Divide and rule
The author is an international news editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The word “terrorist” carries enormous weight in a country that lived through 9/11. The moment anyone is called by the term in the United States, their lives can be changed forever. Last month, U.S. President Donald Trump used the term to refer to protestors fighting against racial injustice, and in doing so, turned his back on any attempt to unite the people of his nation, who have been deeply divided over the issue. Trump was more intent on scoring political points among his most ardent supporters ahead of the presidential election.
In a hyper-polarized America though, such a tactic may work. Social or economic status used to be the criteria by which social scientists analyzed members of a group and make predictions about them. Today in the United States, people are analyzed by the political party they endorse. Americans live in one nation, yet in completely different universes with contrasting shades of red and blue. Last May when The Economist and YouGov conducted a joint survey asking Americans about the national unemployment rate, respondents who identified themselves as a Democrat said “over 15 percent” (40 percent) or “between 12 to 15 percent” (27 percent). Republicans responded “between 12 to 15 percent” (31 percent) or “over 15 percent” (27 percent). (The country’s actual unemployment rate in May, according to the Labor Department, was 13.3 percent.)
In the same survey, subjects were asked whether they usually tune into negative news or positive news. Nearly 70 percent of all Democrats replied with negative news, while only 4 percent answered positive; 48 percent of Republicans chose negative news, while 13 percent answered with positive. The discrepancies show how confirmation bias and political affiliation play out in the very information that Americans decide to expose themselves to.
No country draws starker geopolitical lines than does North Korea. For decades, the North Korean leadership has purged dissident forces accused of colluding with U.S. intelligence or favoring capitalism, while tightening its grip over the country by stoking domestic fears about “evil forces” outside the nation. The North’s invasion of South Korea on June 25, 1950, is what led to the stationing of American troops on the Korean Peninsula. Yet Pyongyang uses that military presence as a propaganda tool to strategically construct national unity.
This week, Pyongyang chose to slam Seoul for its attempts to play a mediating role with Washington, and it reiterated its claim that it’s not interested in engaging in summit talks with Trump before the November presidential election. It’s true that South Korea shares some blame for the failed Hanoi summit in 2019 due to its neglecting of the chasm between Kim and Trump on vital positions, but even so, nothing changes the fact that nuclear talks cannot progress one little bit unless Pyongyang shows the will to fully denuclearize. Whether the North Korean leadership makes enemies inside its country or outside, it will only work to further isolate the regime.
South Korea is not free from this risk. South Korean society has accommodated itself to what’s known as “Colosseum politics” — a government placating public grievances by finding scapegoats and placing them on center stage for everyone to chastise. Blaming an adversary for a policy failure may be effective for the Moon Jae-in administration to rally its supporters. However, under no circumstances can it be a sustainable solution to the country’s malaise.
The ruling Democratic Party (DP) had the perfect chance to expand its base right after the April general elections, when it gained a sweeping victory. By making several changes to its failed economic, diplomatic and social policies, the party could have been embraced by voters from the other end of the political spectrum. So far, it has failed in each and every one of those aspects. Time won’t wait.
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