Change in South Korea

In a major political shift in South Korea, the ruling Saenuri party lost its 16-year majority in the national assembly. Most of my young Korean friends, as well as my friends in the academe, will likely be pleased.

The Saenuri party was trounced in Seoul and in Gyeonggi, the province that has the capital at its center. That’s an expected result; the conservative party finds its greatest support in the Southeast, around Busan. Even there, though, the ruling party lost seats.

More unusual is the emergence of Ahn Cheol-soo’s People’s Party as a major third party on the left, picking up a significant number of seats in the traditional liberal strongholds of Gwangju and Jeolla Province. Ahn is a former member of the Minjoo Party, South Korea’s main liberal party, but what he stands for now is unclear, other than that he stands for change; he seems to have picked up quite a few votes from disaffected conservatives as well as liberals. In any case, it’s interesting to me that the country’s Southwest — home to political activist-turned-president Kim Dae Jung and the scene of the Gwangju  Uprising, which ended in a massacre of students that was the beginning of the end of South Korea’s long era of military dictatorships — has once again turned out to be a political spoiler and a driver of change.

I’m glad to see that Park Geun-hye’s increasing authoritarianism, pervasive corruption, and general ineffectuality have been repudiated. It will be interesting to see what develops politically in the next year, leading up to the presidential election. Ahn has much of his support among the youth, and I would like to see their concerns addressed: high youth unemployment, slowing economic growth, and a culture of corruption and overwork. The country is also in dire need of education reform and more spending on social welfare, particularly for the elderly.

Ahn might also have an opportunity to break the left’s old allegiance to an outdated notion of inter-Korean politics. For decades, the rightist governments and dictatorships in South Korea used the North Korean threat as a cudgel in domestic politics, creating an exaggerated sense on the left that the North Korean threat was only a political tool of rightist oppression. It is not. While it was legitimate in the late nineties to attempt a new path through the Sunshine Policy, Pyongyang’s actions over subsequent decades have made it clear that North Korea was never negotiating in good faith, and the South Korean left should not be naive about the North’s human rights abuses and belligerence.

Beyond that, perhaps Ahn has a chance to forge a new politics that is less dependent on chaebol support and its attendant corruption, and more focused on developing new and independent businesses in South Korea. We shall see. He’s a bit of a blank slate, letting everyone (including me) project his or her fantasies onto him. He’ll need to stand for something now, as he’ll be a major player in the next Assembly session.