Time for political progress
I saw something the other day that made me do a double-take. According to a Gallup survey in December, the most pro-gay marriage places in Korea are South and North Gyeongsang provinces. Respectively, 39 and 38 percent of respondents in those regions were in favor of approving legal marriages of same sex, with the latter region being the only part of Korea where a majority do not oppose it. Meanwhile in Jeolla province, only 34 percent were in favor, and 58 percent against.
Of course, things are never as simple as saying Gyeongsang people are conservative (or indeed Jeolla people less so). The idea of conservativism, and indeed liberalism as well, are Korea-specific; they have very little relationship with conservative or progressive in the rest of the world. But nevertheless, it was a surprising result (to me, at least), and one that inspires me to feel more confident in a prediction I’ve made.
Within the next few years, I think that the ruling Saenuri Party will start instituting policies to aid sexual minorities. I know, you might be thinking, “This guy is a Westerner, he doesn’t understand Korea,” but times are changing - as shown by the Gallup survey, which I think we can take as a rough proxy for overall shifts in attitude. In 2001, 17 percent of Koreans agreed with legal approval of same-sex marriage; in 2013, 25 percent; and in that same survey last month, 35 percent. What happens when that figure reaches 40, or 50 percent? Sexual minority rights are a rapidly evolving issue, and may well become a niche vote-winner for someone.
As with Richard Nixon going to China, it can sometimes work to one’s advantage to take a position contrary to what people expect of “your side.” If the Saenuri Party were to do this, older voters with genuinely conservative tendencies would presumably feel as though the world had turned upside down - but they wouldn’t have anywhere else to go, electorally speaking. And as the survey shows, maybe that constituency isn’t quite as large and homogenous as one may imagine. Meanwhile it would help the Saenuri Party make inroads with people who were genuinely progressive, and throw the left into bouts of soul-searching and confusion.
I doubt the embrace of sexual minority rights is something that the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy would, or could, do. They wouldn’t really benefit from the Nixon in China effect, and they do also seem afraid of the reaction of aggressive pastors (despite overall public opinion turning against big corporate-like churches and their politicking). Even the best and brightest among the party, Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Moon Jae-in, have ended up ducking the issue.
It wouldn’t surprise me at all, though, if the Saenuri elected an openly gay proportional representative within the next two general elections. After all, they were the first to elect a naturalized, non-ethnic Korean last time around. That itself would have been unthinkable not too long ago. As with a gay candidate, Jasmine Lee wouldn’t have won from her constituency, but her election on proportional representation helped give the Saenuri Party an image of caring about a particular minority group. I suspect that even a generation from now, there will be naturalized Korean citizens (or their children) who remember that and still loyally vote Saenuri regardless of anything else.
Before the last presidential election, I went to the then-Democratic Party headquarters and asked about their policies on sexual minorities, as well as other classic “progressive” issues like animal rights, and the environment. They didn’t have much to say about them at all - instead, it was all about Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, BBK and so on. But all three of the topics I just mentioned are going to become more important in coming years.
The younger generation often gets labeled “conservative” by old-school progressives, but I think Korea’s twentysomethings are actually much more progressive than their critics. They don’t blindly vote for opposition parties, but their social values are actually pretty similar to those of young Northern Europeans. At the same time, we’re seeing the beginning of the rise of the celebrity activist, cooler than any opposition politician, and who is going to act as an influencer on that generation. Singer Lee Hyo-ri has been brave enough to become the first mainstream celebrity to step up, but she won’t be on her own for long.
Following the recent dissolution of the far-left Unified Progressive Party - which I didn’t agree with, but felt zero sympathy over - there have been calls from the winning side for a more “reasonable” progressivism. Maybe, but I would say it is also time for “relevant” progressivism. The new progressivism in Korea will be similar to progressivism in other countries - taking in social issues as well as economic ones, and definitely not making any excuses for a government as nasty and unprogressive as the one in Pyongyang. Isn’t it time for “progressive” politicians to ask themselves whether they’ve really been progressive at all, and also to take into account the words of Canadian ice hockey legend Wayne Gretzky: “I skate to where the puck is going to be, not to where it has been”?
*The author is the former Seoul correspondent for The Economist.
by Daniel Tudor