Strongmen not needed
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
As we bid farewell to 2021 and welcome 2022, media around the world are reporting about important elections in major countries. The upcoming presidential election in Korea, the world’s 10th largest economy, is no exception. How do other countries see the presidential election on March 9? The Washington Post and the Council on Foreign Relations have addressed the issue, but Foreign Policy magazine issued the most eye-catching report.
Discussing the presidential election, the magazine quoted a diplomatic cable from the U.S. Embassy in Korea sent last October. The magazine said the popularity of the Korean drama “Squid Game” on Netflix was based on the grim reality of Korean society. According to its analysis, U.S. diplomats regarded the drama as a reflection of the frustration felt by the average Korean — the young generation in particular — and the gloomy reality of class inequality. The cable concluded that the harsh reality would have an impact on the upcoming election.
The U.S. embassy believes that young voters in their 20s are key to the election. In fact, President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings among that age group once reached a whopping 90 percent, but plummeted to 31 percent due to deepening unemployment and inflation, according to Gallup Korea polls.
The embassy took special note of the repulsion of male voters in their 20s to feminism. For most of them, feminism means gender inequality against men. Although the situation has changed, the opposition People Power Party (PPP) once won their absolute support after the ruling Democratic Party (DP) showed signs of accomodating feminism.
It remains to be seen if the sentiments of the young men toward feminism will determine the outcome of the upcoming election. The world is still paying attention to the Korean election as political masculinity has emerged as a global issue.
Over the recent years, “machismo” and “strongman leadership” — both rooted in political masculinity — were dominant. Since the mid-2010s, powerful leaderships were favored over democratic principles of respecting minority opinions and making compromises.
Russian President Vladimir Putin, Chinese President Xi Jinping and former U.S. President Donald Trump were all strongmen who ran the world’s three largest military powers. Philippine President Rodrigo Duterte, Hungarian Prime Minister Viktor Orban, Turkey’s President Recep Tayyip Erdoğan are similar strongmen.
In contrast, Germany’s former Chancellor Angela Merkel and French President Emmanuel Macron, who cherish the principles of democracy, faced hardships.
What happened? Populist ideas of flexing national muscles appeal amid a worsening in polarization of societies. Trump’s “America First” policy is the best example. To build a strong country and reinvent the social order, strongman leadership is arguably the best choice. But there is a great risk. Political scientist Ian Bremmer pointed out that most strongmen make the mistake of trying to build a fair society by dividing the people into “friends” and “foes.”
Given their pasts, both ruling Democratic Party (DP) presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung and rival Yoon Suk-yeol from the opposition People Power Party (PPP) are something like strongman leaders. After Korea was liberated in 1945, U.S. military government officials who ruled South Korea for three years were shocked at what they found in Korean politics. They found only Communists because politicians from the left and the right pledged to reform all segments of the society based on a strong central government.
Perhaps, the desire for a strong state is in the DNA of the Korean people, who lived under dynastic rule for thousands of years. But no matter who wins the election, the country will likely be split between “us” and “them.”
When he pardoned former President Park Geun-hye, Moon stressed the importance of reconciliation and unity. But he had a talent for dividing the people. Lee and Yoon must not rely on such populism.