Running for Cover: South Korea’s Left

July 10th, 2012
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America’s now infamous ‘Red Scare’ occurred more than 60 years ago. Politicians, celebrities, bureaucrats, 10-year old actresses, and just about everybody who wasn’t draped in an American flag came under scrutiny for their possible Communist sympathies. The nation was gripped with paranoia, suspicion, and fear.

Well, 60 years later it appears “Reds are still scary” in South Korea.

A fear (if not hatred) toward citizens with “pro-NK” tendencies has reached fever pitch in South Korea in recent weeks, culminating most recently with the reaction to the unceremonious return of unification activist Ro Su-Hui. His arrest was not surprising but the South Korean authorities handling of it was.  The scenes of mass flag waving, North Korean troops, and Mr. Ro being entwined in rope and being bundled into a waiting bus was surely not the kind of message Seoul was wishing to broadcast. For their part, the South Korean public reacted with protests near the DMZ in which effigies of North Korea’s leader and “sympathizer” activist Ro So-hui were set fire just as the North Korean public had done the same with Lee Myung-bak a few weeks before. Cooler heads in the South may have once prevailed, but as one DUP member put it, are we now experiencing ‘neo McCarthyism’ in the South?

The spark for this upsurge in widespread hostility towards “pro-NK” tendencies can be traced somewhat to news related to the small and leftist UPP party, which hold just 13 of South Korea’s 300 seats. In May the party ruptured open, with claim and counter-claim from their various groupings about vote-rigging. The initial reporting and conversation over the incident reported it for what it was, an internal power-struggle:

“The situation facing the minor Unified Progressive Party (UPP) worsened Sunday as mainstream members launched a separate leadership as a protest against the existing interim committee led by their opponents.”

However, the tone and nature of the incident soon changed when two of the figures involved were found to have held ties to Pyongyang in the 70’s and 80’s. It was no longer a story of complex internal political workings, but instead a nice, clear-cut (and headline grabbing) case of ‘pro-North factions’ and ‘pro-NK lawmakers’. The media soon moved from dragging up decades old history into outright pure speculation about the party’s ties to the North, with talk of the mysteriously sinister ‘Eastern Gyeonggi group’ (who according to one writer don’t even exist). All this whilst seemingly forgetting the much more legitimate, and just as serious concern, of the vote-rigging accusations.

This incident seems to have opened the proverbial flood gates. The term ‘Pro-NK’ when referring to a public or political figure was used only eleven times from the start of 2012 until the beginning of May. From May 7th until now its usage has almost tripled (31 stories*) and it is not just the number of stories that is increasing; the hostility of such pieces seems to be rising as well. The eleven stories from the first part of the year used the term to refer to an admitted and publicly vocal Pro-NK group and their hopes to visit North Korea to pay respects to Kim Jong-Il; a logical and natural usage. However, since then the term has been bandied around far more liberally, and for increasingly vague reasons.

Rep. Lee Seok-Ki was recently described as being a “Pro-N. Korean lawmaker”, “neither right nor just”, and “controversial” in one angry tirade. What outrageous comment had the Representative made? He stated that “What we Koreans know as the national anthem is but one of many patriotic songs” and recommended it be replaced by the Korean classic, Arirang, which also happens to be popular in the DPRK. The Korea Times tells us that this remark was indicative of Lee Seok-Ki’s “more complex calculation”, and that he was “exploiting ideology for political purposes”. Finally the article politely and calmly recommended that Mr. Lee effectively shut up and go live in North Korea if he loves it so much. Lee Seok-Ki has become the media face of the Pro-NK group, despite the fact that even one of his critics recently admitted “that currently there is insufficient evidence to establish that Rep. Lee Seok-ki of the minor Unified Progressive Party (UPP) is a North Korea sympathizer.”

President Lee Myung-Bak has been quick to jump on the bandwagon; helpfully ramping up tensions and fears by telling us “North Korea’s insistences are a problem, but the pro-North Korea faction inside this country that repeats their insistences verbatim are a bigger problem”. Does he honestly believe the misguided voices of the minority of a minority party pose more threat to the South Korean nation than the weapons of the North?

How has this mud-slinging in the corridors of political power been received by the public? We may not find a real answer to that until election time, but there have been signs that it is taking effect. The previously mentioned Rep. Lee was recently pelted with eggs by farmers angry over his comments on the anthem, groups of netizens have scouring forums to report suspicious activities, while the small campus of the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies has found itself receiving panicked calls from parents after being suspected of offering covert breeding ground to Pro-NK traitors. But in reality these few incidents do not yet seem to confirm any kind of pattern of substantial increase in anti-Pyongyang fears.

On the one hand, this new dynamic may make it tricky for politicians to engage in any serious intellectual debate about North Korea in the coming months for fear of being accused of being “Pro-NK”.  This is especially so given the way the term is being thrown with increasingly little attempt at defining what the illness of being “pro-NK” actually is.  On the other hand, this dynamic may just be reflecting the conservative values of the mainstream Korean press and not translate into any further action. As one student said “Few of us believe the North Korea factor would heavily affect voters’ decision on who’s going to be our next president. Young voters are sick and tired of such campaign politics.”


* via NKNews archive results. Results were taken from stories using Pro-NK, North Korean supporter, NK-Sympathiser, and other similar variances. Multiples of stories were only counted once, although the same story may have been counted several times if the new developments prompted new reporting (e.g. Ro Su-hui’s initial border crossing was reported by several news sources that day but was only counted once. However, when his home and offices were raided subsequently this would be counted as a new story).

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About the Author

David Slatter

David Slatter is a remote contributor and intern-editor for NKNews. He is a resident of Seoul and is active in the North Korean Human Rights movement there. He is a graduate of International History and Politics, and the current focus of his study and writing is Inter-Korean relations.

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