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COVID-19 may have knocked North Korea off the front pages in Seoul, but for many ruling party politicians, inter-Korean issues remain top of mind even amid what has become a global pandemic.
In early February, when it looked as if South Korea had the infection under control, the ruling Minjoo Party issued a statement calling for the government to offer material support including test kits, hand sanitizer, and face masks to North Korea (becoming the genesis of a popular right-wing conspiracy theory that South Korea had a shortage of masks because Moon had given all of them to the North.)
Later, even as the number of infected ballooned into the thousands, President Moon set aside time during his pivotal March 1 address to request “public health cooperation” with North Korea, prompting the usual set of enthusiastic applause on one side of the aisle, loud incriminations on the other.
Perhaps the most egregious example of crowbarring North Korea into the COVID-19 discourse came recently when several senior lawmakers demanded that the Moon administration re-open the Kaesong Industrial Complex to address the national shortage of face masks, a problem-solution mismatch so egregious that it sounds more the product of a particularly awkward round of Cards Against Humanity than a serious proposal from a serious politician.
Why do seemingly all roads lead to Pyongyang for liberal politicians in Seoul?
One reason is simple electoral math: support for President Moon and his party has never been more robust than it was in the Spring of 2018, when Moon’s diplomatic Midas Touch turned the Korean peninsula away from the brink of war and towards a series of increasingly improbable, “I can’t believe I’m seeing this” summits.
On the eve of a pivotal general election, many are understandably desperate to recapture even a small piece of that lightning in a bottle again.
But for many in the Minjoo Party ranks, this is just as much about identity as it is about political gain. Much of the Party’s leadership today hails from militant 1980s student organizations, on the front line of the fight for Democracy in Seoul.
These organizations, in turn, were swept up in a rapid ideological shift towards ethno-nationalism that consumed the Korean left in the wake of the Gwangju Massacre, where Western democracies – including the U.S. – had mostly shrugged their shoulders and looked away as Chun Doo-hwan turned tanks and special warfare units against his own citizens.
The young intellectuals who would become today’s leaders had their worldview shaped by the West’s indifference.
Seeking a new beacon of hope in the fight against authoritarianism, pro-Democratic youth turned towards the one idea that Seoul’s dictatorships had tried so hard to deny them through decades of propaganda: reconciliation and eventual reunification with North Korea.
A passage from the works of Jang Joon-ha – a nationalist thinker widely assumed to have been assassinated by the Park Chung-Hee dictatorship who posthumously became a folk hero of the democracy movement – perhaps best captures the zeitgeist: “is reunification always good? Yes. All things of value can only be achieved through reunification. Communism or democracy, freedom or equality, prosperity or welfare, if we reunify, we will have it all. If we do not, we will have none.”
The idea that reunification will solve all ills that plague Korean society may be hopelessly naïve, but so are many things that people believe when they are 21.
South Korean liberals have always assumed that rapprochement with Pyongyang has value in and of itself
Time and the cynicism of realpolitik weaned many off the magic wand theory of reunification – some, in fact, would even become the most conservative North Korea hawks.
But for many prominent Minjoo Party lawmakers, the ideological foundation laid in their youth still undergirds much of how they see the world: the idea that a Korea unified is something immeasurably greater than the sum of its parts, and thus, much of today’s mundane challenges will be easier to resolve once reunification is achieved.
Hence the talk of masks made in Kaesong, which, through some miracle of Korean Manifest Destiny, will be more effective in defeating COVID-19 than masks made in Seoul.
In my last column, I wrote about how Thae Yong-ho’s candidacy exposed the fact that South Korea’s conservatives had a North Korea problem.
South Korean liberals have one too: they have always assumed that rapprochement with Pyongyang has value in and of itself, and have never made an effort to develop a coherent narrative for why their model of acknowledging the legitimacy of the Kim regime, investing aggressively in inter-Korean projects, and (mostly) turning a blind eye to Pyongyang’s aggression and human rights abuses produces better results than the conservative alternative.
The glib “it prevents war” is insufficient in this regard: North Korea has proven time and time again that it does not become less prone to military provocation when liberals take power in Seoul, and the possibility of inadvertent escalation depends far more on the temperament and capabilities of a leader than his ideological leanings.
Much as conservatives can no longer rely on simplistic red-baiting to carve out a viable electoral position, liberals can no longer assume that the promise of ethno-nationalist utopia alone is sufficient to animate their base.
The idea of a fairy-tale reunification appears more and more unrealistic to Korean voters by the day: according to a September 2019 poll, less than a quarter believe that reunification must be achieved at all costs, and a majority say that South Korea should adopt “vigilant” or “hostile” posture towards the Kim regime. More than 60% believe that denuclearization is a precondition to reunification.
The skepticism demonstrated with these numbers – especially when juxtaposed against the broad support for Moon’s North Korea agenda – sends a clear message: South Koreans support dialogue with North Korea, but as a means to an end, not an end in and of itself.
The failure among liberal politicians to recognize this shift is what produces such seemingly tone deaf results – like claiming that the solution for a deadly virus that is killing dozens of Koreans today somehow goes through the Kaesong Industrial Complex.
North Korea policy could potentially be the canary in the coal mine for business-as-usual politics as a whole
To be sure, there are non-ideological ways to frame inter-Korean rapprochement: offering North Korea prosperity is the only option we have in the near term to alleviate the material suffering of its people – even if much of the benefits will be captured by the regime – and in the long term, economic entanglement may offer an avenue to introduce democratic ideas.
Sustained dialogue can also sometimes lead to meaningful de-escalation measures, such as the September 19 Military Agreement.
There are ways to argue these things without resorting to reunification monomania to the extent that all other social issues are rendered subsidiary and the Kim regime’s weapons tests and crimes against humanity are no big deal among brothers.
Taken together, the shared North Korea problem of Seoul’s liberal and conservatives demonstrates a more fundamental issue: a generation of leaders that grew up in the country’s most ideologically-charged era now dominate Korean politics, but are faced with an electorate that is more pragmatic than ever.
In that respect, North Korea policy could potentially be the canary in the coal mine for business-as-usual politics as a whole: the first political leader to offer a new, pragmatic, and coherent platform on the country’s most hotly contested issue may be the one to capture the imaginations of millions of voters disaffected with the antiquated ways of establishment politics in both parties.
Edited by Oliver Hotham