Professor Shaw: Even Progressive Politicians in South Korea Occasionally Display Authoritarian Tendencies

Dr. Meredith Shaw, a Research Professor at the University of Tokyo's the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal.

Professor Meredith Shaw of the University of Tokyo discussed the issue of “autocratization” in South Korea, highlighting concerns about authoritarian tendencies even within progressive political circles. She pointed out that some progressive politicians on the left have at times exhibited authoritarian behavior. For example, they have proposed laws in mimicry of the existing national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supportive of North Korea. These include recent proposals for laws targeting the misrepresentation of historical events, such as the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, including the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship.

Interview by Selcuk Gultasli

Giving an exclusive interview to European Center for Populism Studies (ECPS), Dr. Meredith Shaw, a research professor at the University of Tokyo’s the Institute of Social Science (社研) and the managing editor of Social Science Japan Journal, talked on “autocratization” in South Korea and stated that “Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent.”

According to Professor Shaw, even these progressive politicians in South Korea employed authocratic tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. “More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side,” said Professor Shaw.

In this exclusive interview, Professor Shaw delves into the complex landscape of South Korean politics. With a wealth of knowledge spanning historical contexts, socio-political dynamics, and the intricacies of populism and authoritarianism, Professor Shaw offers insightful analyses and nuanced perspectives on the challenges and trends shaping contemporary South Korea.

South Korea’s political landscape is deeply influenced by its historical context, marked by a transition from anti-communism to a burgeoning anti-Japanese sentiment. Against this backdrop, the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies presents multifaceted challenges. Professor Shaw sheds light on the historical and socio-political factors contributing to these phenomena, exploring how they intersect with the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism.

Throughout the interview, Professor Shaw navigates through the intricate dynamics of South Korean politics, examining how populist leaders frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace. She elaborates on the utilization of historical events and symbols by different factions to shape political messaging, providing insights into the evolving political discourse.

Furthermore, Professor Shaw discusses the impact of populist and authoritarian tendencies on democratic institutions and processes in South Korea. As the interview progresses, Professor Shaw explores the influence of nationalism in South Korean politics, particularly during election campaigns. She assesses the strategies employed by political parties to maintain relevance and examines the role of securitization theory in shaping political rhetoric and decision-making.

Drawing on her expertise in North Korean politics and literature, Professor Shaw also offers intriguing insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea. She analyzes how these literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, providing valuable perspectives on understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among North Korean society.

Here is the transcription of the interview with Professor Meredith Shaw with minor edits.

US Supported Authoritarian Military Dictators in South Korea

Professor Shaw, thank you very much for joining our interview series. I want to start right away with the first question.Given the historical context of South Korea’s democracy emerging from a period of severe anti-communism and anti-Japanese sentiment, what historical and socio-political factors have contributed to the rise of populism and authoritarian tendencies in South Korea? How have anti-Japanism and anti-communism shaped the South Korean politics as two dueling antagonisms?

Meredith Shaw: South Korea has emerged from a long period of Cold War classic anti-communism. Anti-Japan sentiment is a relatively newer phenomenon, and it has escalated over time. I perceive it as a response to anti-communism posing a threat to left-wing parties in South Korea in broad strokes, leading them to seek an equivalent emotional trigger to shift the discourse. With North Korea situated nearby, and with a liberal party in power, their left-leaning counterparts in South Korea often find themselves associated with North Korea. There are numerous reasons why this association occurs, but evidently, any party advocating for a redistributive welfare state is susceptible to accusations from the opposing side, much like in Europe. People assert, "this is socialism in South Korea."

Some left-leaning parties have countered this by proposing a different vision of redistribution. They advocate for reclaiming wealth accumulated through ill deeds—be it from the colonial era or military dictatorships—and redistributing it to benefit the entire country. Instead of simply taking from the rich and giving to the poor, they may frame it as reclaiming wealth gained from ancestors who worked for colonial authorities. This approach aims to circumvent the traditional accusation of leftist policies being communist. Whether this strategy is a sound solution, given recent events showcasing various phenomena, remains debatable. 

Additionally, this addresses the aspect of authoritarian tendencies, albeit in a roundabout manner. We must also consider the role of the United States over decades, supporting fairly authoritarian military dictators in the South, under the guise of necessity to counter Communism. This has led even fairly centrist individuals to believe that measures such as the national security law and government censorship are essential for the state’s safety and security. Such beliefs may find easier acceptance in a country like South Korea, which faces an immediate, threatening neighbor.

Both Righ- and Left-Wing Parties Engage in Dueling Narrative of Weaponization of History 

Visitors and mourners tie yellow ribbons to tents in remembrance of the victims of the Sewol ferry tragedy in Seoul, South Korea on May 5, 2014. Photo: Joshua Davenport.

How do populist leaders in South Korea typically frame their rhetoric and policies to resonate with the populace? What messaging and discourse strategies do they employ to appeal to the grievances of the people they intend to exploit? For example, how do different factions utilize historical events and symbols to shape their political messaging? Is there any indication of an eagerness to move beyond colonial history?

Meredith Shaw: Great question. In South Korean politics, there are many symbols that hold significant importance for both the left and the right. Traditionally, the left-wing tends to emphasize symbols connected to traditional culture. Some left-wing politicians often appear wearing traditional Korean Hanbok attire and deliver speeches at historical sites linked to Korea’s premodern past. Alternatively, they may have a backdrop of young schoolgirls dressed in traditional costumes. This might seem counterintuitive from a European perspective, but in South Korea, it’s the progressive left that embraces traditional values and art forms, while the conservative right tends to adopt a more modernist, utilitarian approach. They typically opt for business attire, focusing on economic growth and technological advancement, showing little interest in the raucous religious or traditional dancing and cultural displays favored by left-wing activists.

It might sound somewhat counterintuitive, but I’ve observed that the left-wing in South Korea also employs symbolism in response to recent tragedies, such as the 10th anniversary of the tragic sinking of the Sewol ferry. Associated with this tragedy is the symbol of the yellow ribbon, prominently displayed in downtown Seoul around a shrine dedicated to the students who lost their lives. Interestingly, another tragedy occurred two years ago during the Halloween crush in Itaewon, where numerous young people were fatally crushed at a party. In South Korea, when such tragedies occur, people often look to the highest levels of leadership for accountability far more than they might in America. In both the ferry incident and the Itaewon crush, people wear yellow ribbons as an activist response directly challenging the conservative president in office at the time. Those displaying the yellow ribbon symbol are likely progressives or, at the very least, disapprove of the current president. It’s a curious connection to make from tragedies stemming from lax regulations over many years, attributing blame to the sitting president. But such is often the nature of events in South Korea.

On the right, certain far-right groups have weaponized anti-feminist sentiments, with men’s rights becoming a significant symbol. One such online community in South Korea is ILBE Jeojangso, openly far-right and primarily focused on anti-feminism and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Often regarded as the trolls of South Korea, they wield influence over the extreme right and shape political discourse, particularly concerning colonial history. However, it’s worth noting that everything right of center in Korea generally seeks to move beyond colonial history, as dwelling on it isn’t a winning message for them. Nevertheless, right-wing politicians are still often associated with that history and perceived as descended from collaborators, whether rightly or wrongly.

Interestingly, many politicians on both sides have family connections to collaborators. However, the progressive left tends to openly address and recount these stories from the past, emphasizing the importance of remembering history. While it’s crucial not to forget the past, it often becomes a political tool, with personal histories being used to assign blame by association for actions during the colonial era. On the right side, there’s a counteraction by pointing out whose ancestors were involved in certain activities during the Korean War or had connections to North Koreans, creating a dueling narrative of weaponization of history on both sides. Both sides have moments in history they would prefer to forget, yet they continually keep these discussions alive in the political discourse.

Favoring Cronies Is Acceptable Among Political and Business Leaders

From a historical perspective, how have populist and authoritarian tendencies impacted democratic institutions and processes in South Korea, including governance, civil liberties, the rule of law, and the broader implications for democracy in the country?

Meredith Shaw: As mentioned, the military dictatorship period, spanning from the post-war era through the 1980s and supported by the US as a bulwark against encroaching Communism, established a society accustomed to government crackdowns on various aspects of public speech and subcultures, such as hippie culture and rock and roll. This regime controlled what people could read and imprisoned individuals for owning certain books, ticking all the classic authoritarian boxes. One could argue that even before this period, during the Japanese occupation, a framework of authoritarianism was established in the country from which they never truly recovered. While the historical connection may be debated, it’s undeniable that prior to 1986, there were few instances when South Koreans could openly express themselves without fear of reprisal.

Unfortunately, in the democratic era, some progressive politicians on the left have occasionally displayed authoritarian tendencies, though not to the same extent. They’ve employed similar tactics, such as proposing laws like the national security law, which aimed to penalize statements perceived as supporting North Korea. More recently, there have been proposals for laws punishing the misrepresentation of historical events like the Japanese colonial rule or the democratic movements, such as the Kwangju massacre under the military dictatorship. While preventing the spread of false historical narratives is essential, such laws could potentially enable governments to selectively dictate acceptable historical interpretations, ripe for manipulation by either side.

There are factors like the national security law that are deeply entrenched and challenging to remove. Additionally, there’s a prevalent concept of guilt by association in South Korean society. If one’s parents or grandparents were involved in wrongdoing, there’s a belief that individuals should, at the very least, not benefit from their actions. This leads to a permisevness for punishing people based on family or friend connections. On the flip side, it fosters a mentality among political and business leaders that it’s acceptable to favor cronies, as everyone could face punishment together if things go wrong. In essence, there’s a perception that it’s preferable to mutually benefit one another while there’s an opportunity. I believe this tendency is deeply ingrained in South Korean politics.

All Perceived Shortcomings Are Attributed to the Current President

The election is viewed by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government. President Yoon Suk-yeol (center) is pictured attending the NATO summit in Madrid, Spain on June 30, 2022. Photo: Shutterstock.

In its 2024 Democracy Report, the V-Dem Institute of Sweden ranked South Korea under Mr. Yoon as one of the 42 countries undergoing “autocratization.” What factors have contributed to the autocratization of South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: I’ve read the report, and I agree with their conclusion. However, I question the internal logic they used to arrive there. Based on what I read, it seems like they’re suggesting that a transition from a progressive administration to a conservative one automatically constitutes democratic backsliding. Additionally, they mention current President Yoon Suk Yeol’s predecessor Moon Jae-in as being a human rights lawyer in the 1980s, but they don’t provide much further context about him. This gives the impression of a human rights lawyer being replaced by a right-wing leader who has made efforts to prosecute the previous administration. While this is true, it presents a somewhat one-sided view of the situation. South Korean democracy is in trouble. While it may not be backsliding yet, there are tendencies on both sides to target their opponents when they are in power and then to distribute benefits to their cronies.

The Moon administration also implemented stringent restrictions on freedom of speech, particularly concerning the North Korean Human Rights Movement and North Korean defectors attempting to discuss North Korea in a negative light. The Moon Jae-in Administration was cautious about such discourse because they were advocating for closer inter-Korean ties and feared upsetting North Korea. Consequently, they imposed both direct and indirect limitations on the publication of certain reports, the writing of memoirs, and discussions about experiences on television. These restrictions were lifted when Yoon Suk Yeol came into power, leading to a resurgence in discussions about North Korean human rights abuses. However, discussing efforts to promote inter-Korean relations remains challenging. Thus, neither side is effectively upholding freedom of speech; instead, each prioritizes certain types of speech while suppressing others.

I would say that Korean politics has long grappled with issues surrounding free journalism and press freedom. There are significant challenges regarding media access, with certain media outlets receiving preferential treatment for offering favorable reporting, leading to clear biases. Most major media organizations in Korea are associated with either the left or the right, lacking a truly impartial centrist perspective. Consequently, the party in power tends to reward media outlets aligned with their own party, a trend observed on both sides of the political spectrum.

In short, the transition from Moon to Yoon Suk Yeol marked a shift from a left-wing to a right-wing leader, which in itself isn’t necessarily problematic. However, the deeper issue lies in widespread disappointment and disenchantment with the political process, irrespective of who holds power. There’s a tendency to attribute all perceived shortcomings to the current president. There’s a tendency to blame the current president for all perceived shortcomings, leading to rapid shifts in party favorability. As evidenced by the significant loss of Yoon Suk Yeol’s party in the recent election, there’s volatility in South Korean politics. While V-Dem might view this as a positive turnaround on the surface, the reality of the recent election was messy. There’s much complexity at play.

The former President of the Republic of Korea Moon Jae-in took a group photo with visitors who came to visit in Cheongwadae (Blue House) in Seoul, South Korea on August 30, 2019. Photo: Chintung Lee.

Both Sides of Political Spectrum Promote Nationalist Messages

How has nationalism been used during the election campaign both by the People Power Party and the opposition the Democratic Party? Can you elaborate on specific strategies or actions taken by these parties to maintain their political relevance? Furthermore, could you assess the role of these strategies in recent elections?

Meredith Shaw: Both parties have made nationalist appeals to the electorate. In the most recent election, the focus appeared to be more on domestic issues rather than regional tensions, given the significant domestic controversies driving the Conservative party’s message. The People Power Party engaged in actions early in the election cycle that aligned with their anti-North Korea, pro-nationalist stance. There was a brief story where the People Power Party warned of signs indicating North Korea’s potential interference in the election, alleging the possibility of a cyber attack. It remains unclear whether this warning was based on credible information or intended to escalate fear towards North Korea.

There was also a recent story I came across stating that the same party issued a directive to the regional election centers to emphasize an anti-North Korea message in this campaign. However, this directive faced resistance from some of the regional candidates, who didn’t perceive it as a winning strategy. If true, this represents a notable shift. In the previous two General Assembly elections, both sides enthusiastically promoted nationalist messages concerning the North Korean threat and Japan. However, in this most recent election, there seemed to be a change in focus. Perhaps they sensed that people were growing weary of such rhetoric, or maybe they found more productive messages centered around the economy. Regardless, this recent election appeared to be relatively more focused on domestic, internal, and economic issues compared to previous ones.

Dueling Antagonisms of Anti-Japanism and Anti-Communism

In one of your past articles, you applied securitization theory to analyze how domestic actors construct foreign threats, particularly concerning Japan and North Korea, within South Korean politics. Could you elaborate on how these securitizing speech acts contribute to the dueling antagonisms of anti-Japanism and anti-communism, and what implications they hold for political rhetoric and decision-making in the country?

Meredith Shaw: In that paper, I argued that politicians don’t only discuss the North Korean threat or engage in anti-Japanese rhetoric in reaction to actions by North Korea or Japan. They also tend to employ such rhetoric reactively in response to criticism from the opposing side. For instance, if North Korea conducts an attack or engages in a provocative action at the border, people immediately turn to left-wing politicians, expecting them to adopt a defensive stance due to their perceived association, whether justified or not.

In response, you see them turning to Japan as a way to bolster their reputation in handling Japan-related issues. There’s a sentiment of questioning whether one should trust those who appear overly friendly with Japan. Similarly, on the right, during the trade dispute with Japan about five years ago, Japan was frequently in the news, leading people to look to the political right-wing and expect them to face repercussions due to their perceived stance favoring better ties with Japan. Consequently, some right-wing politicians pivoted to North Korea, emphasizing its threat as a counterpoint. When individuals instinctively retreat to their comfort zones, it keeps both Japan and North Korea constantly in the public eye. When Japan takes action, the conversation shifts to North Korea, and vice versa. Internally, politicians cannot influence the actions of either country. However, these dynamic prompt reactive responses that often keep the conversation excessively focused on these external threats.

There’s also the issue of excessive scrutiny on family relations, as I discussed earlier. Past history is consistently brought up in every election cycle, which keeps memories of that history fresh and allows grievances to grow. While it’s important not to forget the lessons of history, consider a European example: if there were a highly competitive party in Belgium today with a past history of affiliations with the Nazi party, they would always be associated with that past by virtue of their lineage. It’s somewhat similar, in South Korea, past history remains ever-present in the political conversation, ensuring it is never forgotten.

South Korea Aims to Avoid Being Associated with Leaders Like Orbán

Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea speaks in front of supporters for his election campaign in Jeonju-si, North Jeolla Province, South Korea on on February 19, 2022. Photo: Yeongsik Im.

How will the elections held last week influence the political landscape in terms of right-wing and left-wing populism? Does the surge in populist movements in Europe have any impact on South Korean populism? What are the potential avenues for countering the challenges posed by populism and authoritarianism and strengthening democratic norms in South Korea?

Meredith Shaw: Last week’s election marked a significant victory for South Korea’s mainstream center-left party, often dubbed progressive by some, though its level of progressiveness remains a subject of debate. This outcome is somewhat surprising considering the recent turmoil within the left-wing camp, with notable defections and attempts to establish new political entities. Amidst this, allegations of corruption and immorality were rife, tarnishing the image of the mainstream center-left party. Just weeks prior, the Conservative party appeared more composed and in control. However, the election revealed that these splinter groups from the left, including defectors, fared poorly, while the mainstream center-left party exceeded expectations.

The implications of this outcome may lead to a period of gridlock, as the mainstream center-left party, along with the third-largest party, nearly commands a supermajority in the legislature, enabling them to push their agenda with greater ease. Nonetheless, lacking sufficient numbers to override a presidential veto could result in political stalemate. This scenario might compel President Yoon Suk Yeol to adopt a more conciliatory approach, as evidenced by his recent offer to meet with the leader of the center-left Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, a gesture he had staunchly refused for two years. Such developments may hint at a potential shift towards more cooperative and compromising politics from both sides. It remains to be seen whether the defector politicians will reconcile and return to the fold, adding another layer of intrigue to the evolving political landscape.

In terms of the influence of populist movements in Europe, I haven’t observed significant connections, though I acknowledge this isn’t my expertise. South Korea seems to look to the West and Europe with a sense of pride in its democratic achievements, aspiring to be recognized as a leader among smaller democracies. Just last month, Seoul hosted a summit for democracy, garnering considerable media attention and support from President Yoon Suk Yeol and President Biden of the US. This event, promoted by various democratic nations, underscored South Korea’s desire to play a pivotal role in the global democratic movement. In this regard, South Korea looks to Europe as a model and aims to avoid being associated with leaders like Viktor Orbán. This aspiration serves as a deterrent against democratic backsliding and reinforces their commitment to democratic values.

There Isn’t Samizdat Tradition of Dissident Writers in North Korea

Caricatures of US President Donald Trump and North Korean Leader Kim Jong-Un. Photo: Willrow Hood.

Lastly, as an expert on North Korean politics and literature, could you provide insights into the readership and dissemination of state-produced fiction within North Korea? How does the distribution of literary works intersect with the regime’s control over information and ideology, and what implications does this hold for understanding the reception and interpretation of foreign interactions among different segments of North Korean society?

Meredith Shaw: This is my favorite topic: North Korean literature and how it affects the view of the outside world. So, I can share what I’ve learned and understood from conversations with a few North Korean defectors who’ve been involved in this industry, and also from reading the works of South Korean scholars who study it. North Korea has an impressive system of state-run, state-produced literature and art, which in some ways dates back to the early Soviet-controlled era right after the war, or even the Japanese colonial era. One could argue this because they also had some institutions created during that era for producing literature. But anyway, there’s not what you would call a Samizdat tradition in North Korea of dissident writers. The idea of that doesn’t make any sense; how would they even publish? Where would they find a press?

However, the State boasts a vast and seemingly efficient system for identifying talent. Talented young writers from all over the country are encouraged to compete for literary awards, thereby gaining recognition. Moreover, there’s a system in place where individuals can sign up to become what is known as literary correspondents. While maintaining their day jobs, they also write stories about their workplaces, be it a factory or a farm. If these stories are published by the party and garner attention, there’s a chance of transitioning into full-time writers. This includes the possibility of relocating to Pyongyang and enjoying a significantly better quality of life. In some respects, it appears to be a fairly functional system. Undoubtedly, many individuals are excluded from this system for political reasons. Nonetheless, they have an effective method of incentivizing potentially talented writers to produce work in support of the regime.

When you read these works, they tend to reside on the more mundane end of the Socialist-realist tradition. All the characters are meant to be role models for either extremely good behavior or extremely bad behavior, with the message at the end. The breakthrough always occurs when the leader encourages people, or when the leader comes up with the idea for the breakthrough they were seeking. Then, everyone exclaims, ‘Oh, it’s such a fantastic leader we have.’ An individual never comes up with the idea without some kind of help from the leader.

There’s a relatively small portion of this literature that discusses foreign events and foreigners, such as past US presidents or depictions of Perestroika in Moscow, or portrayals of traders at a convention in Singapore. Every once in a while, you’ll encounter a story where, for some reason, they have to depict a foreigner or a foreign setting. It’s really interesting because these authors have clearly never seen the things they’re describing. Perhaps they have some idea from the limited amount of foreign media they might be allowed to access. However, their depictions are obviously colored by their understanding of the world from within the confines of their environment. So, it’s an interesting phenomenon to analyze and to observe how they interpret foreign events.

To illustrate, consider the depictions of summits with foreign leaders that have occurred in the past. One might expect these portrayals to be somewhat adversarial, especially the meeting between the North Korean leader and former US President Jimmy Carter in the 1990s. However, in these depictions, President Carter is always presented as a relatively nice guy, especially for an American. He is portrayed as a positive character because he interacts with Kim Il-Sung, listens to him speak, and is immediately won over by the greatness of the North Korean leader in the story. Thus, depictions of foreigners who have actually met and conversed with the North Korean leader are consistently positive.

I think they haven’t written the story yet about the Donald Trump-Kim Jong-un summits, but I can predict that, regardless of their approach, they will portray the American President as being very impressed by the North Korean leader and immediately becoming amicable as a result of meeting him. Additionally, I anticipate they will enjoy writing about President Trump keeping Kim Jong-Un’s letters. I can envision how they might frame that particular news story, with the idea that the American President cherished the letters so much that he would break the law to retain them. That message could be seen as pure gold for them. With all the material I’ve read, I could practically write that story myself.

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