Although it has been 60 years since the end of the Korean War and more than two decades since the Berlin Wall fell, many elements of Korean politics and society still reflect the Cold War period.
Korea’s Berlin Wall, the DMZ, is still there, and left wing politicians (and others) still get lampooned (and worse) as commies and, more recently, as jongpuk – pro-North Koreans. It isn’t the 1970s anymore, yet the way many left wingers are branded is eerily reminiscent of both McCarthyism (a term that is directly translated and well understood in South Korea) and a Cold War political environment forgotten almost everywhere else.
The political and physical attacks levelled at civic activist-cum-Seoul City mayor Park Won-soon, who in 2011 was ushered to victory over affluent Park Geun-hye-backed assemblywoman Na Kyung-won, are indicative of the nature of both contemporary South Korean domestic politics and the difficulty of confronting politically sensitive issues in the country. This article, which ran last month in the left-leaning Hankyoreh, is a good example. It reported on accusations against Park, via Twitter, by a conservative figure who called him both a commie and a jongpuk.
Park’s role in founding the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, a civil society organisation that, along with a number of laudable social programs, famously questioned the results of an international investigation into the sinking of the South Korean frigate the Cheonan, his support for the abolition of the controversial National Security Law, and his vocal opposition to the policies of the outgoing administration of President Lee Myung-bak have made him a prime target for conservatives, many of whom have precious little patience for the politics of the left.
From the Hankyoreh:
‘Blind follower’ accusations going further than ‘Park Won-soon is a Commie’… Why?
Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon has, against his wishes, once again emerged at the heart of the ‘jongpuk dispute’.
On January 19, former KBS announcer Chung Mi-hong wrote on her Twitter account:
@Naya2816: The pro-North Tendencies of Seoul Mayor (Park Won-soon), Seongnam Mayor (Lee Chae-myong), Nowon-gu Disctrict Commissioner (Kim Seong-hwan) and the heads of other jongpuk-type community bodies should be remembered, and then they must be thrown out at next year’s regional elections.’
@Naya2816:‘Those who act against the national interest, and, in contradiction to the constitution, propagate Kim Il Sung’s ideology and cause social confusion by spreading distorted views of history must all be dealt the harshest punishment, and laws sending them into exile must be promulgated.’
Upon seeing opinions in support of Mayor Park and the others put up on Twitter, she then replied in a mocking tone:
@Naya2816: ‘Because I say that heads of local government with questionable qualifications and jongpuk tendencies must be kicked out, you come running like a swarm of bees. Without even knowing what those guys are doing, you are just disagreeing for disagreement’s sake… tsk tsk.’
Over the weekend, these comments spread widely online and became the center of an active debate. In particular, netizens had a fierce online dispute regarding the jongpuk accusations against Mayor Park, who is seen as the leading [progressive] figure in local government.
The attacks by conservative netizens continued despite criticism from Saenuri Party lawmaker Ha Tae-kyung, who is famous for his hard-line stance against North Korea. On January 20, Ha posted on his Twitter account:
@taekyungh: ‘If even Park Won-soon can be accused of being a jongpuk, then that shows that the meaning of being a jongpuk is not understood. The conservative bloc must stop going too far by placing the jongpuk hat on the political opposition’s head.’
The debate surrounding Mayor Park’s jongpuk tendency is nothing new.
During the 2011 special mayoral election, he suffered continuous jongpuk accusations from the ruling party. However, the accusations didn’t affect his election because the ruling party was unable to draw any connection between their accusations and Mayor Park’s personal history. But even so, the debate did not subside following his election.
The Korea Parent Federation [대한민국 어버이 연합 – a militantly anti-North Korea conservative group] and conservative civic groups gathered outside Seoul City Hall thereafter to brand him a commie and shower him with critical blows. Even worse, a woman in her 60s assaulted Mayor Park while he was viewing a civil defense training exercise. As she assaulted him, she said: ‘You commie, you’re ruining Seoul.’
However, thanks to the way he carried out his duties after his election as mayor, not slanted toward any one particular ideology, the jongpuk accusations against Mayor Park then subsided; recently, however, in the aftermath of the 18th presidential election, they have resumed.
Kim Dong-kil, a representative conservative and Professor Emeritus at Yonsei University, stated at a conservative group event on January 16:
The Seoul Mayor doesn’t sing the national anthem, doesn’t fly the South Korean flag, and held his inauguration ceremony in front of Daehan Gate [the front gate of Deoksu Palace in Seoul] with only his closest associates in attendance.
After he said this, he indicated to Mayor Park and said: ‘This crazy bastard.’
Despite Seoul City’s immediate rebuttal, saying that [Park] had in fact pledged his allegiance, the controversy has continued to spread online. It is becoming the talk of the town in the context of Mrs. Jung’s and Emeritus Professor Kim’s statements. So, why does the jongpuk dispute about Mayor Park won-soon keep on re-emerging?
First of all, it is a feature of so-called noise marketing, wherein criticism of popular individuals is used to emphasize one’s own humble existence.
In 1995, Mrs. Jung, who criticized Mayor Park, became a member of former Democratic Party Seoul mayoral candidate Cho Soon’s camp, and then chief publicist for Seoul City. Later, in 2007, she helped to initiate the Moon Guk-hyun-led ‘Creative Korea Party.’
We also know that in last April’s legislative elections she registered to be Saenuri Party candidate for part of Seoul’s Seocho-gu, but failed. [The area in question is south of the Han River, and covers Seocho-dong, Yangjae-dong, Naegok-dong and Bangbae 2-dong and 3-dong.]
Mr. A, a centrist political columnist who spoke on condition of anonymity, said, ‘If we want to say that Mayor Park is ‘pro-North,’ then shouldn’t we also discuss the concept and content of ‘pro-Northism’? Mrs. Jung saying something like that out of the blue is tantamount to McCarthyism: condemning persons if they think differently to oneself. It’s not conservatism, either.’
He went on, ‘From the perspective of the person who is raising [the issue], it can be seen from the aspect of noise marketing. [For Mrs. Jung] it looks like one kind of political action, but it is not a good one,’ before adding in criticism, ‘If there really are facts then what are they; she should not do things like this on social media for her own gratification.’
Some also see the situation as being linked to the rapid rise in Mayor Park’s political importance following the Democratic United Party’s presidential election failure.
Commentator Choi Joon-young said of the jongpuk attacks on Mayor Park, ‘In a situation where everyone, including the Democratic Party, has been deep in a slump since the presidential election failure, it may be the desire of the right, including the ruling party itself, to label as pro-North Korea those who could potentially be at the core of the opposition at the next regional or presidential election, thus nipping it in the bud and breaking their spirit.’
A second political columnist, Mr. B said, ‘It’ll be hard to remove the jongpuk label from the rational progressive Mayor Park until he radically transforms into a rightist,’ going on, ‘I have this sense of foreboding that our future election campaigns will be buried beneath this kind of jongpuk ideological battle rather than policy matters.’
Meanwhile, Mayor Park’s office is keeping silent on the jongpuk attacks. Mayor Park has also said that he does not want the women in her 60s who publicly attacked him to be prosecuted.
Translation by Steven Denney and Christopher Green