The Korea Herald


[Kim Seong-kon] True meanings of progressivism and conservatism

By Kim Seong-kon

Published : Jan. 14, 2020 - 17:16

    • Link copied

People say that today’s South Korea has become a battlefield between progressive and the conservative. The press, too, divides the people into these two categories. When there is an anti-government demonstration, newspapers and TV news programs report, “Conservatives gathered at Gwanghwamun Square to protest.” The headline implies that those who support the current South Korean government are progressives and those who do not are conservatives.

However, such a bipolar dichotomy is inaccurate and gravely oversimplifies the complex situation in today’s South Korea. Among other things, the above headline is likely to result in the indifference or even hostility of those who think of themselves as progressive. They will disparage the demonstration with a sigh: “Ah, those pathetic conservatives!” However, if the demonstrators protested the wrongdoings or wrong policies of the government, it would be misleading to label it simply “conservatives’ complaints.”

Another problem with such a dichotomy is that, in South Korea, the “progressives” are not progressive and the “conservatives” are far from being truly conservative. To become a progressive, you have to be liberal in the first place. If you hate liberalism, you are a conservative, not a progressive. Strangely, however, South Korean progressives oppose liberal democracy, the free market economy and free trade. Truly progressive people should be trendy, open-minded and eager to move on toward the future. For some inscrutable reason, however, progressives in South Korea are the opposite; they are hopelessly old-fashioned, stubbornly closed-minded and constantly going back to the past.

South Korean conservatives, likewise, are hardly conservative. Conservator means “protector.” Therefore, conservatives should protect individual freedom, personal property and social institutions. Instead of assuming such responsibilities, however, conservatives in South Korea seem to be interested only in protecting their own inherited or bestowed rights and privileges. In order to gain popularity, they even adopt populism, imitating their left-wing political opponents. Furthermore, they are too incompetent to stop the radicals from oppressing individuality, tearing traditional institutions apart and extorting personal property in the name of the public property policy.

Perhaps, then, we should describe it as a war between the Left and the Right, rather than progressives and conservatives. However, it would still be problematic because many intellectuals on the Left would not support the radicals who try to practice Marxism and socialism, which will eventually deprive the people of individual freedom and personal property. Similarly, many people who do not trust the current leftist government are not necessarily right-wing. They do not support the right-wing leaders who, in their eyes, are hopelessly divided and incapable of preventing the extreme leftists from putting the nation in harm’s way.

Therefore, it would be more appropriate and accurate to call it a battle between pro-North Korea people and anti-North Korea people, or between pro-China people and pro-America people. It is also a fight between capitalists and socialists, between management and labor unions, and between globalists and nationalists. At the same time, it is a clash between the younger generation and the older generation. We may also call it a brawl between the two groups: those who want to return to the Continental Civilization and those who prefer to remain in the Oceanic Civilization.

It is also a scuffle between liberal democracy and people’s democracy. In a recent interview, professor Yi O-young, a former minister of culture, pointed out that the Korean translation of “democracy,” which is “minjujuui” or “democratism,” is wrong. According to him, “juui” means “-ism,” but democracy is not an “-ism.” Professor Yi argues that democracy is more of a system or an institution, and so even socialist or communist countries can adopt democracy, as the case of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea shows. The difference is that capitalist countries adopt liberal democracy, whereas socialist countries practice people’s democracy.

The problem with a people’s democracy is that it can easily degenerate into a mob democracy of the kind that dictators prefer. Indeed, both Hitler and Stalin used people’s democracies to justify their tyranny. Besides, many South Koreans misunderstand “democracy.” At school in South Korea, students learn that democracy simply means following the decision of the majority. However, democracy also teaches us to respect the opinions of minorities. Otherwise, democracy can turn into totalitarianism.

South Koreans confuse socialism with progressivism, and anti-communism with conservatism. They may be partially right, yet there is much more to it. To be truly progressive, for example, you should transcend tribalism and become a globalist. You should also have a future-oriented mindset and thus agree with the young girl in “Geostorm,” who narrates at the end of the movie: “You can’t undo the past. All you can do is face what’s ahead.” Otherwise, you are not a progressive. In order to be truly conservative, you should protect liberty, religion and property rights. You should also defend parliamentary government, individualism and traditional values for social stability. Otherwise, you are not a conservative.

We should know the correct meanings of progressivism and conservatism, and act accordingly. Otherwise, confusion and sociopolitical turmoil will continue in South Korea. 

Kim Seong-kon
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University. -- Ed.