[CULTURAL DIMENSIONS]The right, sailing with the windThe year 2002 may have been the year of the left, but 2003 is looking more and more like the year of the right. The election of Roh Moo-hyun has energized the right, causing it to adopt the methods of political battle long associated with the left. Since December 2002, large right-wing rallies have become common. Over the past several months, right-wing political events have seen an increased incidence of violence as demonstrators clash with their left-wing counterparts. On the Internet and in churches and campuses, the right is working hard to find new converts to its cause.
Like the right in many other countries, the right in Korea is an understudied political movement. In the United States, the right was not taken seriously until the election of Ronald Reagan in 1980. In much of Europe and Japan, the right is associated with fascist regimes of the 20th century. It only attracts attention when it gains enough support to threaten the status quo, as in the 2002 presidential election in France. In Korea, the right has attracted little interest because it was associated with the dictatorships of the past.
The right that has taken to the streets in 2003, however, is a new right, different from the conservative wings of the past because it seeks to claim the mantle of South Korean nationalism in a democratic political environment. The change is significant and explains the sudden emergence of the slogan “Overthrow Kim Jong-il.” By proposing a regime change, the right is advocating absorption reunification as a nationalistic cause to protect South Korea and reunify the country at the same time. These goals place South Korean nationalism at the center of the geopolitical equation on the peninsula. To achieve these goals, of course, South Korea must be a strong and prosperous nation.
During years of military dictatorship, the right dodged the question of reunification, leaving it to the left to address. International politics and the pressing issues of economic development made it difficult for the right to assert openly a takeover of the North. The Park Chung Hee dictatorship, in particular, was built around a simple bargain with the people: economic development first, democracy and reunification later.
This bargain had popular appeal, but as development progressed, people demanded democracy and a fairer distribution of the fruits of prosperity. The right stuck to “economic development first,” but found itself defensive on reunification and foreign policy. The left, by contrast, cast itself as the voice of the people and appealed to South Korean nationalism by urging reconciliation with North Korea and independence from the United States.
The right’s recent interest in absorption reunification creates a new competition between the ideologies over reunification. The left has tried to portray the right as a group of extremists, but that has not worked well because religious conservatives from all walks of life have swelled the size of street rallies. North Korean brinkmanship, the weakening economy and the falling popularity of President Roh, meanwhile, have helped bolster the right’s claim that the current government does not have the national interest at heart.
Beyond trying to portray the right as extremist, the left has failed to respond effectively to the right’s challenge. All the left can say is “Trust us because we brought you democracy,” much as the old right used to say, “Trust us because we brought prosperity.” At heart, the left still believes, as the old right used to believe, that it has the momentum, that whipping up the passions of the younger generation will win the next election.
None of this means, however, that the new right will grab power again easily. Most Koreans still support some reconciliation with North Korea and are wary of the idea of absorbing it. The political center is worried about the economy first and is losing interest in the battle between right and left. Yet behind the distaste for ideology, momentum is moving toward the right as it presses the left to defend its current policy amid a deepening national malaise. In doing so, it is driving a wedge between those in their 30s and 40s and other generations before and after them. That so-called “386 Generation” remains the engine of the left, but the generations before and after it are feeling the brunt of the malaise in retirement uncertainties and entry-level jobs.
As the right feels the wind at its back, expect it to mix the hard rhetoric of absorption reunification with a pragmatic appeal for a return to growth-centered economic policy, all in the name of nationalism.
If the past is any guide, then the direction of future policy is clear in what the right says today, much as the direction of current policy was in what the left said in the 1980s.
* The writer is an associate professor at Kyoto University in Japan. His e-mail address is firstname.lastname@example.org.
by Robert J. Fouser