I know I really shouldn’t feel this way, but sometimes there’s a sort of schadenfreude to be derived from seeing scared liberals on the run. The panic definitely seems to have set in amongst Korea’s once-radical, now soft social-liberal intellectuals (Paek Nak-chung, Ko Un, Hwang Sok-yong etc). With both rival conservative candidates (Lee Myung-bak and Lee Hoi-chang) for the presidency polling better than any of the liberal or left candidates and less than a month to go before election day on December 19, the ddong is definitely hitting the sonp’unggi. The response from a group of concerned intellectual types is to call for all the various so-called progressive candidates to merge their campaigns and find a single candidate. This is clearly unlikely to happen and if it did I think it would be a travesty, taking away the last real choice from Korean voters - the choice to vote for a really left, really different presidential candidate (I’m talking about Kwon Young-ghil of the Democratic Labour Party).
What disturbs me about the liberal call for unity is that this panic that the world is about to end and the dark days of conservatism are about to return is really devoid of politics or sensible political analysis. Worst of all it leads to very much the sort of moral blackmail that the unions and liberal commentators have used to sustain the New Labour government here in the UK through all its abominable neoliberal and pro-war follies of the last 10 years. It goes something along the lines of “we know this lot of neoliberal shysters aren’t much good, but think how much worse things would be under the Tories/GNP. So you’d better vote for the shysters you know or you’ll be sorry!”
This question really comes down to where you perceive the main political divide in Korean politics as lying. Is it, as the liberals would have us believe, between the dark authoritarian forces of conservatism (dark though they undoubtedly are) and the forces of liberalism and democratisation? Or is it between the forces of neoliberalism and the pro-US troop-dispatchers in both the conservative and liberal camps on the one hand and the anti-war crowds demonstrating to bring the troops back from Iraq, the anti-FTA protesters fighting neoliberalism and the DLP, standing for worker’s rights and egalitarian development on the other? Well I think you can probably guess where I think the real divide lies. The current liberal panic may be truly felt by many intellectuals and others who see themselves as ‘progressive’ in some sense, but at heart it is smokescreen, clouding the real issues at stake in South Korea’s polarised and neoliberalised society. Perhaps it’s also a smokescreen hiding the guilt of all those liberals who know in their hearts that the last two administrations have betrayed the hopes of many ordinary Koreans. One can only hope.