It seems that a debate is beginning to open up within the ‘progressive camp’ (진보진영) in South Korea on the best way to approach the upcoming presidential elections set for December. I want to try to cover this debate a bit here as it develops, so, time allowing, this will be the first of a series of posts on what the South Korean left is doing in the run up to the elections.
Although I am not a natural optimist, one thing that I have realised about South Korean politics is that things can change very rapidly in a way that is just not possible in the UK or US. When I was in Seoul last autumn and mentioned to Korean friends that is seemed as though rightwing Grand National Party hopeful Lee Myung-bak was sure to be the next president they were much more optimistic about things changing and stressed that a year is a very, very long time indeed in Korean politics.
All the talk at the moment is of the possibility of fielding some sort of left unity candidate, whose politics I assume might lie somewhere between those of the Democratic Labour Party (민노당) and Roh Moo-hyun’s now semi-defunct Uri Party (열린우리당 - which to my mind seemed to be an attempt at a sort of ’social liberal’ party). If it does manage to achieve this the South Korean left would be able to teach the French radical left a thing or two. There, the non-liberal left consistently scores around 10 percent but is fragmented across three or four parties (as it was in the recent first round of presidential elections). But of course, the really big question is, what sort of unity candidate and who will actually get on board when it comes to the crunch? This thorny problem has already caused a rather interesting disagreement between too well-known left intellectuals in Korea*: Hwang Sok-yong and Pak Noja.
On the one hand, Hwang sees the current Korean conjuncture as being a crossroads between the possibility of becoming an (democratically) ‘advanced society’ or remaining stuck within the framework of the Cold War. His key observation is thus:
Even a child knows that both the Grand National Party and the Uri Party are conservative parties, but we are not yet in the era of a [truly] progressive/reformist party (혁신정당).
And this leads him to advocate some sort of pan-progressive candidate that would unite the Uri Party (or remnants of it) and the Democratic Labour Party - basically a sort of old-fashioned popular front between the ‘progressive’ sector of the South Korean bourgeoisie and the (reformist) representatives of the workers in the form of the DLP. Hwang has even mentioned former Kyonggi Province governor Sohn Hak-kyu, who recently defected from the rightwing Grand National Party as a possible unity candidate.
Pak Noja is distinctly unimpressed by this idea, leading him to wonder what Hwang’s criteria are for something being ‘progressive’. He also points out that if the main criterion is the attitude of politicians toward reconciliation with the North then there are considerable numbers of rightwing GNP politicians who are perfectly happy to continue the current sunshine policies since they dream of turning the North into a ‘happy hunting ground’ for South Korean capital in need of cheap labour. He goes on to note the other failings of the liberals/centrists who might form the right side of any such ‘progressive’ unity coalition: their failure to get rid of the National Security Law; their jailing of trade unionists; their reliance on Chaebol money and their support for the ‘war on terror’ and more specifically Bush’s disaster in Iraq. Finally, Pak writes:
If you put your faith in ‘progress’ while ignoring class, I fear you will be disappointed once again.
* Actually both of them have spent much of their time outside of Korea in the last few years.