A man wears a Donald Trump mask during a right-wing protest in South Korea. Such protests have largely failed to mobilize youth. Photo: AFP

Where did it all go wrong for South Korean conservatism?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s leftist Democratic Party won a major victory in April 15 elections, winning 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, a gain of 60 seats. Their pre-election aim had been 147 seats. The right-wing United Future Party, or UFP, which held 92 seats before the election, gained a more modest 103 seats.

That margin grants the Democrats, with an absolute majority, the ability to ram through bills in the new parliament. And with Moon in the presidential Blue House until mid-2020, that means the conservatives have lost every rein of power, for the unicameral Assembly has no upper house to provide checks and balances.

The head of the UFP, Hwang Kyo-ahn, 63, resigned after the disaster. Party leadership imploded and only one of seven of the UFP’s supreme council members won a seat.

It was the party’s fourth successive election defeat.

Since 2016, when conservative president Park Geun-hye faced massive protests over corruption and abuse of power, leading to her impeachment and removal from office the following year, the right has lost ground in the 20th parliamentary election, the 2017 presidential election, 2018 local elections and now the 21st parliamentary election.

Before the pandemic, the right had plentiful issues, notably the sluggish economy. However, the government won massive kudos for its effective battle against the novel coronavirus.

Analysts say the conservatives are their own worst enemy. Their most prominent supporters are elderly protesters whose leaders’ views verge on the fanatical, they are internally divided and they failed to craft effective strategies.

“In this election, people chose future-looking, not backward-looking voting,” Park Won-ho, a professor of political science and international relations at Seoul National University, told Asia Times.   

Elderly extremists 

In many ways, the conservatives are yesterday’s men. “The UFP is seen as an ‘old’ party by the young generation,” Park, the professor, said.

Conservative parties were passive on lowering the voting age to 18 through revision of election laws, passed in December 2019. A consistent message seen on social media can be summarized as: “I’m conservative, but I couldn’t vote for current conservative parties.”

Young people may also be put off by the advanced age of many prominent conservatives in the National Assembly. Antipathy has also arisen because of Korea’s most high-profile right-wingers, many of whom are elderly protesters. Hundreds of thousands of conservative supporters, mainly elderly, have been holding endless rallies brandishing Korean and US flags since Park’s 2017 downfall.

The most prominent campaigner is Pastor Jeon Gwang-hoon, a Protestant firebrand. He has compared Moon to Adolf Hitler and demanded the president step down on God’s order.

Jeon was arrested for violating election laws on February 24 for calling for anti-Moon demonstrations amid the pandemic. Rightist Christian groups, notably the Daegu-headquartered Shincheonji Church, have formed Korea’s major infection clusters.

“I wonder if the senior citizens who protest every weekend [in central Seoul], holding up the national flag and the Stars and Stripes, wearing military uniforms, represent conservatives in this country?” Lee Hyun-chul, 27, asked Asia Times. “There are many young people who would support true politicians who fully understand the values of conservatism and the meaning of liberal democracy and strive for development.”

Divided we fall

Korea’s right-wing – which customarily pushes growth, the country’s powerful conglomerates, toughness toward North Korea and the alliance with the United States – is divided.

The UFP is riven by internal bickering over the impeachment of Park. Some party members were excluded from nominations due to disputes between pro- and anti-Park members. Another issue was between younger politicians who might have challenged Hwang on the presidential front. Two disaffected candidates ran as independents and won seats.

Park is serving a compound 33-year prison sentence. Highly unusually, her lawyer disclosed her handwritten letter to conservatives on March 4.

“Don’t split up, but show your united power in front of history and the people,” Park wrote.

The letter had the opposite effect to what was intended. Some criticized the former president, saying it was inappropriate ahead of the election.

Only in Park’s core political base – the city of Daegu and Gyeongsang Province in the southeast – did voters remain true to the right, reinforcing the country’s long-standing political regionalism. Now parts of the east and southeast are UFP territory, while the southwest and the highly populated Seoul metropolitan area belong to the DP.

“The Korean conservative camp was defeated in this election as they continue to be dragged down by the impeachment of Park,” said Hideki Okuzono, a professor at Japan’s University of Shizuoka.

Defectors’ victories

The right managed to lure some new blood. In a political irony, one of South Korea’s most high-profile new conservative lawmakers hails from North Korea.

Thae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat based in the UK who defected in 2016, won a UFP seat. Arguably the highest profile defector in South Korea and a vocal critic of Pyongyang, Thae became the first defector to fight and win a constituency in the South.

Cho Myung-chul, who held a parliamentary seat from 2012 to 2016 with the right-wing, was the first North Korea defector to become a lawmaker, but he took his seat via proportional representation. Ji Seong-ho, another North Korean defector, also won a conservative seat, but also via proportional representation.

Thae won in Southern Seoul’s Gangnam district, globally famed after Psy’s hit Gangnam Style lampooned the area’s nouveau riche. Gangnam’s prosperous population makes it a right-wing stronghold.  

Controversy arose during the election when Thae declared his personal wealth at 1.8 billion won (US$1.5 million) – a considerable sum given that he has lived only four years in the South.

Thae has written two best-selling books about North Korea and is a sought-after speaker. The UFP election committee’s head praised Thae, saying he “worked hard based on Korea’s liberal democracy and market economy system.”

Even so, critics on social media say Thae would likely have lost if he ran in another district, and complained about his focus on North Korea and defectors rather than overall conservatism. 

Challenging rebirth

Prominent Korea observer Bryan Myers suggested that the real reason for the Democrats electoral win was South Korea’s “left-wing nationalism.”

That force is visible in pro-North Korea sentiment and some anti-Japanese and anti-US attitudes. The latter may be empowered by Washington, which is demanding a reported 400-fold increase in cost-sharing for US troops in South Korea.   

But Myers also noted that the UFP erred badly in the election. “Throughout the campaign the party seemed determined to persuade the street right to stay home on the big day,” he wrote on his blog.

Unity is a key issue. The UFP was plagued by those who left the party over its stance toward ex-president Park, but then returned in both the 2017 presidential and 2020 legislative elections.

“Conservatives should unite on the premise of the rebirth of conservatism and innovation,” said UFP member Won Hee-ryong, 56, the governor of Jeju Island, South Korea’s southernmost territory, on YouTube. “We must work with all those who agree to genuine reform under the anti-Moon banner.”

Experts say the right must focus on its core strength, the economy.

Under Moon, Korea has seen 1.9% growth in private consumption – it was 2.2% under Park – and household debt has risen by 184.928 trillion won ($15.1 billion), as citizens seek to acquire homes amid soaring real estate prices. Facility investments have fallen to -7.8% – the figure was 5.1% during the Park administration – due to stricter regulations on conglomerates, experts say.

“In the future, the success or failure of conservatism will be how to drive market-friendly conservatives and garner support from young voters,” Park said. 

The Democrats, who will face massive post-pandemic performance pressures, might supply some ammunition.

“They don’t have anyone to blame if they can’t perform between now and the next election – they are going to be accountable,” James Kim, an analyst at the Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “South Korean GDP is 70% dependent on trade, so there is going to be a big challenge beyond the coronavirus pandemic. My feeling is that this is going to be a very long recovery.”

This suggests the right could bounce back.

“I’d say this is rock bottom. I’d say this is the time to buy conservative stock,” said Kim. “They have only one way to go, and that is up.” He warned, however, that “it is not clear that they have reorganized, and if they stick with the old guard – well … ”

The conservatives need new leadership, but that is in short supply. Oh Se-hoon, a former Seoul mayor, was considered by some a future star. He failed to win a seat.  

And missteps continue. The UFP announced an “emergency planning committee” for internal reforms. The proposed head of the body is about to turn 80.