Korea’s Left, the FTA and Political Machinations
By Peter Ward
The South Korean left is not something I feel I should be too judgmental about. This is a group of people that includes men and women who gave their lives in heroic labour fights for the good of people genuinely exploited. Among them are also people who deeply care about the future of their country, their fellow countrymen and want to eliminate poverty, in a country that, like many a developed country (should I say all bar Scandinavia?), has its fair share of poverty. Nonetheless, in one regard which is very topical at present, the left is remarkably contradictory, not to say cynically opportunistic.
The Korean-American Free Trade Agreement (FTA) was first mooted and drafted under the presidency of former President Roh Moo-hyun. There are many things said about Roh: he was corrupt, he was a human rights lawyer with great oratory skills, a crusader against exploitation, an idiot (바보) in the good sense of the word—i.e., a noble idiot. One thing that was emblematic of his premiership and what came before it—and what is more broadly a part of the left in South Korea—is an economic and to a certain extent politically critical posture towards the United States. To be honest this is fairly justifiable in some regards. The United States has in the past made it its own business to intervene in a country’s political system in order to install interests (often rather unpleasant to the locals) friendly to Washington. U.S. passivity in the face of the overthrow of nascent South Korean democracy in 1961, and again in the face of the crushing of a democratic uprising in Gwangju in 1980 has led to a great deal of resentment and accusations of hypocrisy. The South Korean left does not merely use this cynically (although it might to a certain extent); it does, just as the European Left does, feel some genuine animosity towards the United States government. Whether justified or not, the sentiments are real and very raw.
Which leads us to President Roh’s strangest undertaking: the FTA. Hailing from the left surely it is unspeakable heresy. And yet there it was, a Nixon in China moment if ever there was one. Actually, the logic of it is quite simple and what is even more simple is why his former comrade’s oppose it now, without any irony.
President Roh sought the agreement because he was leader of the country and leader of the party in power. Although his party was not in power in parliament throughout his tenure, he was nonetheless the president, the head of state, with his own bully-pulpit. The South Korean president has a great deal more power than many presidents worldwide in democratic systems. It is, in political science terms, a presidential-centred political system. That said, he does have to cohabit with the National Assembly, whether it be his party or not. But the head of the government is merely his appointee, the prime minister does not independently propose policy, unlike the French model, and there is no House Speaker in the American sense who acts as a unifying voice of the National Assembly. The president sets the political direction of the country and his main aim is to get his party into power and/or keep it there.
The FTA made perfect sense from the position of the president. It was good for the most sizable portion of the population as in those who work in the service sector, the middle class. These people will benefit from the FTA because as is said a lot, it will lower trade tariffs on consumer goods. I immediately think of fruit, which is so expensive in South Korea. The United States being the largest economy in the world has much to export, and much to export to developed countries like South Korea in particular. Imports from the United States will lower prices and will probably not adversely affect the livelihood of the average resident of Seoul or Gyeonggi province, this being an almost absolute majority of the country’s population itself. This group of people are the swing voters here in South Korea. There are of course parts of Seoul and Gyeonggi that are very conservative and other parts that are very progressive, but much of Seoul sits on the fence. Roh surely thought that as president, the FTA made sense as something that would benefit him as a politician, the people as a whole and the fortunes of his party.
Added to that, there are also powerful economic arguments in favour of the FTA. In the 1960s and 1970s, South Korea had a real competitive labour advantage compared to other economies worldwide and especially in the region. South Korean labour was cheap, and South Korea, unlike China, was open for business. Today China is rising and South Korea is increasingly uncompetitive compared to its neighbours. Thus a free trade agreement, in the way it breaks down costly barriers to trade is expected to be good for the South Korean labour market. And when you consider the fact that the North American labour market is far more overpriced than the South Korean labour market, a net inflow of jobs is not necessarily wishful thinking.
After the election of President Lee Myung Bak, the Democratic Party, the major party that purports to represent the mainstream left, came out in opposition to the ratification of the FTA. Their reasoning is not exactly consistent, at least in print. But it makes a great deal of sense from a political point of view, rather than from the utilitarian economic views outlined in favour of the FTA. After the death of Roh, but even before that, reasons to oppose the FTA began to gain sway in the South. Bad American beef, the possibility of unfair competitive practices and most recently the so-called ISD controversy all centre around the bed rock of South Korea’s left and it’s core constituency.
The core constituency can actually be broken down into three parts. The first is the farmers and residents in general of the Jeolla provinces. Stopping these people from losing their livelihoods to unfairly subsidised American agri-business is a worthy cause (shame that it was forgotten by the so-called ‘progressives’ when they were in power). The second constituency is the labour unions, mainly drawn from the large corporations that are the bedrock of the South Korean economy. The third major constituency, more intangible, is anti-American sentiment. It’s important to remember that South Korean nationalism can become very anti-American—whilst young people in the South have a great cultural affinity with America, they have no political illusions about the left. Assertive, state-based, civic nationalism (rather than blood-based ethnic nationalism) is what people my age and up to 35 are increasingly starting to believe in. This belief takes a dim view of U.S. power in the world and on the Korean peninsula, seeing it, in its overwhelming strength, as a threat and corrosive to the projection popular will (on the part of the South Korean public) through their state. There are other reasons why people under 40 vote left, but this is a very important one among them.
Additionally, the left, like the left in other developed countries, is plagued by factionalism. There are four major parties on the South Korean left: the Democratic Party (민주당), the Participation Party (국민참여당), the Democratic Labour party (민주노동당), and the New Progressive Party (진보신당). The Democratic Party has to cover it’s left flank, making opposition to the FTA necessary in order to present to the above mentioned constituencies with good reason to vote for the Democratic Party rather one of its moderate or more robust left-wing rivals.
Finally, the Democratic Party, like all parties on the left in the South at present, is committed to combining forces with its factional rivals. In order to appeal both to the leadership and the membership of those factional rivals, it must adopt positions that are suitably left-wing. Opposition to the FTA is one such policy. And it carries with it almost no risk. Although fights on the floor of the National Assembly are unseemly, they will play well with the base. Additionally, if the left is to win the next general elections, it will, like the right is good at, have to present a united front to the electorate. Opposition to the FTA is important for the Democratic Party, it allows it to present to it’s left wing rivals an image of solidarity and fraternity: an important step in winning trust and moving towards greater left-wing unity whether good for the majority of the populous or not.
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Peter Ward lives and works in Seoul as a student of the Korean language and Korean history. He also has a burning interest in North Korea and North Korean related issues which he continues to feed with the help of Russian scholar and North Korean expert, Andrei Lankov, who he serves as an assistant and understudy.