Many foreigners wonder why socialism and Marxism persist and even remain popular in such an affluent capitalist country as South Korea. Perhaps the reason dates back to Korea’s liberation from Japanese rule in 1945. Historians argue that at the time, the resistance leaders in the Korean Provisional Government located in China needed a counterideology to fight Japanese right-wing military imperialism. Left-wing ideologies such as socialism and Marxism, which flourished in China at that time, nicely fit their purpose.
When liberation came, therefore, many of Korea’s political leaders were socialists already. As a result, the North became a communist regime under the tutelage of the Soviet Union and the South, too, was inclined to socialism due to left-wing leaders who outnumbered right-wing ones. Those left-wing leaders in Korea pursued a unified country and thus opposed the birth of South Korea.
To their disappointment, however, South Korea was born in 1948 and US-educated Dr. Rhee Syngman became the first president due to the support of Washington. Naturally, left-wing leaders were dismayed and infuriated. They thought a right-wing rival from the US had snatched and usurped the throne that was rightfully theirs. From that time on, left-wing activists in South Korea have abhorred America, together with capitalism and liberal democracy, which the US subsequently brought to South Korea.
That resentment persists in today’s South Korea. That is why the spiritual descendants of those resentful left-wing leaders still do not want to acknowledge the sovereignty and legitimacy of South Korea. Some of them even assert that North Korea is a more legitimate nation than South Korea because they believe it is the North, not the South, that has inherited the socialist legacy of the exile government.
For that purpose, left-wing radicals have condemned Rhee Syngman as a pro-Japan collaborator. However, experts contend that such an accusation loses validity because during his more than 30 years of exile in the States, Rhee dedicated himself solely to the anti-Japan independence movement. His anti-Japan attitude was also outstanding even after he returned to South Korea as the first president. Indeed, in the 1950s secondary school classrooms in South Korea put up a slogan on Rhee’s instructions: “Ban-gong, bang-il!” which means, “Anti-communism! Defend our country from Japan’s aggression!”
The second reason why socialism persists in South Korea is the right-wing military dictatorship from the 1960s to the 1980s. In order to fight the right-wing dictatorial regimes, South Korean student leaders subscribed to Marxism and socialism. Hiding underground, they delved into the theories of Marx and Lenin, and Mao and Guevara, and then preached them as if they were gospel.
Persecuted ruthlessly by their own government, the radical student leaders hated South Korea so much that they preferred North Korea. Intoxicated by Marxism, they also detested capitalism and Washington, which they believed was supporting South Korea’s military dictators. As a result, Marxism and anti-American sentiment were predominant, especially in the 1980s. Those left-wing radicals preferred China to America and North Korea to South Korea. Therefore, the student leaders’ democratization movement in the 1980s inadvertently, but inevitably, turned into a Marxist and socialist movement.
The third reason for the persistence of socialism stems from the ideology-oriented school education of South Korea. From their left-wing teachers and distorted history textbooks, students learn to prefer socialism to capitalism at school. In the 1980s, for example, speaking well of capitalism in class was a taboo in South Korea.
At that time, anti-capitalism was so predominant that if a professor commented on capitalism favorably, he had to bear harsh criticism from students. Even today, a professor who openly praises capitalism in class is likely to lose popularity and become a target of criticism. Of course, it is absurd and paradoxical because South Korea has accomplished spectacular economic success and become an affluent society by taking advantage of what capitalism can offer.
Today, communism has proven itself as a failed project and thus disappeared into history completely, or else hides behind the banner of socialism. One problem of socialist countries is the lack of individuality; the government controls everything and practices surveillance and censorship. People tend to confuse welfare states such as Sweden, Denmark and Norway with socialist nations that were formerly communist countries. In fact, however, they are radically different in every sense.
Although South Korea is not a socialist country, its social welfare system has considerably improved for the past few decades. Its health insurance program, in particular, is definitely one of the best in the world. Therefore, we do not need to become a socialist country in order to make our nation a paradise of social welfare or a unified country. All we have to do is make the original ideal of capitalism fully realized in our country despite its innate problems.
Although socialism persists, South Korea will remain a capitalist country in the years to come.
By Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.