The wrong playbook
The author is head of the international, foreign policy and security team of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party’s (LKP) floor leader Na Kyung-won’s rhetoric comparing President Moon Jae-in to “Kim Jong-un’s chief spokesperson” is a gratifying marketing trick for the conservatives. Those who claim people’s mouths are kept shut and the administration is going backward increasingly find the comment refreshing. But it is insulting to the Blue House and to the ruling Democratic Party (DP). Those who support the liberal administration find it unbearable and believe the government must refute the comment.
Whether one finds it gratifying or insulting, such a vulgar expression targeting emotion is effective to bring supporters together. U.S. President Donald Trump is the authority here. He is a master of creating nicknames to mock rivals both inside and outside the party. During the Republican Party primary, Trump called Jeb Bush “low-energy Jeb,” since he considered the latter to not be as decisive as his father, George H. W. Bush, or his brother, George W. Bush. Trump called former Hewlett-Packard CEO and the only female candidate Carly Fiorina “horseface.” During the presidential campaign, he called Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton “Crooked Hillary.”
While Trump loyalists who detest Washington politics found the insults gratifying, opponents grew more appalled. Words invite more words. Trump frequently ridiculed Democratic senator Elizabeth Warren as “Pocahontas.” The former Harvard Law School professor announced her presidential bid for 2020, and said, “He may not even be a free person” by 2020. That is a strategy to bring supporters together to lead the anti-Trump camp.
Politics cannot transcend human nature. Gratifying remarks incur anger on the other side and it accumulates to antagonism. In the meantime, a nation is divided.
While conservatives may find Rep. Na’s bombshell remarks — “Kim Jong-un’s chief spokesman” — gratifying, there are also liberals in Korea. When the DP was in opposition, it mocked former President Park Geun-hye, calling her gwitae, or a “being that should not have been born,” a “chicken.” Another conservative, former President Lee Myung-bak, was called a “rat” online. At the time, conservatives were appalled — the same psychological mechanism is working among the supporters of the Moon Jae-in administration.
There are various causes for the situation, but the Moon administration also contributed to the exacerbation of the situation by playing the role of a “mediator” between Washington and Pyongyang. The government was naively optimistic and could not precisely capture the intention of the White House. If the Moon administration tried to play a mediating role, it inevitably had to play the role of Kim Jong-un’s press officer.
The mediator needs to listen to North Korea’s position and deliver it to Washington. If Moon really played the role of Kim’s spokesman for the White House, he also should have played the role of Trump’s spokesman to Pyongyang. As Trump has the key in the North Korea-U.S. negotiation, Moon should have convinced Pyongyang of the need to bring more to Hanoi. The opposition floor leader initiated a political attack in a National Assembly speech.
The LKP may think it has landed a blow with Na’s radical comment, but politics of emotion is basically a weapon of the liberals, not a specialty of the conservatives. The liberals vote out of anger, while the conservatives vote out of anxiety. By nature, the conservatives find aggregated anger uncomfortable. The conservatives should not imitate the liberals.
JoongAng Ilbo, March 20, Page 27