South Korea is a prosperous country. Nevertheless, the last decade has seen a gradual and persistent rise in income inequality. This development has affected the younger generations especially. Park Geun-hye’s rise to power in 2013 was facilitated by a populist promise of “a new era of hope and happiness.” Amidst corruption and other political scandals in the 2010s, Park found herself impeached in 2017, after which she was convicted and sentenced to five years in prison. This saw the liberal Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party secure the presidency. He pledged left-wing changes to the economy. His time in office has been marked by an increasing trend of bypassing the law and violating the separation of powers. In less than a decade, South Kora has witnessed a shift from right-wing to center-left populist leadership. However, Moon’s popularity is also in decline, although his party won a historic victory in the April 2020 legislative elections.
South Korea is part of the Korean peninsula in East Asia. For much of history, the region was protected from outside influences. However, tensions between the Japanese and Chinese—and later Russia’s war with Japan in 1904—led the region to fall into the hands of the Japanese. Japan colonized the region between 1910 to 1945, when it was handed to the allied American and Soviet forces at the end of the Second World War (WWII). The Cold War led to the peninsula being divided in two. The division created north (Soviet-influenced) and south (American-influenced) regions separated along the 38th parallel. After a three-year-long civil war (1950–1953), the failure to unify the country led to the borders taking a permanent form.
South Korea’s political system was modeled on the American presidential system. However, it took decades for genuine democracy to be instituted. Starting with President Syngman Rhee (assumed power in 1948) and through to Roh Tae-woo (who left office in 1993), a blend of autocratic military-led regimes governed the country. These figures were either democratically elected or assumed power through coup d’état (as with Park Chung-hee, who ruled as a military dictator from 1962 to 1979).
Under President Kim Young-sam, who took office in 1993, the country transitioned to a democratic system. From the 1990s to the early 2010s, South Korea also witnessed remarkable economic growth. This improved social indicators in the country. However, this progress was marred by successive corruption scandals among leading politicians. The distrust led the public to seek equity and a change in the political landscape. For example, many former presidents and their families had been convicted of misusing public office. Kim Dae-jung (in office 1998–2003) and his two sons have been jailed for accepting bribes. Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008) committed suicide while under investigation for corruption. Lee Myung-bak’s (2008–2013) brother was implicated in accepting bribes from businesspeople for government favors (BBC, 2016).
Park Geun-hye —daughter of Park Chung-hee —South Korea’s first female president, rose to power against this backdrop. She was not a political outsider when she contested elections in 2013. Park came from the socially conservative, anti-communist, and right-wing Liberty Korea Party (Jayuhangukdang, LKP). The party had a history of using popular fear of communism to corral voters. Various leaders had also drawn on jingoist rhetoric, which made the party a populist success.
Before joining politics, Park Geun-hye was a well-known figure for being the former dictator’s daughter. Living up to the family’s political legacy, she joined the Grand National Party (GNP), the predecessor of the LKP. Her father’s party made her an iconic woman. She broke the glass-celling by becoming its chairwoman and led the party to great electoral success. This earned her the nickname “Queen of Elections.” She promised market-oriented solutions that favored large businesses. She also promised to cut taxes, make it easier to do business and ensured that new laws would provide peace and stability in the country (Volodzko, 2017).
In 2012, Park Geun-hye made serious changes to her political strategy. To distance herself from the GNP’s past politics, she formed a separate wing called the Saenuri or “New Frontier” Party. The party went on to contest and win the presidential elections in 2013. During the campaign, she adopted a “catch-all” philosophy that appealed across the political spectrum. She aligned herself with the interests of multinational business but also pledged to address welfare issues. Park Geun-hye promised “customized welfare services” and promised “a new era of hope and happiness” (Volodzko, 2017).
Park Geun-hye’s popularism was focused on addressing the key issues confronting South Koreans. These included demands for an improved job market, the lack of welfare and security amidst constant nuclear threat from North Korea. Most voters castigated the political establishment as “the elite.” Park Geun-hye’s fresh face and her promises framed her as a reformer. She promised voters five administrative goals. She pledged her government would ensure “a jobs-centered creative economy,” launch programs for “tailored employment and welfare,” and guarantee that the youth received “creativity-oriented education and cultural enrichment.” She also pledged the country would be “a safe and united society,” and stability would come as “strong security measures for sustainable peace on the Korean Peninsula” (Volodzko, 2017; BBC, 2016).
Thanks to her promises, in the 2012 general elections, Park Geun-hye was able to defeat her political rival. The 2013 presidential race led her to become the first female president of the country. Over the next two years, Park was able to pursue neo-liberal reforms. She facilitated trade deals with countries such as China, the US, Russia, Iran, and India. This set the ground for her to keep her economic promises. A host of projects related to infrastructure were also pushed (Volodzko, 2017). The unification of Korea was addressed by Park Geun-hye’s “tree track” unification plan with North Korea. Her administration also introduced the “social policy of the four evils.” By hyping statistics on sexual violence, domestic violence, school violence, and unsafe food, Park Geun-hye’s cabinet was able to create a series of “moral crises.” To help address his situation, she arranged insurance against these so-called “four evils” (Trifunov, 2014).
Events starting with the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2015 led to Park’s downfall. The government’s mishandling of the crisis led to much criticism. Park Geun-hye used her power in office to curb opposition media (Steger, 2016). In addition, his administration’s plan to introduce a government-sponsored curriculum to address the “four evils” led to massive protests (Volodzko, 2017). The scandal of Choe Sun-sil soon followed. A close confidant of President Park Geun-hye, Sun-sil, was revealed to have used her influence to gain personal favors. The scandal began with the disclosure of her daughter’s “special treatment” at university. This sparked a series of revelations leading to mass protests (Kim, 2017).
Popular fears of politicians serving “the elite” were once again revived. Park Geun-hye, who was once focused on welfare and the people’s happiness, was now “the other.” By allowing her friends and family to transgress boundaries, she had violated laws and the spirit of the office she held. The debate around Park Geun-hye drew increasingly on the so-called “golden spoon” and “dirt spoon” analogies. Soon these became hashtags that went viral online. Here, the “golden spoons” are those privileged South Koreans born into money. These people assume they can get away with anything just as Choe Sun-sil’s daughter had. The “dirt spoons” represent the common people (Kim, 2017).
It was this change in tide that led Moon Jae-in’s popular support to grow. His involvement in youth-led protests led to his populist victory in 2017 following the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, who was found guilty of abuse of power and removed from office for her corrupt indulgences in 2016. She was later handed a multi-year prison sentence. The party and its leader were both disgraced (Steger, 2016). With Park Geun-hye’s historical impeachment Moon assumed office after winning the 2017 election and pledged to “expel deep-rooted evils” from within the Korean society (Morgan, 2020).
Moon, a human rights lawyer, had a lot of support base among the younger generation. He became the face of “change.” His Democratic Party (DP) adopted a center-left (liberal) approach, a refreshing change after two consecutive right-wing governments. Moon promised an end to the chaebols (multinational family-run conglomerates). He also pledged a peaceful solution to Korean reunification. His various populist promises included a rise in the minimum wage, shorter working hours, increased transparency in government, reversal of Park Geun-hye’s centralizing educational curriculum plans, and a promise to make the country a greater stakeholder in the region (Morgan, 2020; Kim, 2017).
Moon promoted democracy and civil rights. However, in less than five years, his populism is also taking an authoritarian turn. At the beginning of his term, all energy was spent fulfilling campaign promises. He wanted to maintain his “man of the people” image, which led his government to set up an official website allowing citizens to directly connect with the government. Anyone could start a petition and the “Blue House” promised to respond to any petition raising at least 200,000 signatures within a month. Moreover, Moon achieved his campaign promise to reduce the maximum workweek and boost minimum wages. In practice, this saw a reduction in take-home pay for money —especially those on lower incomes. As promised, he started the reform process for chaebols to make them more transparent and accountable. His anti-corruption promises are lukewarm as an “end” corruption is not yet a reality. Talks with North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in conjugation with the White House gave Koreans hope for unification. However, the “good deal” that Donald Trump and Moon Jae-in had hoped to achieve never materialized (Morgan, 2020; Jung, 2018).
Like his predecessor, Moon faces mounting criticism. The populist promises that have not materialized have led opposition voices to grow. To counter disapproval of Moon, the DP has suppressed the opposition, tarnishing its liberal image. For example, despite a populist tide of social media reporting that he was able to ride into office in 2017, today, Moon labels much of the recent posts as “fake news.” The government has sued critical academics and closed down think-tanks. The Korean political landscape is filled with the government’s “anger” and “revenge.” Voices of dissent are being targeted (Morgan, 2020). The government is also trying to hide unfavorable public polls and opinions by withholding information from the public domain (Kim, 2020).
Increasingly the Moon administration has been using the law for partisan purposes. Judicial appointments have come from a close circle of political favorites. Ironically, Moon once led protests against Park Geun-hye for similar actions (Kim, 2020; Morgan, 2020). After his party won a majority in South Korea’s legislature, it adopted an increasingly authoritarian outlook. This majority has allowed the DP to bypass the consultative process and pass various regulations and laws to further its populist agenda. These measures include the above-mentioned reductions in the maximum working week to 52 hours, which —while intended to benefit workers — has proven problematic. Housing policies have also been enacted without considering their impact on the urban poor (Kim, 2020).
Moon’s term is due to end in 2022. As the date draws near, his approval ratings have fallen while his policies have become increasingly authoritarian. Frustrations toward the DP and its leadership have been skillfully exploited by the populist People Power Party (PPP) and the Justice Party (JP). The PPP is a right-wing conservative party and is the leading opposition to the DP. Like traditional right-wing parties, it heavily relies on its populist rhetoric of anti-communism. The party’s platform offers a laundry-list of “solutions” to fix a range of issues such as inflation. It also provides a highly anti-LGBQ stance in a somewhat traditional society. However, the PPP lacks credibility in the eyes of many, with some of its leaders involved in corruption scandals (Lee, 2020). The JP, on the other hand, is a smaller and more recent entry into the political scene. It has adopted a pro-environment, welfarism, and human rights-driven populism. Just like the DP, the JP also draws most of its support from young people. It has offered a voice to left-leaning liberals who seek “reform” to the system.
The early political history of South Korea was dominated by the oppression of the people from military-led governments. Toward the end of the Cold War, the country began to transition to democracy, but in power, populist governments have not hesitated to use oppressive tactics either. The country has made remarkable progress by pulling thousands out of poverty and earning a name in international economics. However, today South Korea’s people are dissatisfied with a capitalist model that does not fulfill their ambitions. With growing frustrations due to inequality and the threat from North Korea, the people have swung between left and right parties. They have not yet found a candidate who can address their problems. Each turn of the political circle has produced disappointment, paving the way for a new form of populism to arise.
February 23, 2021
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