Never Mind the North: Legacy Politics in the ROK

By | September 17, 2013 | No Comments

Arirang Mass Games, anyone? Legacy is complex in both Koreas | Image: Wikipedia

Arirang Mass Games, anyone? Legacy is complex in both Koreas | Image: Wikipedia

“North Korea’s viable future,” Cambridge University anthropologist Heonik Kwon concluded in a May 2013 essay for e-IR, “depends on how creatively it brings its sovereign heritage before the 1970s to the fore. It also depends on how it can leave the past legacy politics of 1994–2011 behind.” Leaving legacy politics behind is not just something that leaders in the North must grapple with; the shadow of legacy politics also looms large over Seoul. Using two recent cases, the confiscation of former presidential dictator Chun Doo-hwan’s family assets by the state and the indictment of several members of the UPP on charges of treason, including lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, Christopher Green finds that the past can be as much a roadblock to change in South Korea as it is in the North. –- Steven Denney, Managing Editor

Never Mind the North: Legacy Politics in the ROK

by Christopher Green

The propagandists in Pyongyang are engaged in a task of herculean proportions. They must re-position the metaphysical presence of the two deceased Kims, in much the same way as monarchs of yore had to work with, and around, the legacies of their absolutist forebears. This needs doing in a way that gives the living Kim (Jong-un) the political space to rationalize economic development against the hallowed legacy of partisan struggle: of Kim Il-sung, who established the state, and of Kim Jong-il, who devoted his era to defending the revolutionary legacy of that foundation at all costs.

So it goes in the world of legacy politics [yuhun jeongchi; 유훈정치], a fluid territorial domain within which history (or whatever mythical historiographical production is employed in its stead) acts simultaneously as both propellant and roadblock to developmental change.

South Korea faces a comparable problem. The Republic of Korea is a state similarly devoted to familial ritual, the permanence of charisma, showmanship in politics, and the concentration of power in the hands of the few. Where Heonik Kwon sees issues of colonial and postcolonial history at the forefront of legacy politics in the North, so there are the metaphysical ghosts of authoritarian politics haunting the corridors of South Korean power, limiting options and creating roadblocks.

16 years after judgement was passed, the South Korean authorities went after the assets of Chun Doo-hwan. Additional pressure was placed on Chun by Roh Tae-woo, who repaid his entire debt to the nation at a similar time. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

Detained UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, one of the most controversial figures on the Korean peninsula. | Image: Destination Pyongyang

The Ghosts of Authoritarian State Power | Examples are myriad. Hwang Byung-joo of the left wing Institute for Korean Historical Studies [Historical Problem Research Institute; 역사문제연구소] noted in a feature piece published by the left-leaning Kyunghyang Sinmun last month: “It is impossible to explain South Korean society without understanding President Park Chung-hee and his era.” Indeed not: the Park family is absolutely central to contemporary South Korean political life. Like a Japanese minister asserting that Adolf Hitler may have had some good social policies, so mere mention of the Yushin Constitution is sufficient to end all rational debate over the Park legacy, and has the latent potential to end lifelong friendships.

The lingering specter of another former president, Chun Doo-hwan, looms almost as large. The spiritual successor to the first Park (Park Geun-hye, the current president, is the second), Chun saw many of his extended family’s valuable possessions unceremoniously expropriated last month, following the passage of legislation extending the statute of limitations on confiscating the assets of public officials. Raids on ten locations were undertaken at the crack of dawn on August 28, almost a decade to the day since Chun, facing a fine of 220 billion South Korean Won, declared before an incredulous nation, “There is only 290,000 won in my bank account.” The early morning raids were met with widespread progressive schadenfreude, of course, and similar quantities of conservative silence. Unless he clears his debts, Chun can expect the circus to continue: the revised legislation has opened the way for him to remain a lightening rod in the yuhun jeongchi firmament until at least 2020.

Ghosts of War: South Korea’s Partisan Heritage | But yuhun jeongchi in South Korea is not merely a question of “build ‘em up to knock ‘em down” ascent and descent from the pinnacles of state power. Rather, it runs like a rod through the core of much more than that.

Nothing exemplifies the societal nature of the clash between historic inheritances better than the case of Lee Seok-ki. A minority left wing Unified Progressive Party (UPP) lawmaker who entered the National Assembly in 2012, Lee was arrested at the beginning of September this year for organizing an “RO” (Revolutionary Organization) and conspiring to overthrow the state. A number of other minor UPP officials, Hong Soon-seok, the vice-chair of the Gyeonggi Province branch of the party, Gyeonggi Progressive Alliance advisor Lee Sang-ho and former Suwon City Council chairperson Han Dong-geun among them, were arrested for the same crime.

Imprisoned and then pardoned at the turn of the century for his role as a mid-ranking organizer in another RO, “Minhyukdang” (People’s Democratic Revolutionary Party; 민혁당), Lee is no newcomer to controversy of this nature. As such, his seemingly sudden arrival on the formal political scene in recent years was a worry to many outside the auspices of what was once known as the Democratic Labor Party, the home of the anti-American firebrands who form one wing of the UPP.

The embattled and widely distrusted National Intelligence Service (NIS; 국가정보원) is basing its case against Lee on the testimony of a 46-year old informant also called Lee. According to the as-yet unverified NIS data, informant Lee (rather than defendant Lee) joined the RO around 2004, and remained a core member thereafter. This, it is alleged, means that he “knows the true nature and content of [the RO’s] activities very well,” and has been able to provide evidence in the form of a USB containing the group’s “ideological education” materials.

According to informant Lee, defendant Lee and his group of roughly 130 “revolutionaries” met in early May this year at a church building in Hapjeong-dong, Seoul, where they supposedly plotted to secure firearms and bring down parts of the national infrastructure in the event of war with North Korea. War, they apparently believed, was imminent, a fact that marks the group out against the broad mass of other engaged observers, many of whom watched with something approaching incredulity as near-limitless supplies of bellicosity burst from the Pyongyang wellspring following international condemnation of a December 12 missile launch and February 12 nuclear test.

Interestingly, given that it is a controversial incident in its own right, it was allegedly North Korea’s torpedoing of the ROK Navy corvette “Cheonan” on March 26, 2010 that brought informant Lee to his senses and caused him to “start a new life” free from the strictures of what might politely be termed deluded leftist anachronism. For its part, the UPP claims he was actually bribed to talk with “enough money to send his entire family to live abroad.”

The Bad Apple by Gregory Pence, published by Daily NK on May 18, 2012 | Image: Daily NK

“The Bad Apple” by Gregory Pence, published by Daily NK on May 18, 2012 | Image: Daily NK

The Problem of Sedition | NIS may have made the entire story up, keen only to deflect attention from its own wrongdoings. The state intelligence agency would be wise to try and deflect such attention, given that those wrongdoings, concerning intervention in a democratic election and the publication of state secrets, are considerable and serious. However, there are plenty of easier crimes to pin on Lee and his cohort than what amounts to sedition; the legislation had not been used for 33 years before it was dusted off and thrown at him, after all. To this extent there must surely be a case to answer.

And of all the crimes to try and prove in a court of law, sedition is one of the hardest. It requires that Lee actually organized the group (i.e., that he, with or without others, led it); that he was responsible for it; that it was actually likely to or had already produced concrete results; and that it was a genuine threat to the security of the state. The likelihood of judges convicting any of the defendants on the evidence available to date must surely hang in the balance as a result.

Lee Jung-hee, the head of the UPP, made the same point very adroitly in a press conference on September 4. Speaking shortly before a National Assembly voted on a motion to permit the arrest of defendant Lee, a sitting lawmaker, Lee commented to reporters, “The inability to punish those who only think about [illegal acts] and do not implement [those thoughts] is a principle of modern criminal law.”

Lee Jung-hee is right, of course. However, modern criminal law lacks the definitional power of legacy politics. The stage is set.

Legacy Politics Transcends the 38th: Conclusion | More important than the facts of the impending Lee Seok-ki case, the ascent of Park Geun-hye or the rapidly declining wealth of Chun Doo-hwan, is the question of what legacy politics in South Korea means for state and society. The conclusion, as in the case of North Korea, is: nothing positive.

The differences between the two Koreas are manifest and cannot be underestimated: not least that South Korea, despite the inefficiencies of familial economic allocation, is phenomenally successful, and that Seoul pays rhetorical and, despite the infractions of its state intelligence agency, mostly practical adherence to liberal democracy. But for all that, problems linger.

When it was coined, the term “386 Generation” was used to describe a demographic of people aged 30-39 who were born in the 1960s and went to university in the 1980s; in other words, people who tasted tear gas in the fight for a democratic South Korea. Such a glorious revolutionary heritage is something to be proud of, but it carries a cost. For while a more appropriate designation for the group would now be “486,” age has not ripened, and many of its members have yet to find peace.

Few people in South Korea seem at all confident that they know how, if, when, or to whom to hand down the historically valid but ultimately conflicted and increasingly self-destructive legacy of 1980s revolutionary struggle, any more than the North Korean regime has configured its own ghosts in such a way that change has the opportunity to take root. It is these failings that define not only the Kim regime, one realizes, but also vast tracts of the “386 Generation.”  Glorious partisan struggle was, is, and will continue to define them all.

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