South Korea

It's our party and we'll cheer if we want to - by John Feffer

Imagine if nearly three-quarters of the U.S. Congress were thrown out on its collective ear and replaced by a new generation of 30 and 40-somethings, many of them considerably more progressive than John Kerry. Imagine if the number of women in Congress doubled. Imagine a new labor party securing ten seats and a pivotal minority position.

A fantasy? Not for South Koreans.

When voters went to the polls in South Korea on April 15, they performed just this electoral miracle. Impeached president Roh Moo Hyun and his Uri (“Our”) Party were the chief beneficiaries of the results. The Uri Party, which tripled its share, now commands a majority in parliament, with the renascent Democratic Labor party to its left.

Some U.S. pundits have bent over backward to assure the public that the electoral results were far from revolutionary. As Georgetown Professor Victor Cha wrote in Far East Economic Review, “the Uri Party’s bark may be worse than its bite” for it won’t fundamentally challenge military relations with the United States, bail out North Korea with unsound economic projects, or tinker with the Constitution. But as the Bush administration continues to fumble its North Korea policy and China stakes out a larger foreign policy claim in East Asia, the Uri Party may well herald a fundamental transformation of politics on the Korean peninsula and beyond.

A month ago, it was revenge and not revolution that was brewing. In March, the two major parties in the South Korean parliament–the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) and the party of former president Kim Dae Jung, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP)–ganged up to impeach President Roh Moo Hyun, who had barely spent one year in office. The pretext for impeachment was a minor electoral impropriety, but both parties were in fact eager to take advantage of corruption scandals and Roh’s declining popularity to make political gains of their own.

It was the mother of all miscalculations. Tens of thousands of demonstrators took to the street in protest. Korean voters, who have a warm spot for underdogs, repudiated the party duopoly to give Roh and his new party of supporters a much clearer mandate than when he first took office.

This was no mere political infighting. Roh and his breakaway Uri Party articulated a fundamentally different vision of South Korea, both to win the December 2002 elections and to beat back the most recent challenge. They have urged greater independence in South Korea’s relationship with the United States and a more assertive engagement policy with the North.

South Koreans, particularly the younger generation, want a change. They’re tired of the cozy, business-as-usual corruption culture of the older generation. They overwhelmingly oppose Bush administration policies, which is so often mistaken for anti-Americanism by U.S. observers who fail to distinguish between political and cultural motivations.

And over 90 percent of South Koreans don’t want to pursue policies that would lead to war on the peninsula. The conservatives have never put forward an alternative to engaging the North, a policy that Roh largely adopted from his predecessor Kim Dae Jung. With the Uri Party commanding a majority in parliament, expect this engagement policy to accelerate despite hostility from Washington.

John Feffer (www.johnfeffer.com) is the author most recently of North Korea, South Korea: U.S. Policy at a Time of Crisis (Seven Stories, 2003). (Editor’s Note: Excerpted from a new special report available in full at http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2004/0404ourparty.html.)  Thanks to the US electronic news and comment service Progressive Response (http://www.fpif.org/progresp / for this article. Progressive Response is produced by the Inter-Hemispheric Resource Center.

For more information see:

Between Kim Jong Il and a Hard Place
By John Feffer (March 1, 2004)
http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2004/0402kimjongil.html

The Tug of War
By John Feffer (October 22, 2003)
http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2003/0310korea.html

Hexagonal Headache
By John Feffer (September 4, 2003)
http://www.fpif.org/commentary/2003/0309nk.html