Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia

Locals walking in front of a big statue in Pyongyang, North Korea on August 15, 2016. Photo: L.M. Spencer.

Please cite as:

Pretorius, Philip Christo & Valev, Radoslav. (2024). Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea and Mongolia. European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS). April 5, 2024.                               

This report offers a summary of the 11th event in ECPS’s monthly Mapping Global Populism panel series, titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” held online on March 30, 2024. Dr. John Nilsson-Wright moderated the panel, featuring insights from five distinguished scholars: Dr. Joseph Yi, Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, Dr. Sang-Jin Han, Dr. Junhyoung Lee, and Dr. Mina Sumaadii.

By Philip Christo Pretorius and Radoslav Valev*

This report encapsulates the highlights of the eleventh event hosted by the European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS) as part of its monthly Mapping European Populism (MGP) panel series. Titled “Forces Shaping Populism, Authoritarianism, and Democracy in South Korea, North Korea, and Mongolia,” this event unfolded online on March 30, 2024. The esteemed Dr. John Nilsson-Wright expertly moderated the panel, which boasted insights from five distinguished scholars in the field of populism.

The panelists featured in the event included experts such as Dr. Joseph Yi, an Associate Professor of Political Science at Hanyang University, Seoul, renowned for his work on "Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence." Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw, an Associate Professor at the Institute of Social Science, The University of Tokyo, provided valuable insights into the regional context through her research on "Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea, and China." Dr. Sang-Jin Han, an Emeritus Professor of Sociology at Seoul National University, shared his expertise on sociopolitical trends in South Korea, focusing on the "Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024." Dr. Junhyoung Lee, a Research Professor in the School of International Relations at the University of Ulsan, South Korea, contributed with his research on "Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea." Lastly, Dr. Mina Sumaadii, a Senior Researcher at the Sant Maral Foundation, Ulaanbaatar, Mongolia, offered a unique perspective on "Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia."

The panel served as a platform for a rich exchange of ideas and analysis, shedding light on the complex interplay between populism, authoritarianism, and democracy within these East Asian nations.

Professor John Nilsson-Wright opened the panel by giving a few introductory remarks about North Korea and South Korea. Starting with the latter, he posed the question on whether or not thinking about populism in South Korea is relevant since it seems to be a successful and vibrant state with a healthy and vigorous political process that participates with the international community. 

Using the Candlelight Demonstrations as an example of the strength of the political culture in South Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright further states that the country’s institutional frameworks are an example of successful democratic governance. However, critics of the system argue that South Korea has not yet become an ‘advanced democracy,’ and that is in danger of democratic backsliding. Further to this, the country has a polarized society with a strong sense of anti-elitism, and have a poor record of press freedom. According to Dr. Nilsson-Wright, one of the features of populist politics in the country is the debate over who constitutes as ‘the people,’ and it is underscored by the debate between the narrative of economic exceptionalism, and those who celebrate the achievements of democratic transition. In contrast to the above-mentioned critics, Dr. Nilsson-Wright turns to scholars who praise South Korea’s democratic emergence, using examples of the 2004 impeachment attempt against President Roh Moo-hyun, and the historical evolution of South Korea’s democracy from its illiberal and authoritarian past, as evidence of the country’s democracy in action.

Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlighted some of the problems that currently undercut and threaten the integrity of South Korea’s Democratic institutions, indicating that there are legitimate questions about the maturity of South Korea’s political system. On a positive note, the last presidential election was strikingly close, with discourse grounded in economic efficiency rather than emotive political issues. The open question remains on whether or not South Korea’s institutions will continue to contain polarizing tendencies from both internal tensions and external threats. Expanding on the latter threat, Dr. Nilsson-Wright highlights that, because of the concerns commentators have over China, a new type of populism has emerged – nuclear populism – which a sign of how fear and distrust can fuel a political climate. 

Turning to North Korea, Dr. Nilsson-Wright presents scholarly work that’s been conducted on totalitarian control, and in particular focuses on the works that focus on social, rather than political, change. For him, this has opened new avenues of thinking about the links between populism in South Korea and the style of politics in North Korea. In explaining the persistence of North Korea’s system, Dr. Nilsson-Wright argues that the emotional dimension of politics has been important in the analysis of the two Koreas closer together. These emotions are mostly fear and resentment of opponents, weaponizing the past, and political nostalgia. 

Enquiring on whether or not the authority in North Korea will last, Dr. Nilsson-Wright concludes by giving examples of Kim Jong-Un has both continued on with traditional forms of totalitarian control, yet in some respects have broken others, and all that remains now is to watch closely the way the leadership of North Korea formulates national policy objectives.

Dr. Joseph Yi: “Discourse Regimes and Liberal Vehemence”

Dr. Joseph Yi posed two questions. Firstly, he questioned whether individuals with access to identical information and facts would exhibit a greater propensity to compromise and cooperate. Secondly, he explored the notion of diverging strains within liberal democracy. Dr. Yi expressed his belief that populist tendencies exist in South Korea across the political spectrum, with both the left and the right accusing each other of being illiberal and questioning the legitimacy of each other’s procedural rights.

Dr. Joseph Yi commenced his presentation by emphasizing that Populism frequently portrays its adversaries as enemies of both the people and authentic democracy. Additionally, Dr. Yi referenced International Relations literature, asserting that democracies tend to collaborate with one another, contrasting with the animosity often observed between democracies and illiberal regimes. However, there has been a noticeable rise in animosity among OECD democratic polities, evident at both the national and subnational levels. Dr. Yi illustrated this with concrete examples, including California’s state-funded travel ban against Florida and the European Union’s decision to suspend financial funds to Hungary.

Dr. Yi advanced a theoretical argument suggesting that the divergence among democratic polities fosters animosity, with each democratic entity perceiving others as either illiberal or false democracies. He then outlined two approaches: the positive sum approach, where procedural rights support substantive rights, and an emerging approach that sees procedural rights as incompatible with substantive rights. Both the Left and the Right contend that certain groups’ rights have been marginalized, leading to distinctions between "right-wing victim’s rights (RVR)" and "left-wing victim’s rights (LVR)." Dr. Yi introduced his second variable, the information markets, noting that even in "mature" democracies, discourse on victims’ rights limits the information market by restricting "harmful" speech.

Dr. Yi proceeded to make a number of propositions. First, he claimed that there is greater animosity between democracies with different discourse regimes. Proponents of the RVR and LVR views claim that the other regime tolerates hate-speech and censors the voices of victims. 

Dr. Yi’s second proposition was that there is especially high animosity when one democracy follows a “victim’s rights” model that restricts information nationwide and the other does not. For example, in South Korea between 1948-1980, the RVR regime repressed communist speech. Similarly, since the 2010s, LVR regimes have prioritized victims of colonialism over academic freedom of dissenting scholars. Dr. Yi provided a personal example where some student activists from his university in Seoul violated his procedural rights by distributing fliers with a quote which was taken out of context i.e. not providing the full set of facts which is an example of limiting the rights of dissenting scholars. 

However, in Japan there is more thorough discourse where the government does not criminalize either left-wing or right–wing scholarly perspectives. In South-Korea, the narrative that the Japanese Imperial Army abducted over 200,000 women is very prevalent, while in Japan, the media claims that there is no evidence that this happened. In this context, both Japan and South Korea frame each other of being illiberal. Countries such as the Philippines and Taiwan do not limit the information market and have FTAs with Japan, whereas South Korea cooperates more with countries that restrict the free flow of information. 

Dr. Yi concluded by stating two questions. The first one being whether people who have access to the same information and same facts would be more likely to compromise and cooperate with each other. The second question he posed is whether there are diverging strains of liberal democracy. Dr Yi finally stated that he believes that there are populist tendencies in South Korea of both the left and the right to accuse each other of being illiberal and that the other group does not deserve its procedural rights to be respected. 

Dr. Meredith Rose Shaw: “Foreign Threat Perceptions in South Korean Campaign Discourse: Japan, North Korea and China”

Dr. Meredith Shaw discusses some key elements she is monitoring for the “second image reversed problem,” particularly regarding the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), both of which entail acting subservient or subordinate to a larger nation. While historically referring to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and collaboration with Imperial Japan, these terms have recently resurfaced in relation to China. Dr. Shaw notes that both the Left and the Right employ this rhetoric, accusing each other of flunkeyism, thus balancing each other out in terms of populist rhetoric and preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to gain favor with the populace.

Starting her presentation, Dr. Meredith Shaw starts with a powerful statement that she believes South Korea should have already been taken over by right-wing populism as they face two communist threats in both China and North Korea, both of whom they fought a war against. Whenever North Korea launches a missile, support for progressive-left parties tends to diminish, as their opponents find it convenient to associate them with guilt by association. Using the ‘Second Image Reversed’ problem as her foundation, Dr. Shaw highlights that events in the international arena can have effects on domestic politics, of which she believes South Korea is particularly vulnerable to. She posits that the reason that South Korea has escaped this drift is a result of the recent memory of its right-wing dictatorship and the emotional counterweight of the anti-Japan sentiment. Right-wing politics in South Korea is usually more pro-Japan (Chinilpa), giving the left a counterweight to hit back with in reaction to allegations that the left has pro-North Korean (Chongbuk) policies. 

In Dr. Shaw’s own research, she found that both Chinipla and Chongbuk resemble populist narratives as both sides portray the opposition as ‘elitist,’ particularly in memes and political imagery. When the right feels attacked on pro-Japanese policies, they hit back with claims that the left is pro-North Korea and -China with similar imagery and memes used by the left, known as retaliatory mimicry. As a result of the rising anti-China sentiment, Dr. Shaw investigated the impact it would have on the Japan/North Korea dueling antagonisms. Politicians on both sides seem uncertain on how to respond to this new public sentiment, particularly because of the close trade ties between South Korea and China. Right-wing candidates are more willing, yet still apprehensive, to partake in anti-Chinese rhetoric, using the same language that the left uses towards Japan – a big power neighbor that steals Korean culture, encroaches on territory, and bullies neighbors with its economic power. This sets up China to overtake Japan as the ‘pushy neighbor.’

To conclude Dr. Shaw shares some of the elements that she’s tracking for the second image reversed problem, particularly in relation to the upcoming Korean elections. Two of these elements are Sadaejuui (flunkeyism) and sade oegyo (flunky diplomacy), which are both often translated as someone who acts subservient or subordinate to a bigger nation. In the past it referred to Korea’s tributary status to the Qing Dynasty in China and those who collaborated with Imperial Japan, but recently has been used in relation to China once again. Dr. Shaw provides examples of how both the Left and Right employ this rhetoric, accusing the opposing side of flunkeyism. This dynamic serves to balance each other out in terms of populist rhetoric, preventing one side from effectively utilizing this tactic to curry favor with the populace.

Dr. Sang-Jin Han: “Transformation of Populist Emotion in Korean Politics from 2016 to 2024”

Professor Sang-Jin Han explains that in anticipation of the upcoming April 2024 election, both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party engage in demonization, utilizing emotions of hatred and resentment. The ruling party accuses the opposition of aligning with North Korea, thereby endangering liberal democracy in South Korea. Conversely, the opposition party accuses the ruling party of being subservient to Japan and thereby undermining the sovereignty of Korea. Dr. Han concludes that Korean parties have excessively politicized issues and rely on animosity towards their opponents rather than fostering constructive dialogue.

Professor Sang-Jin Han initiated his presentation by emphasizing that the ramifications of populism are intertwined with the definition of its criteria. He outlined two primary elements of populism: distrust towards the ruling class and the prioritization of the people in guiding politics. Subsequently, Dr. Han provided a historical overview of populist emotion in South Korea.

The first stage was the last quarter of the 19th century, when Korea faced a series of crisis. The second stage concerned the Imperial Japanese rule over Korea, which was marked by great hatred and animosity towards the Japanese elite as a catalyst for populism. The third stage is related to the Korean War and again this stage is defined by high levels of hatred and distrust but this time towards North Korea. The fourth stage is concerned with the democratization in the 1980s and in that time the movement mainly led by college students attempted to bring back the original cornerstone of populism, namely the primacy of the people in politics. The final fifth stage is related to digital populism. Because South Korea enjoyed a high-level of digitalization, the populist movement also began to utilize technologies to further their cause. 

Dr. Han introduced the two populist movements in South Korea, the so-called Candlelight movement and the National Flag movement. Both are characterized as highly distrustful towards politicians and want to bring power back to the people. Dr. Han in his research found out that whether populism is considered as a promoter of democracy or as a barrier to democracy really depends on the definition of the criteria of populism. Dr. Han found out through his empirical research that the Candlelight movement was very much constructive towards strengthening democracy. Meanwhile, the National Flag movement which was led by older and more conservative people appears to obstruct the security of democracy. 

The empirical research that Dr. Han conducted through a survey in 2018 found out that the Candlelight movement was more associated with the primacy of the people in politics, while the National Flag movement was associated with the distrust towards the elites. Furthermore, the Candlelight movement was not associated with support towards a strong authoritarian leader, whereas the National Flag movement was deeply associated with that idea. These findings ultimately mean that the question whether populism could strengthen democracy is not determined by populism itself. Rather, this depends on whether the populist movement focuses more on anger and antagonism than promoting the idea that the people should be the primary sovereign in politics. 

Therefore, the threat to democracy is South Korea actually comes from the National Flag movement and not from the Candlelight movement. Ultimately, the idea of distrust as the main definitional criteria for populism could endanger democracy, whereas the criteria of promoting the primacy of the people seems to promote democracy. 

Dr. Han concluded by having a look at the current situation in 2024. Ahead of the coming election in April 2024 both the ruling conservative party and the progressive opposition party demonize each other by using hatred and resentment emotions. The ruling party accuses the opposition of being an ally of North Korea and therefore jeopardizing liberal democracy in South Korea. The opposition party accuses the ruling party of being a comprador of the Japanese and therefore destroying the pride of the sovereign Korean nation. Dr. Han concluded that Korean parties have politicized issues too much and are relying on the hatred and animosity towards their opponents rather than being constructive. 

Dr. Junhyoung Lee: “Nationalism and Resilience of Authoritarian Rule in North Korea”

Referring to the main implications of his research, Dr. Junhyoung Lee highlights the use of nationalism as a primary means to bolster the regime’s resilience and cultivate loyalty among the population in North Korea. Additionally, he emphasizes the significance of performance legitimation as another essential tool for fortifying the regime’s resilience, showcasing the state’s responsiveness to critical issues. Lastly, Dr. Lee underscores the importance of implementing effective co-optation strategies for the regime to address generational shifts within North Korean society and ensure ongoing stability.

Dr. Junhyoung Lee structured his presentation as a historical overview of how the North Korean regime utilized nationalism, intertwining family lineage with the national narrative. The use of nationalist rhetoric has intensified since Kim Jong-un assumed power, primarily aimed at bolstering the legitimacy of his rule. While North Korea initially displayed similarities to the de-Stalinization period in the USSR, Kim Il-sung later embraced a distinct style of socialism and totalitarian ideology following the Sino-Soviet disputes. The subsequent North Korean rulers have relied on utilizing personalism and the socialist ideology to mobilize the collective memory. This underscores the significance of North Korean nationalism in shaping the regime’s resilience. Dr. Lee also researched the legitimation claims in the new year statements of the Kim family. He found that Kim Il-sung made frequent references to the revolutionary legacy of North Korea. In the Kim Jong-il era, there was a particular focus on the cult of personality and loyalty to the ruler. With the current ruler, Kim Jong-un, there is much less reference to the cult of personality than his predecessors. 

The Ch’ŏllima (“Flying Horse”) in North Korea could be used as an example of how nationalism could be used for bolstering the regime’s resilience, particularly during periods of crisis. The idea was the mass mobilization of the people, similarly to the Stakhanovite movement in the USSR. It later became the cornerstone of legitimation of the successive North Korean rulers. Rulers such as Kim Jong-il and Kim Jong-un invoked the Ch’ŏllima movement during times of crisis by utilizing the collective memory to bolster nationalism and loyalty to the regimes. 

Dr. Lee also analyzed articles from the Korean Central News Agency from 2005-2018 and found out that between 2005 and 2010 the references to the concept of the nation decreased significantly. However, there was a peak in the reference of the nation in 2011, namely when Kim Jong-un came into power. This suggests that he used the concept of the nation more to solidify his regime. 

Dr. Lee further analyzed the frequency of the visiting of high-ranking members of the North-Korean Politburo in the areas of economy, politics and military from 1994 until 2015. Following Kim Jong-il succession in 1994 there was increased engagement in the political and military spheres which suggests a move towards power consolidation. Economic engagement remained low during that time, which suggests it was a secondary priority for the regime. Following Kim Jong-un succession in 2011, there was a dramatic spike in the engagement in all areas but particularly in the economic area. This suggests an attempt to link the economic development to the legitimacy of the regime. 

There is seemingly a strategic shift in the North Korean state propaganda. This suggests a growing confidence of the stability of the regime to focus on other themes such as economic development and diplomacy. Furthermore, less amount of referencing to the nationalist concept could signal a response to the internal challenges, such as economic hardship. 

Dr. Lee concluded by presenting the main implications of his research. First, the employment of nationalism as a tool to bolster the regime’s resilience and the population’s loyalty. Second, performance legitimation also serves as an important tool to enhance the regime’s resilience, as it shows the concern of the state towards other key issues. Lastly, in order for the regime to cope with the generational shifts on the North Korean society, they must implement effective co-optation strategies in order to ensure the stability of the regime. 

Dr. Mina Sumaadii: “Populist Nationalism as a Challenge to Democratic Stability in Mongolia”

Dr. Mina Sumaadii elaborated on how the economic and legal landscape in Mongolia has led to adverse outcomes, with politicians resorting to populist nationalism to conceal inequality. During elections, there is a deliberate attempt to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, often accusing them of having connections to China, whether familial or business-related. Additionally, paternal populism plays a role, with politicians advocating for ‘strong’ leadership, and anti-democratic reforms being rationalized under the guise of ensuring stability.

In contextualizing the rise of populism in Mongolia, Dr. Mina Sumaadii traced back to the 1985 post-communist revolution, marking the inception of Mongolia’s democratic system. Unlike other post-communist nations, Mongolia stands out due to the former Communist Party’s transformation into the main ruling party during the democratic era. However, with the decline of its primary opposition, the Democratic Party, Mongolia has experienced an extended period of one-party dominance since 2016. Consequently, V-Dem has downgraded Mongolia’s status from an electoral democracy to a ‘grey area’ hovering between electoral democracy and electoral autocracy.

Expanding on her contextualization, Dr. Sumaadii emphasized the impact of the 1990s recession and the shift towards an East-Asian orientation, both of which were bolstered by a mining boom in the 2000s. This boom played a significant role in Mongolia’s successful democratization, as the mining industry was not sufficiently developed during the initial democratization period in the 1990s, resulting in a delayed ‘resource curse’ effect. However, subsequent to this, the mining boom led to increasing inequality, with profits from the industry unevenly distributed, contributing to extreme poverty persisting until the 2010s, as wealth became concentrated among select individuals.

Poverty still remains a key economic and political issue, especially as it has not been reduced significantly in recent years, with corruption becoming a major problem as a result. Dr. Sumaadii reported that Mongolia has now, unfortunately, fallen into the same resource curse pattern as other developing nations. An increase in public protests has been the response to the rising inequality, with public confidence in political institutions at an all-time low, resulting in a loss of legitimacy since the populace believes that they cannot solve the problems in the country. 

Although Mongolia is a multiparty system, two major parties have historically dominated politics, but both were/are weakly institutionalized, with poor communication and record keeping of candidate’s policies. Dr. Sumaadii presented that whilst presidential elections receive better coverage, parliamentary elections have little to no record keeping, and no modern study exists investigating if elected candidates fulfilled any of their campaign promises. Political parties themselves do not have a consistent political platform, with individuals promising different contradicting policies under the banner of their political party. As a result, analysis in the traditional terms of ‘left and ‘right’ becomes nearly impossible in this context.

According to Dr. Sumaadii, restrictions on media freedom aid problems, as the country consists mostly of private media broadcasters that are often linked to certain political candidates. Censorship laws fine both local and international reporters for liable defamation, resulting in journalistic self-censorship. Dr. Sumaadii indicates that she still found a means to conduct an analysis of populism by focusing on the strategies employed by politicians, especially in regard to economic populism since most candidates do not campaign on ideology. The center point of this economic populism is alienating rivals with corruption allegations and a narrative of Mongolian ownership of resources as opposed to foreign ownership. In the past, anti-establishment campaigning formed another facet of this economic populism. However, its prominence has waned due to the shift towards a one-party state and the imperative to project party unity to the population. Dr. Sumaadii underscores that the weak rule of law and economic pledges made without due consideration for the national budget have resulted in the failure of many proposed policies, particularly those aimed at combating corruption.

To conclude, Dr. Sumaadii discussed that the economic and legal situation has had a negative effect as politicians try to mask inequality with populist nationalism – where in elections there is an effort to discredit rival candidates based on ethnicity, and in particular accusing them of having a Chinese connection, whether familial or business related. Paternal populism is also a factor, as politicians discuss the need for ‘strong’ leaders, and anti-democratic reforms are justified by the need for stability. 

(*) Radoslav Valev is an ECPS intern.

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