Most South Koreans believe the North Korean regime is evil, and their antagonism toward the North grew further when Pyongyang announced a purported satellite launch plan, which the world condemned as cover for its long-range missile project. Therefore, whichever political groups or individuals determined to be sympathetic with the North Korean communists are sure to lose votes even if they could expect support from a small pocket in the extreme left.
Thus, in the final week of the National Assembly election campaign, we are witnessing certain disturbing developments: The ruling Saenuri Party and rightist groups are making determined efforts to portray the leftist coalition of the Democratic United Party and the United Progressive Party as “subservient” to North Korea in their ideological orientation. Their opponents seem rather anxious to distance themselves from Pyongyang, departing from their usual ambiguity of the past.
The emergence of Lee Jung-hee, 43, a co-leader of the UPP, as the top campaigner in the opposition coalition along with the DUP’s Han Myeong-sook, offered fodder for the ideological controversy. Lee withdrew from candidacy in a Seoul district over a scandal in the course of a joint primary between the two parties and Lee Sang-kyu, a senior UPP official, got nomination. As soon as the opposition candidacy was decided, the Saenuri Party and the rightwing media looked into the backgrounds of the two Lees and other UPP leaders to unleash an ideological offensive.
Conservative researchers claimed that Lee Jung-hee was an early recruit of the so-called Eastern Gyeonggi Solidarity, allegedly the most radical of the pro-North Korean NL (national liberation) student and labor activist factions in the 1990s. It was further asserted that Lee was manipulated by former Solidarity members since she joined the Democratic Labor Party in 2008 and after it became the UPP merged with another progressive party late last year.
Progressive lawyer Shim Jae-hwan, husband of Lee Jung-hee, has been brought to spotlight as the possible lynchpin between Lee and the NL movement. A Saenuri Party spokesman and the Chosun Ilbo reported that Shim, 54, head of the Unification Committee of “Minbyeon,” the association of liberal lawyers, is the “brain” behind the Eastern Gyeonggi Solidarity. Shim is well known for claiming that Kim Hyun-hee, the convicted bomber of KAL Flight 858 in 1987, had made a false confession and calling for the abrogation of the National Security Law.
However, Shim, his wife Lee, and Lee Sang-kyu all deny their affiliation with the Eastern Gyeonggi Solidarity. Shim admitted he had once defended Solidarity members in court, but he said that the group was disbanded several years ago as far as he knew. Lee Jung-hee positively denied that any Solidarity members, either present or former, played a part in the UPP’s nomination process. Shim said he would sue the Chosun Ilbo and the Saenuri spokesman for libel.
The ideological rows went further, concerning the UPP’s entering Lee Seok-kee as its No. 2 proportional representation candidate. Lee, director of a social research office who is now assured of an Assembly seat, had been sentenced to two-and-a-half years in prison for violating the National Security Law in connection with his participation in an outlawed organization. The UPP has not responded to the calls from conservative circles for his removal from the list.
In the final stage of the election campaign, it is regrettable that parties have been detracted from policy debates into wrangling over the ideological influence of radical activists of past decades. By all accounts, they are believed to have submerged from active partisan functions and if they played any role in the UPP or in the opposition alliance, it is essentially an internal problem. There are far more important issues, including welfare, employment and inflation, just to name a few.
If opposition campaigners want to counter the conservative offensive, and if they fear its impact, they should come forward to clarify how their parties and candidates respect the democratic constitutional order of the Republic of Korea and what their position is on North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats, instead of just denying the ghostly existence of a group of leftist ideologues. The whole matter reminds us of the still deep “Red complex” in our society.