Anti-Communism Endures: Political Implications of ROK Political Culture

By | May 08, 2017 | No Comments

Given the continued hostilities between a divided Korean nation, security concerns are more salient than elsewhere. In South Korea, this manifests in the popular and enduring support for anti-communist ideology. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

At this point it is safe to say that the South Korean presidential election is Moon Jae-in’s to lose; he might, but it is unlikely. He has been ahead throughout the campaign, and Ahn Cheol-soo, his only genuine challenger given the collapse of the right beneath the stigma of Park Geun-hye’s ignominious tenure, has fallen back. But Moon hasn’t had the short 2017 presidential campaign all his own way. His opponents have never been reluctant to lean on the public perception that he is weak on national security, believing that a significant percentage of the electorate — influenced by decades of anti-communist rhetoric conflating South Korean liberalism with the pro-DPRK hard left — is convinced that Moon is a pinky-red leftist incapable of defending the Republic of Korea against the threat posed by the DPRK.

Anti-communism of this nature has a long and storied history in South Korea. Per Kim Dong-chun, to some anti-communism is the raison d’être of the state itself. Others credit South Korea with more than that, but nobody disputes the prevalence of the belief that anti-communism is a necessary element of South Korean politics. Steven Denney explains. — Christopher Green, Co-editor

Anti-Communism Endures: Political Implications of ROK Political Culture

by Steven Denney

A not-so-subtle image was recently posted to the Facebook page of the South Gyeongsang provincial campaign office of Liberty Party Korea, the main conservative party and home of presidential candidate Hong Joon-pyo. The image suggests that a vote for anyone other than Hong would be akin to a vote for North Korea (see image below-right). Publication of the image may well be in violation of the Public Official Election Act — proceedings are underway as we speak, notes the left-leaning Hankyoreh — but in the strategy itself there nevertheless lies some truth about the South Korean electorate and their political values.

A photo of the controversial image. Next to numbers one and three are the flags of North Korea (candidates one and three are liberal candidate Moon Jae-in and centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, respectively). Next to number two is Hong Joon-pyo’s name and the taegukgi (the flag of South Korea). At the bottom of the image is a picture of Hong and this message: “You can protect the free Republic of Korea by voting Hong Joon-pyo!”

Anti-communism is a strong, simple, and easily disseminated message. It’s also a regular feature of South Korean political discourse. It is typically associated with hard-right political pundits and conservative lawmakers like Hong, who publicly accused Moon Jae-in of being a “pro-North Korea leftist” during the current campaign. While his remarks may strike casual observes of Korean politics as bizarre, or perhaps just an antiquated remnant of the Cold War, the backdrop upon which plays the brawn and bluster of conservative commentary is a political culture more sympathetic to Hong’s message than one might expect.

Public opinion data show that most South Koreans are partial to the promotion of anti-communist ideology. In the 2015 Korean Identity Survey, a survey effort overseen by the East Asia Institute, more than 1,000 randomly selected respondents were asked whether an anti-communist state ideology is necessary. They were given four choices: 1) Since North Korea continues to be a threat, anti-communism should be the state ideology of the Republic of Korea; 2) Even if anti-communism is not an official state ideology, it should still be defended as an important value; 3) It was needed during the Cold War, but is not needed today; and 4) Anti-communist ideology is anachronistic, because it undermines inter-Korean dialogue and is a pretext for for the repression of human rights.1) In the original Korean: 1) 북한의 위협이 계속되고 있기 때문에 반공을 대 한민국의 국가이념으로 삼아야 한다; 2) 반공을 국가 이념으로 삼지는 않더라도 중요한 가치로 지킬 필요가 있다; 3) 냉전시대에는 필요했지만 지금은 반공 이념이 필요 없다; 4) 반공 이념은 남북화해를 저해하고 인권탄압의 명 분이기 때문에 시대착오적이다.

If we take respondents answering either one or two as those showing either strong or some support for an anti-communist ideology, then we’ve accounted for 75.6 percent of all those who took part. The fact that three out of four people express firm support or sympathy for anti-communism is notable. Unsurprisingly, if the responses are divided by age cohort, significant variation shows. Only 64 percent of those aged 19-29 agree with the first or second responses, while 90 percent of those 60+ think anti-communism should either be the defining characteristic of the state, or that it has important value. A 26pp difference between the oldest and youngest cohort in South Korea is no small amount, but the fact that two out of every three from the youngest cohort also show support indicates just how popular the ideology is.

Data: 2015 Korean Identity Survey (n = 1,006). Bars represent 95% confidence intervals. No missing variables were reported. | Image: Steven Denney

In the Republic’s early years, the defining characteristic of the state was that it wasn’t communist, i.e. North Korea. This was aggressively promoted by the nation- and state-building dictator, Park Chung-hee, and is the basis of the controversial National Security Act (국가보안법), which makes recognition, promotion, or association with North Korea illegal (the law is notoriously vague). It has since taken on many more defining characteristics, but the association hasn’t dissipated. It is this sentiment that conservatives strive to capitalize on, politically. Since the democratic transition in 1987, the conservative party has promoted itself as the party of “security,” and as statistical analysis shows, those who think anti-communism is important are more likely to support the conservative party (while those who don’t are more likely to support the liberal party).

Liberals and those impartial to an anti-communist message are lambasted as communist or “pro-North,” as Hong did to Moon. Even those who never made claims of Moon having pro-North sympathies recognized Moon’s Achilles heel and sought to exploit it. Ahn Cheol-soo and the People’s Party attempted to win over more security-conscious liberals and center-right voters by exploiting concerns over Moon’s security bona fides. Moon’s main primary challenger, Ahn Hee-jung also campaigned on being more convincing on the issue. At first, these strategies seemed to work; Ahn Hee-jung was seen as a reasonable alternative and Ahn Cheol-soo seemed poised to be a legitimate presidential challenger. However, Moon was able to quell fears that he would be too soft on security.

Indeed, being tough on defense has been a central message of Moon’s campaign, and this is no accident. A recent security policy memo released by his campaign, entitled “Strong Republic of Korean and Peaceful Korean Peninsula,” states explicitly that the national security of South Korea and denuclearization of North Korea are among his top priorities, even if emphasis is also placed on South Korean autonomy vis-à-vis the United States and others. The message is crafted for a security-conscious electorate.

Of course, Hong campaign’s unabashed strategy of portraying anyone not conservative as pro-North isn’t going to lure young voters. Polls show those 20-40 years-old lean Moon. But this strategy isn’t meant to lure the young crowd; it’s meant to galvanize the older, conservative base. However, this shouldn’t distract from the point that South Korean political culture is still profoundly anti-communist regardless of age.

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1. In the original Korean: 1) 북한의 위협이 계속되고 있기 때문에 반공을 대 한민국의 국가이념으로 삼아야 한다; 2) 반공을 국가 이념으로 삼지는 않더라도 중요한 가치로 지킬 필요가 있다; 3) 냉전시대에는 필요했지만 지금은 반공 이념이 필요 없다; 4) 반공 이념은 남북화해를 저해하고 인권탄압의 명 분이기 때문에 시대착오적이다.