Liberals at loggerheads over Kim’s successor

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Liberals at loggerheads over Kim’s successor

A divide among the nation’s liberals has emerged on how to react to the third-generation power succession in North Korea.

Kim Jong-un, the youngest son of current leader Kim Jong-il, was recently designated heir to the throne after being made a four-star general and receiving powerful posts in the ruling party. Kim Jong-il inherited power from his father, founder-president Kim Il Sung.

Until now, conservatives in the South were vocal in condemning the North and its feudal tyranny, while liberals have avoided criticizing the Kim dynasty. Some liberals are even openly supportive of the succession no matter what.

That polarity appears to be softening as some liberals expressed disapproval of the dynastic power succession.

The divide first emerged when Lee Jung-hee, chairwoman of the progressive Democratic Labor Party, said last week, “It is my and the party’s decision to not discuss the issue [of the North’s power succession].”

The DLP’s silence provoked mixed reaction. Those supporting the DLP said they understand its silence because a political party that is part of the government - even in opposition - can’t risk upsetting diplomatic relations with the North by being critical, unlike, say, idealist activist groups.

Other liberals disagreed, saying a dynastic succession can’t be accepted by liberals on any grounds.

Jin Jung-gwon, a prominent progressive, spoke harshly about the DLP’s stance. “Respecting a rival regime as a part of a diplomatic strategy and having an opinion about a particular regime as a progressive political party are two completely different matters,” he said.

In a post on Twitter, Jin wrote, “It is an error to refrain from criticizing the regime for the sake of diplomatic relations. Diplomacy is diplomacy, and criticism is criticism. Diplomatic affairs are possible while criticizing. Above all, the DLP is neither the Foreign Ministry nor the Unification Ministry.”

Professor Sohn Ho-chul of Sogang University, another liberal scholar, agreed. “If a minimum of human rights and democracy were guaranteed in the North, it may be acceptable for South Korean liberals to refrain [from criticizing the North],” Sohn said. “But the North’s regime is not protecting the basic right to survival of its people while carrying out a dynastic succession.”

Sohn added, “The DLP and its leader Lee must contemplate whether their idea of inter-Korean peace and reconciliation means peace and reconciliation with the dynastic leaders or with the North Korean people.”

The schism in the liberal camp is reminiscent of the traditional dispute between the hard-line National Liberation faction and the relatively moderate People’s Democracy faction. But whereas past disagreements played out quietly, the schism on the North’s dynastic succession has been open.

“In the past, liberals often withheld their positions about North Korea, but more and more agree that North Korea is a nondemocratic system,” said Kim Ho-ki, a sociology professor at Yonsei University. “The latest debate is a starting point for the liberals to engage and criticize North Korea at the same time.”


By Bae Young-dae, Ser Myo-ja [myoja@joongang.co.kr]

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