The South Korean Right in the Wilderness, part 1: Modernizing the Liberty Korea Party

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This is a re-post of an essay I wrote for the Korean Dong-A Daily newspaper.

So exactly no one in the English-speaking cares much about this topic. Everyone wants to talk about Trump and Kim and North Korean nuclear weapons. I get it.

But I do think it is fascinating thinking about how the South Korean right will come back from the wilderness where it now is. Its last president was so corrupt, she was impeached. The conservative party – the Liberty Korea Party – then got trounced in the presidential election of 2017 and then again the local elections of 2018.

Unfortunately, it is still dominated by dead-enders for the last president, conspiracy theorists, and mccarthyites. So here is my advice for bringing the LKP back from the dead. South Korea, like any other country, needs a robust opposition party, so the LKP’s implosion is not actually a good thing even if you dislike its policies.

The full essay follows the jump…


The main conservative party in South Korea – the Liberty Korea Party – is in disarray. President Park Geun-Hye, a former member of the LKP’s predecessor party, the New Frontier Party, is now in prison for an enormous corruption scandal. She is the only South Korean president to be successfully impeached and removed.

Further blows fell in q uick succession. The LKP candidate for president in 2017, Hong Jun-Pyo, received only 24%, beaten badly by current president Moon Jae-In with 41% of the vote. In the local elections of summer 2018, the LKP was beaten badly again. Even previous conservative strongholds feel to the left. No less than the mayoralty of Busan is now held by the Democratic Party.

These poor electoral fortunes are not surprising. Park’s fall from grace tainted her whole party. One expects a ‘wave election’ – an election where the opposition enjoys a ‘wave’ of support – in the wake of such a massive scandal. When US President Richard Nixon was nearly impeached and then forced from office in 1974, his Republican party also suffered a wave election in favor of the opposition Democrats.

So the LKP’s bitter fate of the last two years is not unexpected, but no less painful. The LKP is now in what American analysis of political parties calls ‘the wilderness.’ The party is almost completely out of power. It is unpopular. Its ideology, mostly focused on anti-communism and a general promotion of Korean business through the chaebol, is out of fashion as new issues such as détente with North Korea, yellow dust, migration, or Hell Chosun have arisen.

The party is tired, and its ideas stale. I see this everyday teaching undergraduate students at a major Korean university. The LKP needs a substantial re-think to make itself relevant to contemporary issues and start winning elections again. Two famous exemplars of such re-modelling are Britain’s Tony Blair and America’s Bill Clinton. Both took charge of left-wing parties too liberal to get elected. Both re-fashioned them, successfully, to be newly competitive in changed circumstances.

What might the LKP do to modernize itself and start winning again? How might it re-connect with voters after the embarrassment of Park Geun-Hye? How can it push back against the likeable Moon, who is a vast improvement in seriousness, affability, and clean politics over his corrupted, aristocratic predecessor?

First, the LKP needs to recognize that Park Geun-Hye is, in fact, guilty and does, in fact, deserve to be in prison. This is a far greater problem among LKP voters than one would imagine given the Park was impeached by a huge majority of the National Assembly and the full consensus of the Constitutional Court. The ‘Parksamo’ nevertheless hang on, protesting at events in Seoul and spreading conspiracy theories that her removal was some kind of North Korean plot. I have received hundreds of emails from South Korean conservatives asking me to promote this idea in my writing, and I have been genuinely disturbed by how many otherwise serious Korean conservative acquaintances have trafficked in such conspiracies. The party will never move on until accepts what a large majority of the South Korean population and South Korea’s institutions have long since realized – that Park was grossly corrupted and rightfully removed by due process.

Second, the LKP needs new policy ideas which speak to current issues better. For too long South Korean conservatives have coasted on a lazy, conspiratorial anti-communism and vague promotionalism of ‘Korea, Inc.’ Anti-communism will necessarily remain; conservative voters are – correctly in my mind – anti-North Korean, pro-unification, and anxious about Moon’s détente efforts. However the McCarthyism and red-baiting which have traditionally defined the South Korean right needs to go. A vote the Democratic party is not a vote for North Korea; South Korean leftists are not communist fellow-travelers; and Moon is not being manipulated by Pyongyang.

Besides a more mature anti-communism, the South Korean right must somehow speak to new issues. Its blunt promotion of growth understood as the success of the chaebol and a trade surplus is old-fashioned and out of step with a wealthier, modern South Korea where lifestyle issues are now major concerns. South Korea needs better growth, not just more. South Korea needs cleaner energy to clean the air and water, rather than simply blaming, incorrectly, China for its yellow dust problem. South Korea needs safer driving and cleaner streets. The ‘Hell Chosun’ problem drives Korean youth overseas. Corruption is far too high for a G-20 economy with aspirations to a serious middle power role. And household debt is astronomically high, given the highly speculative nature of the real-estate market here. A crashing birth-rate means Korea’s population will start contracting by 2020. Migration, which is likely the only way to turn this problem around, is barely discussed.

Clever, fresh proposals regarding these issues would be good for the South Korean public and good for the LKP. The Democratic Party has generally flubbed these concerns too – South Korea’s air is still terrible – and Ahn Chul Soo’s People’s Party, which briefly seemed interested in these middle-class lifestyle issues, has imploded. There is substantial political space here for an LKP revival.

Third, younger and female candidates would help the LKP. Far too many LKP candidates are aged men. Hong briefly tried to market himself in the campaign as the ‘Donald Trump of Korea.’ That would be a disaster for a respectable conservatism in Korea. If the LKP comes back ‘Trumpized’ from its wilderness period, that will alienate the young and women.

There is some good news. Hong did better than everyone thought in 2017. At the beginning of that presidential election, the LKP polled in the single digits. Everyone thought the race was between Ahn and Moon. Hong turned around what might have been epochal defeat. Instead, he climbed into second place. Ahn did not manage to turn the People’s party into the second party of Korea and the leader of the opposition. Ahn has once again drifted out of Korean politics, leaving the LKP as the primary opposition party. And Moon’s approval rating is dropping.

Korea, like all democracies, needs healthy opposition parties to hold the government party accountable. Let’s just hope that the LKP rebuilds itself as the modernized conservative party South Korea needs, rather than a Trumpist clone trafficking in reactionary politics.

Robert E Kelly
Assistant Professor
Department of Political Science & Diplomacy
Pusan National University





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