The sweets of populism

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The sweets of populism


Yi Jung-jae
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.

A populist is like a flasher looking decent in a raincoat but who turns out to be a sick and repulsive exhibitionist.

South Korea may have been destined to fall under the spell of a populist government. In a 2017 analysis by Oxford Economics, the world’s leading economic consultancy, the odds of South Koreans electing a populist government were 20 percent, the fourth highest among G-20 economies. The likelihood was highest for the United States at 66 percent, followed by Mexico at 30 percent and Brazil at 25 percent. The analysis was based on a study of six standards: fiscal expansion, anti-immigration sentiment, anti-regime inclination, trade protectionism, desire for strong leadership, and polarized ideology. Once a populist government takes power, trade and economic growth would falter, the institute predicted.

The research house’s forecast hit the nail on the head. A populist government gained power in Korea. Exports slumped and growth stalled. What’s done is done. A bigger problem lies onwards. Populism is highly addictive. It draws the line politically and spends public finances heedlessly. It is hard to break the habit once the sweets of populism are tasted. The spending does not stop even as state coffers are drained. The catastrophic results have been witnessed with Latin American and European countries including Greece. South Korea is already seriously addicted. The cash handouts and political polarization have fed antagonisms and divided our society, as clearly seen in the sharp confrontation over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, electoral reforms, and an extra law enforcement agency aimed at investigating corruption among high-level government officials, including prosecutors and judges.

The parliamentary election falls on April 15. The populism wave will roar from now to 2022 when the presidential election is held. South Korea will forever be chained to populism if it does not break the spell now. The country is set to be more deeply bisected. Voters must ask themselves if they envision a country for themselves or for all — or whether public money should be spent for them or for the entire society.

The populist movement is bound to gain traction. The ruling power is eager to extend its term. Candidates from the ruling front such as Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon and Gyeonggi Gov. Lee Jae-myung are all champions of populist platforms. Even if the opposition succeeds in stealing power, it is unlikely to wield strong leadership to shake the country out of dependency on state charity. Koreans are innately susceptible to populism. They may endure hunger but cannot bear envy. So if left unattended, the country could go bankrupt.

If populism cannot be avoided, it should be employed wisely. A social consensus should be built so that the 1 percent does not feel ripped off for giving up their wealth to ease inequalities. If the 1 percent goes on supporting the 99 percent, the exploitation cycle won’t stop until everyone becomes poor.

It is not easy to pin down the variety of populism of the Moon Jae-in administration. The definitions of populism vary. In his book “What is Populism?,” Jan-Werner Muller, a professor of politics at Princeton, argues that populism can hardly be well-defined. It is neither left nor right, but permanently fixed in a democracy, he said. He also believes that populist features can be found in any society and age. The standards he used to define populists are four: drawing the line between “us” and “them”; attributing all problems to others; emphasizing the role of direct democracy in a society; and monopolizing justice.

I deciphered how the Moon Jae-in administration fit into Muller’s populist guidelines. I was not so sure in 2018, but I am now. The Cho Kuk fiasco has bared its true face. The government is blatant and intentional in employing populism. The people must open their eyes if they do not wish to be swept away by populism again. I used Muller’s set of reference to identify populism in the Moon government.


The Korean society is sharply split between those who support former Justice Minister Cho Kuk ?an icon of the liberal camp, who spearheaded prosecutorial reforms ?and those who want to punish the Moon Jae-in administration for embracing the controversial minister regardless of his double standards.

Drawing the line between “us” and “them”

The administration draws a clear line between “us” and “others.” The “real people” are those who back its platform. They can be pardoned even if they commit crimes. Anyone outside its support group can be stigmatized as “evil” even if wrongdoings are not proven. The discriminative law and order prevails. Chun Gyung-deuk, an administrative officer at the Blue House, reportedly advised Lee In-geol — an inspector at the presidential office who spearheaded a probe into former Vice Busan Mayor Yoo Jae-soo on bribery charges — to judge who was one of theirs and who was not.

Cho Kuk — who was President Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs before being nominated as justice minister, a job he lost due to snowballing scandals about his family — was an expert in group polarization. He claims that his supporters who gather around the prosecution headquarters in southern Seoul to rally against the probe against him are his “people.” He defined those backing him and prosecutorial reforms as being just, while dismissing those rallying against him and the government in central Seoul as enemies.

The divide goes beyond national borders. Cho reminded the public of the victory of Admiral Yi Sun-shin, who defeated Japan at sea in the Joseon Dynasty, when claiming that Korea would never give into Japan when it began to mount pressure through trade barriers to protest Korean court rulings on wartime forced labor. He branded the opposition the nation’s enemy by arguing that anyone who discredits the May 18, 1980, Gwangju Democratization Movement are descendants of dictators.

Attributing all problems to others

The government blames every failure on past conservative governments or others. Hugo Chavez, who ruled Venezuela from 1999 until his death in 2013, was a virtuoso in the blame game. He found fault with everyone — the previous administration and the United States — except himself. President Moon has bundled up every fault under “past evils.” Every bad thing is caused by the past conservative governments. Apartment prices in Gangnam are super-high because the past government encouraged housing purchases. His own income-led growth policies were not able to succeed because of the past government’s neoliberal policies.

The ruling party also blames the opposition for causing the economic slowdown because of its knee-jerk opposition in the legislature. While dithering on everyday life-related bills citing uncooperative opposition, it managed to railroad an electoral reform bill and an act to establish a new law enforcement agency to investigate senior government officials for corruption.

Stressing the role of direct democracy

The populist powers that be resort to direct democracy. They disregard the press or political parties. They prefer to go directly to the public. Chavez came on TV every week to speak directly to the people. He indulged them with giveaways. Today, Venezuelans cannot even find food in trash cans.

Moon highlights that his government was a result of the candlelight vigil protests against former president Park Geun-hye. He argues that the social divide over Cho was an example of “direct democracy” supplementing the representative democracy. The Blue House petition board, from which he promised to reflect public concerns, served to feed over-zealous populist laws.

Monopolizing justice

The ruling camp also has been customizing authority to run in its favor. It has condemned and punished the mainstream for exploitation. If the laws get in the way, it changes them. It replaces people if they get in the way. Since it represents the “real people,” it thinks it can get away with anything. The president named Cho justice minister regardless of the allegations of criminal offenses — and obvious public outrage over them. Cho represented his boss and therefore could be excused.

Moon has seated nine justices of the 14 on the bench of the Supreme Court. He also has appointed eight of nine justices on the Constitutional Court. He has nothing to worry about at the top of the pyramid. He has established a new investigation authority to steal power from the prosecution in investigating and indicting government officials. Moon has dismantled the investigation team under Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl and demoted those who were behind the investigations. The ruling party has changed the election law to “change the social order” through the election.

The Moon Jae-in administration has every feature of a populist government. One must stop the flasher from opening his raincoat. What’s inside is too embarrassing and disgraceful.

JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 14, Page 22
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