The Korea Herald


[NEWS ANALYSIS] Does populism also stand a chance in Korea?

By Yeo Jun-suk

Published : July 4, 2016 - 16:24

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Over the past few months, the populist movement has taken center stage in global politics.

Ranging from presidential nominee Donald Trump in the U.S. to Brexit, antiestablishment sentiments are sweeping across some of the most advanced democracies in the world.

On the exterior, South Korea seems to be unaffected by this phenomenon, as the nation stands mostly together in its prolonged confrontation with North Korea and in pursuit of economic growth. Politics may be boisterous, but the directions and solutions preached by rivaling parties remain in the same vein.

Derived from the Latin word “populus,” which means people in English, populism commonly refers to an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites,” according to “Twenty First Century Populism,” coauthored by political scientists Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell. 
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In the latest case of the U.S. and the U.K., the populists came to the fore advocating bans on foreign immigrants, denying multinational treaties and alliances and departing from international institutions, in a nationalistic move against globalization.

“The populists in the U.S. and Europe have appealed to the frustration by the voters who are left in the cold during globalization,” said Chun Sang-jin, a sociology professor at Sogang University.

New York businessman Donald Trump and other chauvinistic politicians across the European continent, such as Jean-Marie Le Pen from Front National in France, rose to prominence after they campaigned to stop immigration, close borders and adopt protectionism. 

But populism takes on quite a different meaning in Korea. Populists in Korea have galvanized regionalism among voters to roll out election pledges only catered to specific constituents.

The conservative and liberal parties alike have often created a sense of hatred among different provinces mainly between the conservative-based Gyeongsang provinces and liberal-based Jeolla provinces -- all in the hopes of getting supporters to rally behind their causes.

Populism therefore has become the byword for bad politics as its scope here includes unrealistic welfare promises, pitting people against one another based on their social and economic standings.

Earlier this month, progressive mayors Park Won-soon of Seoul and Lee Jae-myung of Seongnam were labeled “populist” by President Park Geun-hye for their pledges to help young people search for jobs by offering them monthly subsidies in cash.

Meanwhile, none of the mainstream parties advocate protectionism. The conservative Saenuri Party, central-left The Minjoo Party of Korea and center-right The People’s Party proclaim they embrace free movement of goods and service.

“Populism in the U.S. and Europe has grown alongside increasing challenges in the open economy and massive immigration. As luck would have it, South Korea has faced few challenges on that front,” said Lee Byoung-hoon, a sociology professor at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

Historically, Korea has rarely been divided over differences in trade policies. Since it joined the World Trade Organization in 1995 as a founding member, it has embraced free trade. The only exception was the free trade agreement with the U.S., which led to antigovernment rallies mostly led by liberal groups.

Another factor is the nation’s restricted immigration policy. According to 2015 statistics from the Ministry of Interior, the ratio of foreigners to the total population is about 3 percent, with most staying in Korea as temporary workers, not permanent residents.

Behind reluctant immigration policies lie strong nationalism, said Shin Yul, a political professor at Myongji University. He noted that chauvinist politicians in the U.S. and Europe have spearheaded anti-immigration policies and that Korea’s nationalistic sentiment could become the driving force of a similar movement, such as against North Korea and the country’s “sacrosanct principle” of eventually seeking for reunification.

“Of course, there was no significant uprising of chauvinistic politicians here. But that ironically shows that such nationalist views are already generally deep-rooted in South Korea. Korea is not behind the present Western democracies in terms of its nationalistic movement. It is quite the other way around,” Shin said.

Experts said that South Koreans are as xenophobic as those in Western democracies -- if not more -- and that it is only “a matter of time” before antiestablishment politicians come to the fore -- as long as the stage is set for them.

“South Korea has fertile ground for a populist movement to thrive,” said Chun Sang-jin, a sociology professor of Sogang University. “It is inevitable for the ‘globalized’ country to face populist challenges. I think we have about 20 years left before confronting the problem,” he said.

Shin agreed and said the antagonistic sentiment would get stronger if South Korea was to face a massive inflow of immigrants from the North upon reunification.

“Nationalism is the idea of ‘us’ creating a community. South Koreans are not likely to treat a North Korean as one of them,” he said.

For the time being, in a move to avoid association with extremist groups, political leaders and presidential hopefuls mostly cast themselves as moderates.

Any move perceived as radical or populist has been quickly condemned by the masses.

For instance, it was revealed in 2014 that the Saenuri Party had appointed as its strategist a conservative activist who allegedly helped the far-right online community “Ilbe” stage a smear campaign against victims of the Sewol ferry disaster. He had been put in charge of removing “left-wing ideologies.”

It was considered to be a coalition between establishment political groups and right-wing ideology.

Right-wingers in Korea dominantly advocate patriotism, criticizing left-wingers for ignoring national interest by speaking on behalf of minors.

More recently, a communications official from the presidential office was accused of having a rightist civic group, “Korean Parent Federation,” hold pro-government rallies, with the nation’s biggest business association accused of funding the activities.

Both acts were heavily criticized, and the conservative camp immediately disassociated themselves from such moves.

Rival party chiefs and floor leaders have echoed centrists’ rhetoric in their latest parliamentary speeches such as creating lucrative jobs and reducing income disparity.

But the unanimous call for “moving to the center” is another version of a worrisome movement designed to champion the established political and economic system, said British Pakistani scholar Tariq Ali in his book “The Extreme Center: A Warning.”

The leftist activist said in his critically acclaimed book that centrist politicians, who have won general elections since the late 1980s, only served the interest of the market and caused corruption and dysfunction in British and European politics.

Sociology professor Chun agreed, “It seems to me that the global challenge these days requires more than business-as-usual solutions. Under these circumstances, people will feel frustrated at the loss of a group representing their interests and become more likely to sympathize with radical ideas.”

By Yeo Jun-suk (