South Korean President Moon Jae-in's popularity has slipped. Photo: Reuters/Kham/Pool
South Korean President Moon Jae-in's popularity has slipped. Photo: Reuters/Kham/Pool

South Korea’s political landscape is notorious for its stark polarization between progressives and conservatives. Discussions in the national assembly are rarely productive, with both sides usually unable to find common ground.

The biggest issue of dispute is traditionally North Korea and how to deal with the regime in Pyongyang.

All the more astonishing, therefore, is the shift in tone of Kim Byong-joon, the new head of the country’s biggest conservative party Liberty Korea.

“Over the last 18 months, president Moon Jae-in took tremendous effort in improving inter-Korean relations, having met North Korean leader Kim Jong Un three times this year alone. In principle, I view this as a positive change,” Kim said at a press conference at the Seoul Foreign Correspondents’ Club on Friday.

Identity crisis

The moderate rhetoric of the 64-year-old lawmaker can be interpreted as a reaction of the conservative fraction which underwent a deep identity crisis over the last one and a half years. “I took office during a time that was very difficult for us,” said Kim.

As a result of the impeachment of former conservative president Park Geun-hye, the then called Saenuri Party split into two splinter parties – Liberty Korea and the Bareun Party – de facto dividing the already shattered political center-right camp in half.

Park’s impeachment caused a deep schism among conservatives between loyalists, in the Liberty Korea, and renegades in the Bareun Party.

Mostly because of her family history, Park Geun-hye was a key figure for the right wing. She is the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee, the architect behind South Korea’s unique economic miracle and a father figure for the modern Republic of Korea.

During the presidential election in 2017, the Liberty Korea party tried to mobilize its voter base by emphasizing security concerns and playing out what is locally known as the “North Korea card.” They labeled then-presidential contender Moon Jae-in as a ”hidden communist” whose appeasement policy would possibly expose South Korea to a forced unification led by North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un.

Contrary to elections in the past, however, most South Korean voters dismissed those political attacks merely as strategic scaremongering. Not surprisingly, progressive Moon Jae-in won the election in May 2017 in a landslide victory of 41%. His conservative competitor of Liberty Korea, Hong Joon-pyo, only managed to get 24% of all votes.

In the following months, South Korea’s conservatives nearly disappeared from the public discourse, with the big public broadcasters KBS and MBC receiving government-appointed CEOs. Even South Korea’s biggest daily newspaper Chosun Ilbo – usually known for its hard-line editorial policy against the progressive party – took a somewhat softer view towards President Moon and his engagement with the North.

Public opinion

Moon’s extraordinary strong approval ratings of close to 80% reflected this substantial shift of public opinion in the course of only a few months.

But in recent weeks, Moon’s popularity dropped for the eighth week straight. According to a recent poll by Realmeter among 1,505 adults nationwide, President Moon’s approval rating now stands at 52.3% – a record low since he took office in May 2017.

It was not only the recent stalemate in North Korea-US denuclearization that contributed to Moon’s downward trend. In particular, his controversial economic policy caused heavy discussions, most of all the rapid increase of the minimum wage, which is by many perceived to be the main factor for rising consumer costs as well as the highest unemployment in 19 years.

South Korea’s conservatives now sense their chance to seize the political momentum and regain political relevance.

Liberty Korea chairman Kim Byung-joon says the government’s hasty policy of improving relations with the North has led to an alarming gap in the Seoul-Washington alliance. “Not only we, but many state leaders worldwide are having doubts about Moon Jae-in’s stance on economic sanctions against Pyongyang,” he said. “Amid the deadlock of denuclearization talks the government is strongly pushing inter-Korean economic projects and ways to bypass sanctions.”

According to Kim Byong-joon, there should be a clearly defined roadmap for both sides defining at which point of the denuclearization process which types of sanctions can be lifted. Both denuclearization talks and inter-Korean relations should move ahead in tandem.

On Wednesday, a conservative organization of retired army generals gathered in front of the Korean War museum in Seoul and voiced their concerns about an inter-Korean military agreement on arms control and trust-building measures, saying it would hurt their country’s security.

Future prospects

The agreement limits military activities around the inter-Korean border by banning live-fire training and other measures. “The biggest problem is the restriction of South Korean surveillance and monitoring equipment,” said Kim Tae-woo, former director of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

Experts predict that the future prospects for the conservatives ahead of the 2020 presidential election will depend on Moon Jae-in’s North Korea policy. The upcoming visit of Kim Jong Un to Seoul, which is expected to take place either in December or early next year, poses a critical moment amid increasing pressure for substantial results concerning North Korea’s denuclearization.

“If Kim Jong Un does not prove his honest willingness to give up his nuclear weapons, then the South Korean public will not welcome him in Seoul,” said Liberty Korea chairman Kim.

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