A pillar of democracy in the region. A country rusted out by scandals, corruption and love affairs

Home of high-tech, Samsung, LG and Hyundai. Ninth largest economy in the world. Land of trendy K-pop music bands. And at the same time, corrupted to the core by the sick relationship between politics and the economy. Will the conservatives who have recently come to power be able to fix what is bad, save what is good?

“South Korea’s fertility rate is the lowest in the world” – Bloomberg has just reported. In order to prevent a demographic catastrophe, the recently appointed conservative government has announced social measures. From next year, each family with a newborn child will be entitled to a monthly child-rearing benefit of one million won (about $740). The amount is expected to increase in subsequent years.

Who exactly are the South Korean conservatives who have been in power in Seoul since May 2022 and are introducing their version of 500+?

Prosecutor President

The face of the conservative camp is President Yoon Suk-yeol (in South Korea’s political system, the most important person in the state, de facto head of government), who won more than 48 per cent of the vote in the May presidential elections (0.7 per cent more than Democratic Party challenger Lee Jae-myung).

President Yoon is a political novice. His experience with politicians has been limited to courtroom contacts. Indeed, he is a prosecutor by trade. In recent years, he has held the position of Prosecutor General, from which he resigned in March 2021. This was in opposition to the Liberals’ planned reform of the prosecution service at the time.

Before resigning, however, he became famous for his investigation into the corruption offences of conservative President Park Geun-hye. The investigation led to her impeachment in March 2017 and, a year later, to a sentence of 24 years in prison. But in December 2021 Park Geun-hye was pardoned by President Moon Jae-in, Yoon’s predecessor.

The corruption scandal was a massive blow to the conservatives. – It seemed that they would not recover. And yet they succeeded. If we were to look at this year’s election from the perspective of 2016-17, the outcome would have to be judged as very surprising. On the other hand, a lot has happened in South Korea over the last five years, the conservative camp has regained the trust of the voters – Dr Oskar Pietrewicz, political scientist and analyst at the Polish Institute of International Affairs, tells TVP Weekly. He adds that one of the factors that allowed the conservatives to rebuild their position was the People Power Party’s dissociation from former president Park Geun-hye.

Tired of Liberal rule

But let’s go back to May 2017, when Democratic Party candidate Moon Jae-in won the presidential election (winning 41 per cent of the vote). At the time, it seemed that the position of the liberals would remain unchanged for many years. According to polls, Moon Jae-in enjoyed more than 80 per cent support at the beginning of his rule.

Meanwhile, when he stepped down in May this year (in South Korea, the presidential term lasts five years; there is no possibility of re-election), support was down by half. Although it still matched the presidential election result, it was clear that the public mood had changed, that a significant proportion of Koreans were tired of the Liberal government. This was largely due to the scandals that have plagued South Korea for years.

– President Moon Jae-in was supposed to be the face of change, a symbol of purification. In the election campaign, he promised to fight against all evil, against corruption, against sex scandals. But nothing of the sort has happened. What is more, it turned out that Moon Jae-in’s ministers were just as embroiled in scandals as their predecessors – says Dr Joanna Beczkowska, a political scientist and Koreanist from the University of Łódź, who points out that Moon Jae-in also won through.

Koreans were positive about the government’s plan to combat the pandemic and the transparency of procedures, among other things. – This translated into the victory of the Democratic Party in the 2020 parliamentary elections. But the Democratic Party, despite its majority in parliament, is now an opposition party – she explains.

He pardoned the “prince” of Samsung

Taking advantage of the scandals in the liberal camp, the conservatives bet on a candidate from outside their inner circle. This turned out to be a shot in the arm. Or at least it seemed so at the time of the election, as support for President Yoon has now dropped significantly, but more on that later.
Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol in February 2022 as the conservative opposition candidate for president of South Korea. Suk-yeol won on 9 March by a narrow margin, a difference of 200,000 votes. Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
– The People Power Party, in announcing Yoon Suk-yeol as a presidential candidate, saw him as a man who would fight corruption, which had been a huge problem in South Korea for decades. Many presidents in power during the democratic period, since the late 1980s, have been accused of corruption and convicted – says Dr Marek Handerek, a historian from the Institute for the Middle East and Far East of the Jagiellonian University. And he adds that Yoon Suk-yeol invited to the inauguration of his government... the former president, Park Geun-hye, whom he investigated in 2016.

Whereas in August, the new president pardoned Lee Jae-yong, Samsung’s chief executive, the richest man in South Korea, sentenced to 2.5 years in prison in connection with the same corruption scandal. – Yoon Suk-yeol recognised that the national interest required that Samsung, the country’s largest company, accounting for one-sixth of all South Korean exports, should be managed as well as possible during the difficult times of the global economic crisis – Dr Handerek continues.

  President Yoon, while still Prosecutor General, was incidentally involved in the trial of the “prince” of Samsung, as Lee Jae-yong is jokingly referred to.

The legacy of dictatorship

In South Korea, the fundamental issue dividing conservatives and liberals is the attitude to the past. The roots of the conservative camp go back to the early days of the Republic of Korea, the mid-1940s. After the end of the Japanese occupation and the partition of the Korean peninsula in 1945, the communists took over in the north. In the American-controlled south, on the other hand, Syngman Rhee became head of state.

– The president maintained a semblance of democracy, but was in fact a dictator. His rule was quite brutal. In 1960, as a result of public protests, he was forced to flee to Hawaii – says Dr Zbigniew Kwiecień, a historian from the American Studies Center of the University of Warsaw, in an interview with TVP Weekly.

A year after Rhee’s emigration, a military coup took place in South Korea. – It was led by General Park Chung-hee, dictator and father of former President Park Geun-hye. The coup ushered in a junta rule that lasted until the late 1980s. Though, officially, the conservative camp ruled. Today’s conservatives are not exactly continuators of that policy, but some links are evident. For example, they look favourably on the achievements of General Park Chung-hee, who made Korea an economic power – says Dr Oskar Pietrewicz.

There is a critical attitude towards Gen. Park Chung-hee and the period of military dictatorship in general among liberals, who demand settling the past. – The political environment of the liberals grew up in opposition to the authoritarian rule of the junta. Hence, it is highly critical of that period – the analyst points out.

– There is an environmental as well as ideological connectivity between contemporary South Korean conservatives and the authoritarians that ruled almost until the late 1980s. Conservatives do not regard that period as disgraceful, one to require a reckoning. The liberals, who come from pro-democracy movements in opposition to authoritarian military rule, have a different approach, to put it simply – concurs Dr Marek Hańderek.

Chaebols started to invest

Whereas in South Korea, liberal governments, as a matter of domestic policy, have placed particular emphasis on social issues, conservative governments are primarily business-oriented. – In terms of its approach to the economy, the People Power Party somewhat resembles the US conservatives. That is, it advocates the free market and, as much as possible, limiting state intervention in economic affairs. Problems are to be solved by the invisible hand – points out Dr Zbigniew Kwiecień.

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– The Conservative camp is pro-business. It assumes that the private sector should be the engine of the economy. It supports investment, including introducing legislation to stimulate it. Chaebols, or South Korean conglomerates, were given great optimism after Yoon Suk-yeol’s victory. Despite inflation and the threat of stagflation, chaebols are now investing in new research. It is apparent that Samsung, Korea’s largest R&D investor and largest employer, has recognised that now, when it can count on the favour of the authorities, is the right time to invest, above all in semiconductors and biopharmaceuticals – adds Dr Joanna Beczkowska.

The system of clans, families, and clientelism

However, the close relationship between politics and business creates an interdependence that has resulted in numerous corruption scandals. – The genesis of the problem goes back to the authoritarian rule of General and then President Park Chung-hee. He was a dictator to some and the father of an economic miracle to others. It was during his reign that the support of several (and then more) companies began; their expansion at home and abroad. They were covered by a political umbrella and a kind of symbiosis between the world of business and politics was created – says Dr Handerek.

He adds: – Powerful chaebols such as Samsung and Hyundai have a huge influence on the state of the South Korean economy. That is why politicians have to reckon with the biggest domestic companies. They are even treated as a national asset. Thanks to their prosperity, South Korea is growing. It is now the tenth economy in the world.

One may also wonder whether one factor in the occurrence of political-business arrangements is not history and culture. – Next to Japan, South Korea is the most democratic country in the Far East. However, at the core of the organisation of these societies is still a system of clans, families, and clientelism, loyalty to one’s patron. Therefore, it is difficult to expect democracy in South Korea or Japan to function as it does in France or the United States – reflects Dr Zbigniew Kwiecień.

Dr Oskar Pietrewicz stresses that, on the one hand, South Korean society is displaying democratic maturity as evidenced by, among other things, civic engagement, a willingness to speak out on important issues, high voter turnout, the creation of a culture of dissent as demonstrated by the impeachment, etc. On the other hand, the healthy social fabric is overlaid by pathological relations between the political world and business.

– Every South Korean president, regardless of political affiliation, gets along with the chaebols. There is no anti-system politician who will say: “down with the chaebols”, because that would mean that he is questioning the economic development model that the nation is proud of and that has brought successes, including social successes, because people have started to get rich. The president is not going to cut off the branch that everyone (including him) is sitting on – Pietrewicz emphasises.

The most mature democracy

The analyst continues that the chaebols ruthlessly exploit this situation by exerting influence on the authorities. They do this through both legal lobbying activities and corruption. For example, they dissuade politicians from their intention to impose more taxes on corporations and, at the same time, from their intention to introduce tax breaks for small and medium-sized entrepreneurs, because, they argue, “Korea should be grounded on big businesses”.

Conglomerates are keen to give expensive gifts to politicians and related foundations. This was also the case in the Park Geun-hye scandal. Samsung gifted a friend of the former president (actually the friend’s daughter), among other things, a horse worth around $850,000. – The results of the opinion poll on the pardon in the same case of Samsung’s “prince” are interesting and at the same time frightening. Well, the majority of those surveyed were of the opinion that President Yoon Suk-yeol’s decision was the right one. According to the Koreans, the situation at Samsung should be stable, because if things go wrong, both the subcontractors and the community in general will suffer – explains Pietrewicz.
Lee Jae-yong, the “prince” of Samsung, offered a bribe to the daughter of a friend of former Korean President Park Geun-hye in the form of a horse worth around $850,000. Pictured is the heir to the electronics conglomerate’s fortune being led to the announcement of his sentence in 2017. The businessman was convicted and later pardoned and returned to his position at the company. Photo by Seung-il Ryu/NurPhoto via Getty Images
Dr Marek Hańderek, in turn, points out that the Koreans are very proud that their country is a democracy, despite its many scandals: – I have encountered opinions expressed by the Koreans themselves, who believe that South Korea is the most mature democracy in East Asia. Although the Japanese would certainly disagree.

The historian adds that the maturity of South Korean democracy is evidenced by the fact that scandals are not swept under the carpet and that involvement in them “does not go unpunished, even when it comes to the presidents”.

Against the feminists

The sphere that differs between conservatives and liberals is also morality. Dr Marek Hańderek notes that the new president is unlikely to want to confront issues raised by progressive circles, such as those related to gender inequality. – In Korea, women tend to earn less than men, are less likely to be elected to senior corporate positions, and a small percentage of them hold important positions in politics – he enumerates, adding that the liberal administration was more sensitive to these issues.

Moreover, during the election campaign, President Yoon announced the abolition of the liberal-appointed Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, arguing that it was redundant. For the time being, however, the office is still functioning.

Dr Hańderek mentions that, in recent years, an issue that has outraged public opinion has been hidden cameras installed in large numbers in public places: changing rooms and toilets (mainly women’s). This was one of the factors that spurred feminist organisations demanding, among other things, the fight against sex crimes: – A lot of feminist organisations have become active in recent years. They are very hostile towards the conservative president, who, contrary to the Democratic Party narrative, does not believe that gender inequality exists in South Korea. The president is a declared “anti-feminist” and during the election campaign claimed, among other things, that feminism is the cause of low birth rates in South Korea.

We should add that there is currently a social conflict between men and women in South Korea. – We have a strong wave of feminism, but at the same time we also have a wave of anti-feminism, caused by men who feel discriminated against. Above all, they raise the issue of compulsory military service. They believe that it should include women or be abolished altogether – explains Dr Joanna Beczkowska.

Suicide of the Seoul mayor

Politicians are often involved not only in corruption scandals, but also in morality scandals. In July, for example, an affair became public, in which Lee Jun-seok, the young leader of the People Power Party, plays a central role. – He was suspended as party chairman over allegations of hiring prostitutes, allegedly paid by a businessman seeking to gain recognition as a politician, and of abetting the destruction of evidence in the case – Dr Pietrewicz explains.

The political scientist adds that in previous years it was not only the conservatives who were accused in the sex scandals, but also the liberals, who, by the way, vocally declared their respect for women and promised to fight for their rights.

In 2020, the suicide of Park Won-soon, the mayor of Seoul, accused of sexual harassment by a former secretary, reverberated loudly. The accusations were not confirmed. Perhaps this would have happened if the Seoul mayor had not taken his own life, for in Korea, suicide is considered an honourable act and means public closure.

A turn towards the USA

Finally, let us stop at the conservatives’ view of foreign policy. Well, the assumption of the presidency by Yoon Suk-yeol, marks a turn towards the US and Japan on the one hand, and a cooling of relations with North Korea on the other. The liberals placed less importance on relations with the US, were critical of Japan, as we will discuss in a moment, and sought to rebuild relations with communist North Korea.

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– Conservatives often emphasise that if it were not for the alliance with the United States, South Korea would not have survived, falling victim to North Korea. Towards their neighbour to the north, they are very critical. That is, they believe that it is actually possible to try to establish some dialogue with Pyongyang. But at the same time, they take the position that North Korea should first and foremost be deterred and that one should be prepared for hostile actions on its part. A different approach is taken by liberals, who in recent years have offered Pyongyang economic support and initiated inter-Korean summits – explains Dr Pietrewicz.

Dr Beczkowska adds that the conservatives are trying to balance between the United States, which is the main security partner, and China, the most important economic partner. – President Yoon Suk-yeol has taken a strong political course towards the United States. Moreover, he is calling for closer cooperation not only in security, but also in economic matters. At the same time, he is trying not to alienate China. This can be exemplified, among other things, by the handling of the Taiwan issue. South Korea does not meddle in these disputes, and has even declared, for fear of economic consequences, its support for the one-China vision – she says.

The Japanese issue

A clear worldview difference is the question of relations with the aforementioned Japan. Here, history again plays a central role. Liberals still want to remember the wrongs suffered at the hands of the Japanese and emphasise that they have not been redeemed. Conservatives, on the other hand, believe that these wrongs should be forgiven and that good relations should be built with the Land of the Rising Sun, if only for the sake of the alliance with the USA.

Let’s recap: in 1910, Japan annexed Korea, which became part of the Empire of Japan. This state of affairs lasted for 35 years. – The Korean king and his family were formally recognised as members of the imperial family. The Japanese administrative and school system was introduced in Korea. On the one hand, this meant the modernisation of Korea. But on the other hand, the attitude of the Japanese towards other nations, especially neighbouring nations at the time, was very chauvinistic and even racist. In everyday contacts they often demonstrated arrogance, even contempt, towards Koreans – says Dr Zbigniew Kwiecień.

– Beginning in the 1920s – the historian continues – successive Japanese governments tried to nationalise Koreans. A compulsory subject was introduced in schools: the Japanese language. Over time, Japanese, with the exception of the first grades of primary school, became the language of teaching. They wanted Koreans to move away from their customs, their folklore. The adoption of Japanese names and surnames was suggested. It was compulsory to participate in the ceremonies of the shintō religion. Korean children attended a ceremony every morning at school to worship the divine emperor of Japan and his family.

The historian points out that many Koreans, wishing to free themselves from participating in degrading ceremonies, adopted different Christian denominations.

The Holy See intervened to exempt Koreans from participating in the shintō ceremony. The Japanese government, however, responded that the ceremony was a form of worship to the state and the monarch and therefore not religious in nature.

– Koreans, on the one hand, paid taxes and were subject to Japanese law, while on the other hand, they had difficult access to jobs in administration and, in time, education. Daredevils who opposed Tokyo’s policies were brutally treated by the Japanese law enforcement. All this led to an increase in emigration from Korea to China, specifically to the nearest Manchuria. Although overpopulation in Korea and the peasants’ search for land they could lease was also an important factor. Anyway, in the 1930s, the Japanese government, under the pretext of “defending” Japanese subjects, who were formally Koreans, carried out a military aggression against Manchuria – says Dr Kwiecień.
Japanese military policemen in Korea in 1910. Photo: Topical Press Agency/Getty Images
The historian adds that until the middle of World War II, Koreans were not obliged to serve in the military because “the Japanese rightly doubted the loyalty of Korean conscripts”.

When Japan surrendered in 1945, the Americans were convinced that their main ally in the region would be China. However, after the communist takeover in the Middle Kingdom, these plans had to change. Pragmatism led the United States to bet on Japan. – After three years of the Korean War, Korea was devastated and even poorer than in 1945. Meanwhile, in Japan, the US occupation formally ended in 1951. Japan, with US help, rebuilt its economy and flourished. A military aid treaty was quickly concluded. This forced the Koreans to normalise (at least at the level of declarations) their relations with Japan. But of course the rift between them remained – says the historian.

Dr Beczkowska emphasises that President Yoon is now seeking to repair relations and establish a dialogue with Japan. – During his predecessor’s term, relations deteriorated a lot, precisely because of historical quarrels – she explains.

– Yoon Suk-yeol does not question the wrongs done to the Japanese. On the other hand, he tries to give them a hand – comments Dr Oskar Pietrewicz. – From the Polish point of view, in South Korea liberals are much more nationalistic than conservatives. We tend to see liberals as cosmopolitans, internationalists. Meanwhile, in Korea, unlike in Poland, it is the liberal camp that demands a reckoning with history, not the conservative camp.

More and more believers

Another issue that may seem a little strange to us from our perspective is the denominational divide. Koreanists Prof. Marcin Jacoby and Dr Jakub Taylor once emphasised during a conversation organised as part of a webinar at SWPS University, that South Korean conservatives tend to be Protestant, while liberals and leftists tend to be Catholic.

– South Korea is, after the Philippines (where Catholics make up more than 75 per cent of the population), the most Christian country in the region – emphasises Dr Zbigniew Kwiecień.

In turn, Dr Marek Handerek adds: – According to the data, South Korea is the only highly developed country in the world where the percentage of people declaring themselves as believers is increasing. In other countries, the trend is the opposite – Dr Marek Handerek points out.

Conservative from Harvard

In South Korea, conservatives are not a homogeneous community. – One can observe divisions, for example along generational lines – says Dr Joanna Beczkowska.

– Representatives of the younger generation are more diverse in their worldview, for example in their approach to the United States or North Korea. The older generation is more supportive of the alliance with Washington and presents a harsher attitude towards Pyongyang – she continues.

Dr Oskar Pietrewicz, on the other hand, notes that Lee Jun-seok, i.e. until recently the leader of the People Power Party, who was ousted as chairman as a result of the scandal, is a representative of the younger generation (he is 37 years old), a Harvard graduate who represents extreme conservative views on moral issues. – From our point of view, I would describe him as a misogynist. He explained many of society’s problems by the actions of feminists. This was his main message. Senior party activists did not necessarily think this was the right way to go. Maybe they would agree with him during a conversation over a beer, but they felt there was no point in using such a narrative in public – he points out.

According to the analyst, the young faction of the party is worldview-wise more radical than the older generation. However, he points out that the Conservative party has been constantly transforming itself in recent years as a result of the shock of the impeachment of the former president, giving rise to numerous divisions.

Blunders and faux pas
There are undoubtedly difficult challenges ahead for President Yoon. Especially since, after 100 days in power, his support has halved. – Above all, public sentiment is affected by inflation and high energy prices. On top of this, droughts have recently hit agriculture hard, followed by torrential rains that have claimed 11 lives. This has also contributed to a decline in support as the president is seen as failing to deal with the situation in the country. In addition, city dwellers, e.g. in Seoul, are plagued by property prices and a housing shortage – says Dr Joanna Beczkowska.

The Koreanist continues, saying that public outrage was caused by the personnel choices of the new president, who staffed his office with former prosecutors. This was perceived as a sign of cronyism. In addition, the expert points out that Yoon Suk-yeol’s idea, which has been met with discontent, is the plan to lower the school age to five (currently the threshold is six). The opposition of Koreans to this project is very strong: – This is evidenced by the fact that Education Minister Park Soon-ae has resigned.

Mishaps are also contributing to the decline in support. – President Yoon Suk-yeol is irritating the public, largely due to communication problems. Koreans, for example, wonder what went through the president’s mind when he refused to meet with Nancy Pelosi, who had come down to South Korea. He hid behind the fact that he was on holiday – recalls the political scientist, adding that, although the President has no political experience, the numerous slip-ups may be puzzling, as he has, after all, surrounded himself with very experienced advisors.

His gaffes during speeches are conspicuous. – The public points out that Yoon Suk-yeol does not speak like experienced politicians. Even the conservative media proclaim: “The president needs to repair his image and rebuild public trust”, “there is a need to focus on reforms” – reports Dr Beczkowska.

It will be extremely difficult to carry out major reforms, such as lowering the school age or abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, in the near future, in view of the Conservative Party’s minority in parliament. Parliamentary elections will be held in two years’ time.

Dr Pietrewicz points out another issue that is also related to the current support for the new president. Namely, the fact that Koreans at the ballot box cast their votes on the spur of the moment and often change their minds. – Despite a highly polarised society, there is not an entrenched attitude towards a particular political option, as is the case, for example, in the United States, where families from generation to generation vote Republican or Democrat. In South Korea, the parties obviously have a hardcore electorate. Nevertheless, there are many fickle voters who go from extreme to extreme, from love to hate – he concludes.

– Łukasz Lubański

TVP WEEKLY. Editorial team and journalists

–Translated by jz

Main photo: Globally, South Korea’s positive image is created by hyper-popular k-pop bands such as BTS (during their US tour, the singers were received by President Joe Biden on 31 May 2022, pictured with his press secretary Karine Jean-Pierre). In 2018, the boy band made it to No. 1 on Forbes’ list of the most influential personalities in Korea. Photo by Kevin Dietsch/Getty Images
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