to what happened under the Yushin regime. Like her father, Park seems to have no patience for different opinions, opposition to herself or to her policies. She frequently criticised the legislature for its inefficiency and the opposition parties for disagreeing with government-proposed bills. Even worse, different views even within the ruling Saenuri Party were not allowed. Former floor leader of the party Yoo Seung-min had to resign from his post as Park labelled his moderate criticisms of her policies as ‘the politics of betrayal’.
In October, the South Korean government announced it would rewrite history textbooks as of 2017. The announcement provoked huge international and domestic denunciations, and typified Park’s serious lack of political patience. The use of left-leaning history textbooks is the source of long-lasting tensions between conservatives and progressives in South Korea. But a number of polls showed that most citizens do not favour rewriting.
Park’s lack of political patience is correlated with declining civilian rights such as freedom of expression, assembly and demonstration in South Korea. On 14 November, a massive anti-government protest called on the government to scrap the labour reform bill, which would make it easier for firms to fire employees. Park denounced the protest as a bid to deny the rule of law and urged a heavy-handed clampdown against those identified as provoking violence. Park even likened the protestors to Islamic State because the violent activists tended to wear masks in the rally (although in reality this was intended to protect protestors from the pain of tear gas, not to hide their faces).
In a following rally in early December, protestors taunted her with a variety of masks and by refusing to clash with riot police. Despite the strong public dissent, Park and other policymakers have not paid serious attention to the causes of the protests: the controversial labour law reform and declining political freedoms.
The real puzzle of 2015 is that eroding political democracy has not seriously harmed people’s support for Park. Polls show that nearly 40 per cent of South Korean citizens still think that her performance as president has been good.
There are numerous known reasons for Park’s high approval ratings. These include a weak and incompetent opposition party and the embedded dominance of conservatism under the threats from the North. Newly established super-conservative television channels have also increased the influence of pro-conservative media. As South Korea’s population ages, the demographic share of conservative senior citizens increases and Park has always had solid regional support backed by nostalgia for her father. Finally, national agencies have played a supportive (if undemocratic) role. Not one of these reasons can be easily solved or effectively dealt with by any future government.
Park is known to be sensitive to opinion poll signals. Her diminishing political patience is likely to be correlated with the irrational but firm support of her conservative constituents. Due to the demographic transformation in favour of the conservatives, time is not on the side of the progressive opposition camp. The April 2016 general election and the December 2017 presidential election may be the last opportunities to revitalise South Korean democracy. But, so far, South Korea’s chances are looking slim.
Kee-seok Kim is a professor in the Department of Political Science, Kangwon National University.
This article is part of an EAF special feature series on 2015 in review and the year ahead.