South Korea is being racked by arguably one of the biggest protest movements in the country’s history which has culminated in today’s impeachment of the president. Jeon Ji-yun from the South Korean anti-capitalist group Solidarity for Another World sets out the background to the crisis and an update on the rapidly changing situation.
Introduction to the current political crisis behind the impeachment
A massive storm has engulfed the presidency in South Korea. To those accustomed to the media preaching the inevitable collapse of North Korea, the impending collapse of the South Korean government is perplexing. Calls for the resignation of the president Park Geun-hye have been ceaseless amid weekly protests in Seoul and other cities. On December 3, about 2.3 million people took to the streets nationwide in the largest mobilization in the country’s modern history. With her approval ratings as low as 4%, Park announced on 29 November a plan to leave before the end of her full term of office. This was not enough and on 9 December parliament has voted on her impeachment amid scenes where opposition MPs were sitting on the floor in the chamber with raised fists chanting ‘impeach’. The situation is fast moving and likely to develop in ways that offer major opportunities for the radical left.
The protest wave was sparked by a media exposé of the power that had been amassed by the president’s close personal friend and adviser, Choi Soon-sil. Not only did the media expose the degree to which she had control over decisions relating to national policy, but also her involvement in a number of corruption scandals. She is also the daughter of the notorious religious cult leader Choi Tae-min, who played a similar role during the 1970s. This was during the period of military dictatorship when Park’s infamous father Park Chung-Hee was in power.
Despite holding no formal political position, Choi Soon-sil effectively revised all of Park’s speeches, deeply involved herself with the politics of government including the selection of cabinet members, and took bribes from the so-called ‘chaebols’ or big corporations that dominate the South Korean economy. Furthermore, Choi’s family members received preferential treatment from governmental organisations and there are suspicions that Park’s involvement in Choi’s religious cult and personal acquaintance with Choi had a hand in this unprecedented scandal.
The predominance of unelected corporate, bureaucratic and media conglomerate power over elected representation by parliament and government administration is a fundamental limitation of democracy in capitalism. However, when such limitations are abruptly, blatantly and scandalously revealed, public outrage is inevitable. South Koreans are expressing their rage by questioning the validity of South Korea as a democratic society. They are shattered by the realisation that a personal friendship with Park licensed Choi to dismantle their livelihoods.
Park was elected as president in 2012 with a promise that she would bring back the so-called ‘Miracle on the Han River’, a phrase referring to the rapid economic growth experienced during her father’s military dictatorship. Governmental support for large corporations and an export-based economy along with brutal oppression against any dissent or working-class resistance were the characteristics of her father’s regime. At that time, the police and the prosecutors’ office, the judiciary branch and corporate media took full advantage of Cold War anti-communism and the fear of North Korea to endorse a reign of terror and the witch hunting of the left.
By 2012 South Korean capitalism had been badly affected by the global economic crisis of 2008, and conservative groups were concerned with maintaining their grip on society. In order to cement her position among these groups, Park ran her presidential campaign by appealing to nostalgia for the 1970s.
It is likely that the right-wing ruling class, united through Park, had high hopes in the policies and the governing style of Park Chung-hee as a remedy to recession. They were well aware of the scandals surrounding Park’s close affiliates, including, but not limited to, Choi Tae-min and his daughter. However, they were not particularly concerned and the National Intelligence Service (NIS) unlawfully interfered in the 2012 presidential election to get Park elected.
During her presidency Park has implemented policies designed to meet the needs of the right-wing elite. She revived a violent wave of McCarthyite-style attacks on left-wing political organisations, alleging them of harboring pro-North Korean sympathies. As a result, the Unified Progressive Party, a left-wing political party with significant working-class support, was disbanded, leaving left-wing politics in South Korea divided and imperiled.
This was but the first of a long series of reactionary policies enforced by the Park regime over the last four years. To gain ideological control, she mandated a set of government-issued history textbooks for use in middle and high schools. She also turned a blind eye to Japanese war crimes by entering into an agreement with Japan over the historic question of Korean sex slaves. By closing down the Kaesong industrial complex she reinforced North-South tensions in the Korean peninsula, and she has aided US attempts to blockade China by agreeing to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korean territory. Her policies such as the privatisation of the railroad and healthcare system, the relaxation of conditions for the termination of workers, and the expansion of a wage-incentives plan had already undermined her popularity, and resulted in an upswing in labour protests. Finally, Park’s current unpopularity can be traced to her response to the sinking of the ferry Sewol off the country’s south coast in 2014. In response to the disaster, which resulted in more than 300 deaths -mostly children from a single high school – Park refused to carry out a proper investigation and suppressed protests by concerned citizens.
Meanwhile cracks are appearing in the ruling class. The ruling Saenuri party, along with big business, the judiciary, the conservative press and media had been united in their staunch support for Park. Currently, they remain united, but under a different banner; they have decided to condemn the corrupt alliance of Park and Choi, and many of their MPs voted for impeachment. This has revealed the ruling class to be, as Marx said, “hostile brothers”.
The Downfall of the Park Chung-hye Myth and the Division of the Right
The question of what may have caused this division between Park and the right-wing elite needs to be answered in relation to the continuing economic and geopolitical crisis of Korean capitalism and government. Park Geun-hye’s policies failed to resolve the problems; her failure was caused by lessons taken from her father’s atrocious regime.
Park Chung-hee was able to benefit from the post-war global economic boom as he pursued an export-centered economy. He was also able to maintain a military dictatorship and an authoritarian regime. On the other hand, his daughter faced a severe reduction in global trade following a recession, and ascended to the presidency in a different Korea than that of her father; the 1987 Democracy Movement had led to a transition toward bourgeois democracy in South Korea.
Given such drastic social changes and the radically different economic conditions, history could not repeat itself. Domestic and international trade, along with manufacturing, all show clear warning signs for the South Korean economy. Geopolitically, recent tensions between the US and China have placed South Korea in a perilous situation. As its economic dependence upon China continues to grow, the Korean state is in a dilemma in terms of maintaining its traditional political and military alliance with the US.
The ruling class has grown discontented with Park, having judged that her response worsened, rather than resolved, the crisis and instability in South Korea. The monopoly of Choi and her affiliates over power and privilege has only served to amplify this dissatisfaction, leading to calls from certain right-wing factions for a new regime excluding the now unpopular Park and her followers (we have to await the outcome of the judiciary’s decision whether to actually terminate her term of office to see if this has followed through).
This of course is not the whole picture; there has been a constant struggle against Park and her policies. Families of the Sewol ferry accident victims, residents of the area where THAAD is planned to be deployed, students organising against the enforcement of a government-sponsored history textbook, and the working class against neoliberalism are all significant forces in the struggle.
This resistance is what has hindered Park and her party from carrying out policies that threatened the working class. The ruling Saenuri Party was defeated in the April 2016 general election, relegating it to a minority in the National Assembly. With declining support for Park and the collapse of her electoral and social base, divisions on the right and in the ruling class have opened up, enabling the whistle-blowing and media disclosures that turned the situation into a full-blown crisis.
Thus, the scandal around Choi triggered multiple ruptures within the system. While failing to replicate aspects of her father’s legacy, Park has managed effectively and dramatically to repeat the historical lesson that a superficially steadfast authoritarian project can fall rapidly after the first signs of trouble. Dependence upon violence and coercion weakens the regime’s legitimacy as a defence against challenges and eliminates any cushion against discontent.
Massive forces of revolt in the streets are moving the South Korean political landscape to the left. The ruling party is fractured and on the verge of collapse, and the judiciary, formerly referred to as Park’s watchdog, is now holding a knife at the president’s throat. Liberal opposition parties with a history of compromise and capitulation are now eager to insist upon the necessity of Park’s expulsion following impeachment.
Above all, the current struggle imparts a confidence to millions of South Koreans who are realizing that they are capable of bringing about a historical change to their society. It is also noteworthy that voices against Park’s policies from their victims are growing. The call for a thorough investigation of the Sewol ferry disaster has become one of the key protest demands.
The right-wing ruling class now attempts to protect themselves from the crisis by disassociating themselves from Park, in order to buy time to protect their wealth and power with a temporary retreat. They have swung behind the impeachment and are looking to put in place a care-taking nonpartisan cabinet in preparation for an early presidential election and constitutional reforms.
The fear of being swept away by a wave of public outrage has hastened their action to disavow their loyalty to Park. State authority can later be ‘normalised’ once the waves die down. With a division of power between different political parties, the order could be further stabilised. Liberal opposition parties such as the Democratic Party do not fundamentally oppose this idea; they simply demand greater initiative and power for themselves in the process.
That is what motivated them to vote for Park’s impeachment and for the conservative Saenuri Party to ‘take responsibility’ for Park’s actions. Their participation in the street protests have gained them greater public support. At the same time they are just as firmly opposed to possible ‘confusion’ or a ‘vacuum’ in government, that they see resulting from the more radical demands of the protesters.
Thus the liberal opposition parties have engaged in unnecessary compromises the Saenuri Party, granting them the opportunity to buy time to plot their retaliation. Even if they achieve their goal of achieving a political transition, there will be minimal changes in the social structure.
Moreover, Park had already embarked on a counterstrike prior to impeachment, and this could still be the focus for ongoing struggles. She has refused to accept any investigation from the prosecution, and has continued to force through her controversial policies such as the deployment of THAAD and a military agreement with Japan. She is also continuing to apply pressure on the opposition by investigating possible corruption scandals involving political competitors. These tactics on her part will only result in Park’s retreat leading to indictment and criminal sentences.
Will the Lizard Cut Off its Tail, or Can a Radical Takeoff Be Achieved?
Despite the crisis we cannot rest content in the face of such immense stakes. It is important to motivate more people to come out to the streets. Only a greater impact from popular resistance will prevent the right-wing elite from making an escape route for themselves. We must be wary of the liberal opposition parties and their attempts to co-opt popular anger. Only an independent and critical viewpoint can prevent them from throwing a wet blanket over the struggle against Park’s regime.
The current mass street protests need to be combined with mass strike action. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) held a general strike for four hours on November 30th. Despite concerns about the prospect of repression against political strikes, which are illegal, the strike went ahead, and although turnout was partial, it is a major step in a rapidly evolving situation.
Left-wing organisations including trade unions and farmers’ unions that had been facing diffculties due to the president’s McCarthyite-style measures are rekindling their vigour and unity. Their dedication to a collaborative protest has done much to cement this newfound strength, and has helped to stoke the massive turn out on the streets.
The KCTU and other left-wing groups currently play a key role within a coalition of more than a thousand civil, women’s, environmental and other grassroots organisations named ‘Emergency Action for Park’s Resignation’, in which is leading the ongoing demonstrations.
If moderate groups connected to liberal opposition parties take the initiative, this may lead to a mere transfer of power through elections. Liberal parties will come to an agreement with the right-wing elite. Even though the management of the system may transfer to those moderate groups, the regime will operate under a basically identical set of rules.
On the other hand, if left-wing and working-class organisations are able to lead the struggle and manage to pull large numbers of people from outside the organised labour movement and civil organisations to the left, the action can expand and advance to a new level. In that case, a more radical change in social structure could be expected. Left-wing and working-class organisations must unite in order to drive the current struggle toward that goal.
The future course of action has not yet been determined. As millions take to the streets, we see a large number of confused and contradictory viewpoints being expressed. Some protestors have been carrying Korean flags in the streets reflecting the strong pull of nationalism in Korean society, and some dream of salvation by liberal opposition leaders. Some think that Park, as a woman, should never have stepped into politics. Yet others feel that the struggle must be legal and endorsed by the authorities at any cost.
These contradictions are unavoidable in large-scale social struggles. However, it must be noted that those holding these contradictory ideas have marched into the streets and are continuing to become radicalised. Public mistrust of liberal opposition parties has grown along with support for more drastic, combative action.
The interest in, and support for, different public demands has also risen. Many activist groups that were long relegated to isolated struggles are gaining new power. The dream of South Korea as a society where democracy and social justice are protected has become more prominent, and people are responding favourably to the claim that Park’s resignation is only the first step toward this goal. This is a clear opportunity for the radical left.
Even now, from different social strata and locations in South Korea, the successful demand for Park’s impeachment has marked the first step, and the energy released continues to spread like wildfire. This is indeed a tremendous historical opportunity; it might come to pass that our dreams will finally be realised.
 According to Amnesty International, the UPP’s ban raised “serious questions as to the authorities’ commitment to freedom of expression and association”. https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Unified_Progressive_Party
Ji-Yun Jeon is a South Korean Socialist and has previously worked as an editor of a leftist newspaper. He is currently a member of the Executive Committee of ‘Solidarity for Another World’ (SAW), which is an anti-capitalist group in South Korea that was founded in 2014. If you want to learn more about ‘SAW’, please check out: