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Tuesday, May 9, 2017
South Korea Lurching Blindly Left
On Tuesday, May 9, the Republic of Korea will elect a new president. All signs indicate that the next president will be a socialist, after a decade of governance by the country's relatively conservative party --- a party which, in a desperate attempt to save itself from being tarred withPresident Park Geun-hye's recent impeachment, has tellingly rebranded itself as Liberal Korea.
Given that in Korea, "socialist" has always meant "sympathetic to the communist North," it is not surprising that some Western analysts are seeing a bleak future for this tiny but economically and strategically vital peninsula. In March of this year, for example, the New York Post's Seth Lipsky authored an op-ed titled "Are we about to lose South Korea?" to which his answer was an ominous "Maybe."
At this precarious moment in Korea's history, with the North becoming increasingly belligerent and increasingly nuclearized, and the South carelessly lurching leftward, perhaps concerned Western observers will benefit from an on the ground report focused not on the practical politics of the moment, but rather on the condition of the national soul from which political choices issue. As an expatriate resident here, and a university professor in regular contact with young, middle class Koreans, I have a privileged vantage point from which to examine the spiritual winds of this nation.
Such spiritual winds are much more identifiable and easily observable here in a country that, having seamlessly married its collectivist "we're all one family" cultural history to its rapid-paced Westernized consumerism, has forged a society characterized by an almost maniacally monolithic trend-hopping, even in politics, as though new laws and moral codes were to be picked up as unreflectively as a new designer bag, merely to keep up with the Joneses. And keeping up with the Joneses is actually a major factor in the current Korean situation, due to certain psychological aspects of this country's difficult history and recent growth.
Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party, the socialist who ran a competitive second to Park Geun-hye in 2012, is well-placed to reap the benefits of Park's downfall. And there is no doubt he is a "Sunshine Policy" type -- ideologically sympathetic to North Korean communism and supportive of détente and a softening of rhetoric leading (in pipe dreams) to political reunification -- though he is not an out and out traitor. But even if, as expected, Moon becomes president, Korea has a one-term limit on presidential administrations which is sacrosanct in a democratic republic founded in the ashes of the autocratic rule which ended within the lifetimes of most current voters. This practical restriction on long-term adventures would severely hamper the implementation of any ambitious strategies for reunification, such as Moon's "two-step plan." And those strategies would be unlikely to get anywhere beyond feel-good optics in the first place, given the unlikelihood of the North really cooperating. (Again, this assumes that Moon is not literally a traitor, which I have seen no reason to believe.)
So a progressive win would definitely change the South's rhetoric, and therefore change the national tone in a harmful way. One key to the election's outcome will be the youth vote, which has been galvanized by Park's influence peddling scandal, or more specifically by progressives' effective exploitation of the scandal as an ideological talking point: "See how those hard-hearted conservatives and their corporate cronies disrespect the people!" While the youth vote has always been a little pro-North, or rather anti-American, that could get worse with a concerted propaganda effort from certain major media outlets and education officials working in cahoots with a socialist government.
Having said that, Koreans are an emotional people and still in the relatively nascent phases of their democratic development; political movements and popular waves are always tempestuous here, which can have both positive and negative effects. At least such fickleness tends to obstruct the long-term entrenchment of specific party factions with corruptive goals.
(If you can't see the potential positives of emotional tumult in a democracy, consider the hardening of the arteries that has reduced American political life to its intractable uniparty establishment framework, from which no escape seems conceivable. A true, constitutional republican structure would obviate the need for fickleness and immoderation to save the nation from political paralysis, but there is at present no nation on Earth with such a stable structure in practice.)
Due to their unstable and famously impatient collective temperament, Koreans have a tendency to unravel their political idols in a hurry. What they did to the so-called conservative Park over the past year, so they have also done to almost all previous elected leaders, including President Roh Moo-hyun, the anti-American socialist whose top advisor Moon Jae-in once was, and who maintains a real mystique here as a "great and noble man" (the kind of mystique leftists always get), in spite of having plummeted to subterranean levels of support during his term in office, and later committing suicide in the midst of a wide-ranging bribery scandal that was in the process of destroying his legacy, such as it was.
In sum, then, I don't like the prospects for either the short or long term, but I don't see the ROK fundamentally "changing sides" anytime soon. The current anti-Park monolith -- polls during the final stages of the impeachment scandal showed near-unanimity among young voters -- is a less serious concern than the general lack of deep principle guiding Korea's political evolution. Political beliefs tend to be a matter of taste or mood here, wherein the younger generations are easily swept up in enthusiasm for "new ideas," mostly those related to governmental "compassion."
While a few young Koreans express strong sympathy with the communist North, most merely tend to believe mindlessly in the Euro-fantasy of the welfare state -- viewed roughly as the hot new Western product they haven't imported yet. Still, to oversimplify slightly (but only slightly) for the sake of clarity, while many university students will speak with naïve certainty about how wonderful the welfare state would be if older Koreans would just stop being so stubborn, most of them love their K-pop and expensive makeup much more. When they begin to realize the two preferences are incompatible, they will likely choose their pleasures.
Admittedly, this reliance on the attractions of superficiality to save a nation from progressive authoritarianism is not a promising prospect for long-term societal health, but it does conform to a certain (arguably small-minded) American foreign policy tradition: spreading "capitalism" (i.e., amoral materialism) to quell popular totalitarian inclinations.
As I have noted, the danger here, and the chief cause of the country's recent leftist surge, is more psychological than ideological. I see no evidence that most mainstream young adults admire North Korea or communism, per se. But many Koreans suffer from some degree of short man syndrome, partly due to their relatively short period of politico-economic development. Though fiercely proud of their national identity, they also feel self-conscious and even embarrassed about any perceived lack of what they identify as Western-style development. But at the moment, partly due to the universal idolization of their own Ban Ki-moon and the UN -- International Relations is one of the trendiest university departments here -- Western-style development largely entails advanced European progressivism.
Hence, in spite of their nation being relatively conservative or unprogressive on most economic and moral issues -- or perhaps because of that -- many university-age Koreans knee-jerkingly speak of welfare programs, redistribution, abortion on demand, and the like, as unambiguous ideals. In general, Koreans inclined to feel self-conscious standing before the outside world (and young people are of course most susceptible to all forms of self-consciousness) see their successful nation as backwards for all the very virtues that defined their incredible rise: low taxes, high levels of entrepreneurship, brilliant frugality (the product of long-term poverty), familial self-reliance, moral self-restraint based on a sense of public shame. They therefore foolishly seek to embrace a more "forward-looking" social model that would actually destroy their many real achievements and advances, as is already happening in most of that Europe they blindly idealize.
It's sad to watch Koreans -- many of whom are very dear to me -- craving the means to their own destruction. Not unfamiliar to a North American expatriate who has seen all this before -- Justin Trudeau represents the second generation of socialist populism within one damn family, for crying out loud -- but sad nonetheless, because, just like their near-miraculous rise from third-world poverty and dictatorship, Koreans' current rush to progressivism is occurring at a speed that puts the West to shame, and almost guarantees that there will be no time for a deep breath or second thought before Nemesis greets them at last.
Daren Jonescu writes about politics, philosophy, education, and the sunset of civilization at