The Role of Populism, Nationalism, and Xenophobia in South Korea’s 22nd General Election in 2024

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.

The 22nd general election in South Korea offers a pivotal perspective for examining the interactions of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia within the nation’s political fabric. It sheds light on persistent issues such as confronting authoritarianism, bridging societal divides, and integrating foreign nationals more deeply into the societal framework. This election marks a critical juncture in South Korea’s political development, with implications that extend far into the realms of democratic governance, social unity, and the broader political landscape.

By Junhyoung Lee

On April 10, 2024, South Korea stood at a pivotal juncture, undertaking its 22nd general election. In the latest general election for the 300-seat National Assembly, the opposition Democratic Party (DP) emerged victorious, securing 175 seats and thus commanding 58.33% of the legislature. Meanwhile, the governing People Power Party (PPP) managed to secure 108 seats, equating to 36% of the assembly. This election, seen by many as a crucial midterm evaluation of President Yoon Suk-yeol’s government, has been interpreted by a range of media outlets as a clear call from voters for enhanced judgement on the government. 

Far from being a mere democratic procedure, this election represented a critical point in South Korea’s intricate political saga, particularly following President Yoon Suk-yeol’s marginally secured victory in the presidential election, the narrowest in the country’s electoral annals. This scenario provides the groundwork for a detailed examination of the election’s ramifications, with a focus on the narratives of populism, nationalism, and nativism, while deliberately sidestepping a general overview of Korea’s political chronicles or party mechanisms. This analysis endeavours to unpack these themes within the context of South Korea’s rapidly inclining authoritarian landscape, ominously suggested by the V-Dem data’s bell curve.

Populism: The Two-Edged Blade

In South Korea, populism has emerged across the political spectrum, acting as a tactical instrument that capitalises on public sentiment for electoral advantage. The Democratic Party (DP), epitomising left-wing populism, directed its campaign efforts towards addressing economic disparity and advocating for social justice. It proposed an augmentation of the public sector, enhanced welfare initiatives, and rigorous regulation of conglomerates, with the aim of garnering support from the working class and economically disadvantaged demographics. The manifesto of the DP was a clarion call for the rejuvenation of livelihoods, economic innovation, democratic progression, and the restoration of peace, covering a broad spectrum of societal ambitions. In contrast, the right-wing populism, championed by the incumbent People Power Party (PPP), offered a divergent narrative, accentuating nationalism, conservative ideologies, and a firm stance on immigration and law enforcement. This strategy was tailored to appeal to the middle-class and conservative electorate, with an objective to uphold social and cultural norms, and the values traditionally held. The PPP’s campaign underscored the importance of national security and societal stability, committing to political reforms and the betterment of societal welfare as central tenets to solidify its foundation.

In the recent general election, the discourse dominating the media spotlight has leaned more towards highlighting an antagonistic rivalry between the parties, rather than delving into specific policies or local issues. The opposition leveraged a narrative of ‘government judgment,’ tapping into the public’s disillusionment amid a cost-of-living crisis and a series of political scandals. The populist tendencies of the opposition became evident, particularly with their focus on major issues like the high cost of living. President Yoon Suk-yeol’s attempts to stabilize prices of essentials like spring onions and apples through subsidies did not meet the desired effects, leading to intensified public criticism. Opposition candidates seized the opportunity to use the spring onion price issue as a powerful tool to strengthen their campaign against the government.

Conversely, the ruling party framed “the shameless opposition leaders” as a legal risk, particularly focusing on the day before the election when Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the DP, was required to attend court, and Cho Kuk, leader of the newly formed Rebuilding Korea Party, awaited a Supreme Court review. The PPP emphasized a narrative contrasting law-abiding ‘my fellow citizens’ against the allegedly less scrupulous opposition leaders, suggesting that such figures should not be elected. A notable aspect of the conservative campaign was Han Dong-hoon, the PPP’s Acting Chairman, emphasizing ‘my fellow citizens’ in his speeches and the party’s manifesto. In theory, this term was envisioned to project a mature liberal democracy built on camaraderie among citizens. However, as legal controversies involving significant figures from both sides emerged, the potential for substantive political dialogue faded, leading to heightened partisan division. Thus, this term became a classic example of ‘othering,’ used as a populist mobilization strategy to unite conservative forces.

Nationalism and Its Diverse Implications

Nationalism became a central strategy for both the government and opposition, utilising the ‘politics of memory’ to reinterpret historical narratives for contemporary political benefit. In the lead-up to the election, there was a conservative movement to reassess the contributions of historical figures like President Syngman Rhee, through documentaries and other forms of media, thereby accentuating conservative nationalist ideologies. “The Birth of Korea” stands out as a testament to the sacrifices and endeavours of President Syngman Rhee and the pioneering nation-builders who, over the past seven decades, have strived to forge and safeguard the Republic of Korea as it is known today. This documentary received acclaim from numerous conservative commentators and politicians, including Han Dong-hoon, the PPP’s Acting Chairman, who lauded Rhee’s land reform achievements. Nevertheless, this approach attracted criticism for resembling government-endorsed propaganda, especially when it was revealed that the Mayor of Ulsan had organised for civil servants to watch the film as part of Public Officials Membership Training. This incident ignited a debate, highlighting concerns over the appropriateness of such actions.

Conversely, left-wing nationalism found momentum through critical analyses of the effects of Japanese imperialism on Korea, illustrating the adaptable nature of nationalist sentiment in electoral strategy formulation. During the electoral period, the progressive faction countered the nationalist rhetoric prompted by “The Birth of Korea” with the cinematic portrayal in “Exhuma.” This horror film delves into the tale of a traditional Korean shaman confronting and dispelling the malevolent spirits tormenting a family, with a narrative deeply intertwined characters’ name with independence activists from the era of Japanese colonial rule. Such thematic elements garnered significant attention from progressive critics and the general public.

“The Birth of Korea” and “Exhuma” fulfil different roles within the cultural sphere, as a propaganda documentary and a horror film, respectively. While “The Birth of Korea” champions ‘Koreanism,’ predicated on Rhee’s Ilminism with a strong pro-American and anti-communist narrative, aiming to side-line North Korea from the discourse, “Exhuma” presents a stance of anti-imperialist nationalism, based on the concept of ‘one nation, two states’ and underscores anti-Japanese sentiment. These distinctions have attracted varied audiences to each production, leading to a rivalry at the box office.

During the campaign, Lee Jae-myung, the DP’s leader, critiqued the government and ruling party for perpetuating what he termed as ‘diplomatic subservience to Japan,’ including the approval of the discharge of Fukushima’s contaminated water. He also drew attention to the controversy surrounding Sung Il-jong, a PPP member, who had praised Itō Hirobumi, the Japanese resident-general of Korea from 1905-1909, as an exemplar of talent development and scholarship. Lee Jae-myung’s declaration that “Even though Itō Hirobumi may be a hero to Japanese politicians and people, he is an unforgivable invader from the perspective of the Korean people. […] This election could indeed morph into a ‘New Korea-Japan War’” underscored the revival of the intertwining of left-wing populism and nationalism within the Korean electoral narrative. This campaign period witnessed a resurgence in the linkage between left-wing populism and nationalism in Korea, strategically leveraged within the electoral discourse. This was followed by an outpouring of social media content juxtaposing Admiral Yi Sun-sin, a historical Korean hero instrumental in defeating the Japanese invasions of Korea (1592-1598), against the conservative parties accused of neglecting to address the remnants of the Japanese colonial legacy.

Xenophobia: A Nascent Theme in the Electoral Discourse

The political landscape in South Korea has historically favoured candidates with deep-rooted connections to the nation, be it through heritage, birth, or significant contributions and residency, emphasising a predilection for individuals with a steadfast dedication to the nation’s welfare. In this electoral cycle, Ihn Yohan (John Alderman Linton) assumed the role of the new innovation committee chairman for the People Power Party (PPP), and was elected as a proportional representative. Stemming from a lineage of foreign missionaries in Korea, his service to Korean society and his medical expertise are anticipated to offer meaningful contributions to policy development. Yet, it remains uncertain how fervently he will engage with and advocate for the equitable treatment of multicultural families and foreigners.

This election has cast a spotlight on xenophobia towards foreigners, revealing entrenched societal and political prejudices. While Western European elites and foreigners expressing a robust interest in Korea are met with widespread popularity and representation in the media, discernible biases against ethnic minorities and Muslims are evident, particularly in conservative locales. The pronounced resistance to the establishment of an Islamic mosque in Daegu, coupled with a candidate’s assertive approach towards undocumented migrant workers, has accentuated xenophobia as a prominent electoral concern, necessitating a reassessment of societal perspectives towards foreign nationals.

Independent of the government’s position on the waning birth rate and the embracement or expansion of foreign immigration, this matter is set to significantly impact the political vista of South Korea going forward. Although there are 58,000 individuals who have completed social integration programs out of the 2.5 million foreign residents (as of 2023), the prevailing attitudes of the Korean populace and governmental stance towards foreigners will ultimately shape policy directions.

The Aftermath: Implications for Yoon’s Administration

The landscape following the election poses significant challenges for President Yoon’s government, notably with the National Assembly now dominated by the opposition. The outcomes of the election serve as a public referendum on the government’s inclination towards authoritarianism and its curtailment of media freedoms, casting doubts on the future trajectory of substantial reforms across key sectors.

The 22nd general election in South Korea thus offers a pivotal perspective for examining the interactions of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia within the nation’s political fabric. It highlights the persistent issues in confronting authoritarianism, bridging societal divides, and weaving foreign nationals more integrally into the societal framework. This election marks a critical juncture in South Korea’s political development, with implications that stretch far into the realms of democratic governance, social unity, and the broader political milieu.

Moreover, the election’s focus on ‘fellow citizens’ and its subsequent descent into legal disputes underscores a squandered opportunity to cultivate a more inclusive and unified political dialogue. The escalation of legal battles, especially those involving prominent members of both the DP and the PPP, has shifted focus away from potential enhancements in political communication and understanding, solidifying a landscape marred by divisiveness and conflict.Additionally, the sophisticated employment of nationalism by both political factions, from the invocation of historical narratives to the articulation of current geopolitical predicaments, unveils a complex weave of identity, memory, and political strategy. The election’s accent on both conservative and progressive interpretations of nationalism emphasizes the profound influence of historical consciousness in molding contemporary political dialogues and strategies.

The pronounced focus on xenophobia within the election discourse, especially against the backdrop of South Korea’s socio-political landscape, necessitates a thorough reassessment of societal attitudes and policies towards foreign nationals and ethnic minorities. This issue, manifested through public resistance to Islamic mosques and aggressive approaches towards undocumented workers, underscores an urgent requirement for a societal ethos that is more inclusive and tolerant.

In summation, the 22nd general election encapsulates the varied challenges and dynamics within South Korean politics, from the ascendancy of populism and nationalism to the disconcerting trends of xenophobia. As South Korea progresses on its trajectory of political and societal development, the results of this election and the related discussions provide vital insights into the enduring efforts for democratic integrity, societal harmony, and a comprehensive national identity. The repercussions of this electoral process extend beyond the immediate political outcomes, heralding a phase of reflection, discourse, and potentially transformative shifts in the nation’s democratic journey.

Add a Comment

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

Category

Latest News