McCarthy Didn’t Die, He Went to Seoul: McCarthyism in South Korean Politics

By | February 21, 2013 | No Comments

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon | image via Dailian

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon | image via Dailian

Although it has been 60 years since the end of the Korean War and more than two decades since the Berlin Wall fell, many elements of Korean politics and society still reflect the Cold War period. Korea’s Berlin Wall, the DMZ, is still there, and left wing politicians (and others) still get lampooned (and worse) as Communists (갱이), and more recently as “blind followers of North Korea” (종북). It isn’t the 1970s anymore, yet the way many left wingers are branded is eerily reminiscent of both McCarthyism (a term that is directly translated and well understood in South Korea) and a Cold War political environment forgotten almost everywhere else.

The political and physical attacks levelled at civic activist-cum-Seoul City mayor Park Won-soon, who in 2011 was ushered to victory over affluent Park Geun-hye-backed assemblywoman Na Kyung-won, are indicative of the nature of both contemporary South Korean domestic politics and the difficulty of confronting politically sensitive issues in the country. This article, which ran last month in the left-leaning Hankyoreh, is an instructive sample. It reported on accusations against Park, via Twitter, by a conservative figure who called him both a “Commie” and “a blind follower of North Korea.”

Park’s role in founding People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (참여민주주의와 인권을 위한 연대, or 참여연대), a civil society organization that, along with a number of laudable social programs, famously questioned the results of an international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean frigate the Cheonan on March 26th, 2010, his support for the abolition of the controversial National Security Law (국가보안법), and his vocal opposition to the policies of the outgoing administration of President Lee Myung-bak have made him a prime target for conservatives, many of whom have precious little patience for the politics of the left. It indicates just how volatile North Korea issues remain in the South. – Steven Denney, Managing Editor

McCarthy Didn’t Die, He Went to Seoul: McCarthyism in South Korean Politics

(Original title in the Hankyoreh, released January 21st, 2013: “‘Blind follower’ accusations going further than ‘Park Won-soon is a Commie’… Why?” (“박원순은 빨갱이” 도 넘는 종북공세…왜?”) –

Translation by Steven Denney and Christopher Green

Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has, against his wishes, once again emerged at the heart of the “blind followers of the North dispute” [종북논쟁; hereafter, 종북 is translated as “pro-North”].

On January 19, former KBS announcer Chung Mi-hong wrote on her Twitter account:

“The pro-North Tendencies of Seoul Mayor (Park Won-soon), Seongnam Mayor (Lee Chae-myong), Nowon-gu Disctrict Commissioner (Kim Seong-hwan) and the heads of other pro-North-type community bodies should be remembered, and then they must be thrown out at next year’s regional elections.”

Mrs. Chung went on:

“Those who act against the national interest, and, in contradiction to the constitution, propagate Kim Il-sung’s ideology and cause social confusion by spreading distorted views of history must all be dealt the harshest punishment, and laws sending them into exile must be promulgated.”

Upon seeing opinions in support of Mayor Park and the others put up on Twitter, she then replied in a mocking tone:

“Because I say that heads of local government with questionable qualifications and ‘pro-North’ tendencies must be kicked out, you come running like a swarm of bees. Without even knowing what those guys are doing, you are just disagreeing for disagreement’s sake… tsk tsk.”

Former KBS announcer Chung Mi-hong | image via City Daily

Former KBS announcer Chung Mi-hong | image via City Daily

Over the weekend, these comments spread widely online and became the center of an active debate. In particular, netizens had a fierce online dispute about the “pro-North” accusations against Mayor Park, who is seen as the leading [progressive] figure in local government.

The attacks by conservative netizens continued despite criticism from New Frontier Party [새누리당, Saenuridang, the ruling party] lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung, who is famous for his hard-line stance against North Korea.

On January 20, Ha posted on his Twitter account:

“If even Park Won-soon can be accused of being ‘pro-North,’ then that shows that the meaning of being ‘pro-North’ is not understood,” going on, “The conservative bloc must stop going too far by placing the ‘pro-North’ hat on the political opposition’s head.”

Alas, the debate surrounding Mayor Park’s pro-North tendency is nothing new.

During the 2011 special mayoral election, he suffered continuous pro-North accusations from the ruling party. However, the accusations didn’t affect his election because the ruling party was unable to draw any connection between their accusations and Mayor Park’s personal history. But even so, the debate did not subside following his election.

The Korea Parent Federation (대한민국 어버이 연합, a militantly anti-North Korea conservative group) and conservative civic groups gathered outside Seoul City Hall thereafter to brand him a “Commie” and shower him with critical blows. Even worse, a woman in her 60s assaulted Mayor Park while he was viewing a civil defense training exercise. As she assaulted him, she insisted:

“You Commie, you’re ruining Seoul City.”

However, thanks to the way he carried out his duties after his election as mayor, not slanted toward any one particular ideology, the “pro-North” accusations against Mayor Park then subsided; recently, however, in the aftermath of the 18th presidential election, they have resumed.

Professor Kim Dong-gil and losing mayoral candidate Na Kyung-won | image via Yeongdeungpo Pakga

Professor Kim Dong-kil and losing mayoral candidate Na Kyung-won | image via Yeongdeungpo Pakga

Kim Dong-kil, a representative conservative and Professor Emeritus at Yonsei University, stated at a conservative group event on January 16:

“The Seoul Mayor doesn’t sing the national anthem, doesn’t fly the South Korean flag, and held his inauguration ceremony in front of Daehan Gate [the front gate of Deoksu Palace in Seoul] with only his closest associates in attendance.”

After he said this, he indicated to Mayor Park and said,

“This crazy [expletive deleted in original].”

Despite Seoul City’s immediate rebuttal, saying that [Park] had in fact pledged his allegiance, the controversy has continued to spread online. It is becoming the talk of the town in the context of Mrs. Jung’s and Emeritus Professor Kim’s statements. So, why does this “pro-North” dispute about Mayor Park won-soon keep on re-emerging?

First of all, it is a feature of so-called “noise marketing,” wherein criticism of popular individuals is used to emphasize one’s own humble existence.

In 1995, Mrs. Jung, who criticized Mayor Park, became a member of former Democratic Party Seoul mayoral candidate Cho Soon’s camp, and then chief publicist for Seoul City. Later, in 2007, she helped to initiate the Moon Guk-hyun-led “Creative Korea Party.”

We also know that in last April’s legislative elections she registered to be New Frontier Party candidate for part of Seoul’s Seocho-gu, but failed. [The area in question is south of the Han River, and covers Seocho-dong, Yangjae-dong, Naegok-dong and Bangbae 2-dong and 3-dong.]

Mr. A, a centrist political columnist who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, “If we want to say that Mayor Park is ‘pro-North,’ then shouldn’t we also discuss the concept and content of ‘pro-Northism’? Mrs. Jung saying something like that out of the blue is tantamount to McCarthyism: condemning persons if they think differently to oneself. It’s not conservatism, either.”

He went on, “From the perspective of the person who is raising [the issue], it can be seen from the aspect of noise marketing. [For Mrs. Jung] it looks like one kind of political action, but it is not a good one,” before adding in criticism, “If there really are facts then what are they; she should not do things like this on social media for her own gratification.”

Some also see the situation as being linked to the rapid rise in Mayor Park’s political importance following the Democratic United Party’s presidential election failure.

Commentator Choi Joon-young said of the “pro-North” attacks on Mayor Park, “In a situation where everyone, including the Democratic Party, has been deep in a slump since the presidential election failure, it may be the desire of the right, including the ruling party itself, to label as pro-North Korea those who could potentially be at the core of the opposition at the next regional or presidential election, thus nipping it in the bud and breaking their spirit.”

A second political columnist, Mr. B said, “It’ll be hard to remove the ‘pro-North’ label from the rational progressive Mayor Park until he radically transforms into a rightist,” going on, “I have this sense of foreboding that our future election campaigns will be buried beneath this kind of ‘pro-North’ ideological battle rather than policy matters.”

Meanwhile, Mayor Park’s office is keeping silent on the “pro-North” attacks. Mayor Park has also said that he does not want the women in her 60s who publicly attacked him to be prosecuted.

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  1. Good. Thanks.

  2. Interesting article! However, I noticed that the translation for the National Security Law was 국가안전법. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I believe its 국가보안법. I’ve also seen it written as 국가안보법, but a source told me that’s not right.

  3. Hey Rob, thanks for pointing this mistake out! It certainly isn’t 국가안전법; however, I’ve always known it as 국가안보법 ( What does your source say?

  4. Good point Rob, thanks. I live in a world of 국가안전보위부, unfortunately, so I just slammed my inter-Korean translation hammer through National, Security and Law in that order. Please, don’t turn this into a discussion, though, it isn’t the point of the piece.

  5. “Those who act against the national interest, and, in contradiction to the constitution, propagate Kim Il-sung’s ideology and cause social confusion by spreading distorted views of history must all be dealt the harshest punishment, and laws sending them into exile must be promulgated.”

    Change a few words and that could be a Rodong Sinmum editorial…

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