Hani Says “Don’t Be Fooled” by False Political Divides

By | November 17, 2013 | No Comments

The “murky standards of South Korean politics,” as one follower of Korean politics describes it, are as much a consequence of a highly divisive domestic political environment as a cause of it. The slinging of political epithets to belittle opponents, the highly suspect behavior of hard-left progressives, and the equally suspect behavior of intelligence agencies represent affirmative cases of the “race to the bottom” that has engulfed South Korean politics as of late. Where American politics and society are divided on the appropriateness of a new health care policy, Korea is torn as to whether or not an elected assemblyman can be said to have conspired to overthrow the government in the event of an invasion from the North.

Kim Gu, a victim of ill-defined political divisiveness in South Korea. | Image: Wikimedia

Kim Gu, a victim of ill-defined political divisiveness in South Korea. | Image: Wikimedia

In South Korea, political divisions are portrayed dichotomously as ideational and political battles between conservatives and the “right” on one side and progressives and the “left” on the other—as they typically are in other countries as well. But not everyone buys the validity of such divisions or the typologies used to describe them. Kwak Byong-chan confronts the political divide head-on in one of his recent Hankyoreh columns, “Do not be fooled by and let’s not fool [others] with this progressive-conservative, right-left divide.”

For Kwak, the political divide as it is portrayed in the media is a fallacy that hides the real problem confronting South Korean society. The divide is between the whitewashers of Korea’s authoritarian past and those who fight for democracy. Though Kwak’s conclusion is as divisive as the divide he claims to be deconstructing, his critique of the way the media constructs the political divide is an instructive read.

He begins by confronting the word “jeongbuk,” a catchall epithet that portrays progressives as blind (and the blindness is important) North Korea sympathizers:

Are jeongbuk, as they say, progressive, and are jeongbuk ideologists leftists? Those who follow the North Korean system are jeongbuk, nothing more; they cannot be classified using the left-right, progressive-conservative typologies. One cannot say that a government that oppresses, starves, and executes its people at will is progressive.  [Likewise], one cannot say that a follower of a system founded on patriarchal Confucianism (the North Korean system) is progressive.

Having set out the red line, he addresses the textbook controversy, a highly politicized issue dealt with by Sino-NK here and here. It has hitherto been portrayed (in the media, primarily) as a political battle between the forces of left and right. According to Kwak, this has, just like the use of the term jeongbuk, distorted what is means to sit on the left or right of the center aisle. He expounds:

The focus of the textbook issue began with factual errors, Japanese annexation, evaluation of the Syngman Rhee and Park Chung-hee dictatorships, and plagiarism. If one is to follow their [the media’s] logic, then those who believe the Japanese annexation and colonial rule were a blessing are rightists, and those who note the struggle for independence are leftists. If you turn a blind-eye to actions that destroy freedom and democracy you are a conservative rightist, and if you are critical of people like this, you are a progressive leftist. [Furthermore,] those who prioritize the pillars of right wing philosophical thought, the nation/people and national autonomy, become leftists, while those who actively rely on things traditionally shunned by the right, and external forces, become conservative.

Rather than suggest a new typology, Kwak laments the effects of thinking along this deceptive dichotomous line. As an example, he points to the “ostracization” of Kim Gu, a Korean independence fighter respected in both North and South Korea with nationalist credentials to rival those of Kim Il-sung.

As a consequence, people who think this way [right-left/conservative-progressive] have ostracized the dyed-in-the-wool nationalist Kim Gu. The provisional government [Kim] led is also pushed aside.

Instead of honoring Kim Gu and his attempt to set-up a government free of foreign influence, attention is given to “collaborators,” a term as divisive as jeongbuk and capable of eliciting an equally strong emotional response. Kwak knows his readership well. He continues:

They are adamantly against putting a portrait of Kim Gu, a most highly respected person by the people, on a bill but idolize people like Baek Seon-yeop who captured nationalists (like Kim) as one catches lice and turned them over to the Japanese colonizers. To them, whether dictatorial rule was or was not preferable is the criteria by which someone or something is considered conservative/progressive or rightist/leftist.

For progressives like Kwak, it isn’t a matter of petty differences between conservative and progressive worldviews or diverging views on what makes good public policy. The divide is much deeper than that; it is a divide so deep that compromise would mean an abdication of core values. There differences between the two groups in society are irreducible. For Kwak, the question whether dictatorial rule for Korea was beneficial misses the point. “A dictator—like Hitler, Mussolini, Stalin, and Assad,” he writes, “is a dictator: nothing more, nothing less.”

Those that view, teach, or support the view that dictatorial rule was beneficial for Korea are not actually conservatives, according to Kwak. They are as deceptive as the media-constructive political divide that misleads people into thinking all jeongbuk and progressives and all of Korean society can be divided into those who view dictatorship favorably and those who don’t. Kwak’s concluding paragraph is a strong indictment against a “pseudo” political right that reveals as much Kwak’s opinion as it does the impasse that divides contemporary Korean society.

[O]ur pseudo-conservative rightists show characteristics of blindly following or depending on the highest power and the mainstream group–whether [this power/group] be the Japanese colonizers or a dictator. The collision in our society today is not between leftists and rights or progressives and conservatives, but between totalitarianists and democratic power.

Source: Kwak Byong-chan, “Do not be fooled by and let’s not fool [others] with this progressive-conservative, right-left divide” [진보-보수, 좌-우에 속지 말고, 속이지 말자], Hankyoreh, November 13, 2013. Translation by Steven Denney.

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