In 1964, Leslie Fiedler, a distinguished American literary critic, announced the advent of the Age of the New Mutants. In his monumental essay, “The New Mutants,” Fielder envisioned the American youth of the 1960s as new mutants who cut off their attachments to mainstream culture and created a new image of America marked by diversity and multiplicity.
Indeed, these “New Mutants” of counterculture radically altered the conservative terrain of American society and remade the image of America with their liberal imagination.
Watching today’s South Korean society, we, too, see the New Mutants who have recently emerged, remaking the image of the nation with a fresh new imagination and principles of decency, rationality, and a dose of common sense that contemporary politicians seriously lack. Originally, Korea’s New Mutants were the offspring of progressivism. As social and political rebels, however, the new mutants have turned their back on the older paleo-progressives who they think have become immoral and tyrannical.
There is a consensus in Korea that the expected life span of the pro-Park Taegukgi Corps has now ended and so has the conservative opposition party. Today’s young Koreans think that conservatism is neither valid nor has a place in Korean society. In other countries, young people tend to be liberals and older people over 40 or 50 are conservatives.
In Korea, the whole population seems to consist of progressives for some inscrutable reason, except for those over eighty; strangely, many extreme leftist Koreans are in their seventies. Therefore, the conservative opposition party is not likely to win any future elections. Undeniably, the age of conservatism in Korea is over now.
Our former conservative presidents -- Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye -- are primarily responsible for the demise of conservatism because they failed to be competent leaders. They also underestimated the tenacious efforts and malicious intent of the left-wing radicals to topple their administrations and turn Korea into a socialist country.
Both Lee and Park were not strong enough to fight extreme leftists during their terms. As a result, the left-wing radicals shook the Lee administration incessantly and finally took over the Park administration through massive candlelight demonstrations they instigated.
Conservative politicians, too, are equally responsible for the death of conservatism in Korea. Instead of advocating liberal democracy and the free market economy, they merely copycat the populism of their progressive counterparts.
To make matters worse, they are still engaged in an internal power struggle between pro-Park and anti-Park factions. They do not even seem to care about the future of their country and are disappointingly silent to the tyranny of the ruling party in the National Assembly or various scandals of the government. Consequently, the Korean people no longer trust conservative politicians who are equally incompetent as progressive politicians.
As conservatism is dying out, there is a strong possibility that the New Mutants, who severed their attachments to the mainstream progressivism, will soon replace the conservative opposition party and become a strong rival of the ruling party. Therefore, the future fight in the Korean political arena will be the one between extreme paleo-progressives and moderate progressives called the New Mutants, not between progressives and conservatives.
Since they are far less opinionated and ideological than the original progressives, these New Mutants can be our new hope under the circumstances. Unlike paleo-progressives who are wielding political power now, the New Mutants’ mental clock was not stuck in the 1980s and their mindsets are future-oriented.
They poignantly criticize the hypocrisy of the progressives, and object to the reckless anti-Japan campaign driven by the government. They are neither anti-America nor pro-North Korea, either. Furthermore, they seem to know the importance of liberal democracy and the free market economy. As such, the new mutants seem to be the only available option for Korean people who are disappointed in both conservatism and progressivism.
Some unbridled young Americans in the 1960s pushed progressivism to the extreme and allowed the counterculture to degenerate into a celebration of drugs and sexual dissipation that ended up taking a serious toll on American society. However, the New Mutants envisioned by Fiedler have gone on to become true advocates of cultural diversity and defenders of the marginalized such as minorities and women.
Even today, we can find the New Mutants in popular culture in American superhero comics and films. They defend not only racial minorities, but also human civilization against evil forces.
In Korea, the paleo-progressives strikingly resemble the American youth that took the wrong path of drugs and sexual dissipation under the name of progressivism. The only difference is that instead of drugs, Korean radicals have indulged in and are addicted to 20th century leftist ideology.
Consequently, old-fashioned socialism and Marxism have intoxicated them. Fortunately, the new mutants in Korea are different from them by being neither ideology-oriented nor sexually unscrupulous.
We hope that Korea’s New Mutants have superpowers to save our country from the perfect storm of domestic and international crises caused by the incompetence of our pseudo-conservatives and mock-progressives.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. -- Ed.