Right-wing protesters in action during an anti-government rally in central Seoul. Their activities have been severely curtailed by the pandemic. Photo: Ed Jones/AFP

SEOUL –  “The People Power Party” may sound like a brand normally associated with leftist radicals but it’s what South Korea’s main conservative opposition calls itself these days.

Korea’s right-wing has been in disarray since the overthrow of ex-president Park Geun-hye in 2017, and Kim Jong-in, who heads the PPP (Korean: Gukminaehimdang) was in mea culpa mode on November 24.

His party, which traces its heritage to the authoritarian governments that ran Korea from the 1960s to the late 1980s, “regrets that we have caused a huge amount of disappointment to people,” Kim told foreign reporters.

That was not an apology to conservatives disappointed by recent electoral disasters. It was a “sorry” for multiple wrongdoings committed by conservative administrations that date back decades.

Kim also distanced his party from disgraced ex-presidents. Traditionally in Korea, jailed presidents and senior business figures have been freed via presidential pardons. Kim, however, was loath to voice support for any such possibility.

“I do personally have some concerns about their wellbeing while in prison, but a presidential pardon is an authority that only a president holds,” Kim offered. “So I am hesitant to share any opinion on that matter.”

Kim’s stance – which includes an apology for the 1980 Gwangju massacre, arguably South Korea’s biggest modern trauma – may well be welcomed by the Left. It certainly reflects major social-political shifts underway in the land and reflects considerable political ironies.

While the main conservative party has adopted a leftist brand, those further right on the political spectrum who are dissatisfied with the PPP are adopting tactics that were formerly the preserve of the Left.

“I don’t support that party, it is a kind of a pseudo right-wing party,” said Cho Young-hwan, an old-school conservative. “Authentic conservatives have no party right now, they are scattered.”

Frustrated by the soft stance of the PPP and South Korea’s conservative newspapers, activists like Cho have abandoned mainstream politics for street politics and mainstream media for alternative media.

Kim Jong-in, the moderate and conciliatory leader of the PPP, is no firebrand. Photo: Andrew Salmon/Asia Times

What’s in a name?

What is behind the party rebrand  that took place in May? “We felt it was necessary to regain the trust of the people, to proclaim our political rebirth,” Kim said.

That may be a vain hope.  America’s Republicans and the UK’s Conservatives have struck to their brands, but the latest name change was far from the first time that Korea’s leading right-wing party has changed its name.  In fact, for a nation with such a short political history – South Korean statehood dates back to 1948 – the number of rebrands the party has undergone is bewildering.

Until May this year, the PPP was the Liberty Korea Party (Jayuhangukdang), which was founded in February 2017. That party was the result of mergers between a range of parties that emerged after the splintering of the New Frontier Party (Saenuridang) of 2012. The latter was a rebrand of the Grand National Party (Hanaradang) of 1997.

The Grand National Party in turn, stemmed from the New Korea Party  (Sinhangukdang) of 1995, which had originated in the Democratic Liberal Party (Minju Jayudang) of 1993. The latter was a rebrand of the reformed Democratic Justice Party (Minju Jeonguidang) of 1980 – itself a rebrand/reformation of 1963’s Democratic Republican Party (Minju Gongwhadang).

To make sense of this, it is instructive to look at who was in charge of the party in its various brands and incarnations and what sins the party leaders committed that compelled the new leaders to endlessly rebrand the party in vain efforts to break with the past.

The Democratic Republican Party was the political machine of Park Chung-hee, the general who seized power in a coup and transformed South Korea from agricultural backwater to industrial powerhouse in the 1960s and 70s. The downside of Park’s rule was two decades of political repression.

The Democratic Justice Party was the vehicle of Chun Doo-hwan, another general who seized power in 1980 following Park’s 1979 assassination. After overseeing the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in the southeastern city of Gwangju in 1980 and suppressing a leftist student protest movement, Chun bowed to mass “people power” protests and green-lighted Korea’s transition to one-man, one-vote democracy in 1987.

The New Korea Party was the machine of former opposition leader Kim Young-sam, who won power after merging his own party with the Democratic Justice Party. It was in the wilderness between 1998 and 2008 when the presidential Blue House fell into the hands of left-wing presidents.

The Right regained the presidency in 1998 in the person of former Hyundai executive Lee Myung-bak, who rebranded the party to the Grand National. Though Lee came from a poor family, he was despised by many for representing old-school business.

Lee was succeeded by the late Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, under whose term the party became New Frontier. Her woes soon accumulated.

She was widely held responsible for the high death toll when the ferry Sewol sank in 2014. In late 2016 is was discovered that her crony Choi Soon-shil – who held no official portfolio – was knee deep in corrupt practices with companies including Samsung.

After massive street protests, Park was impeached and removed from office in 2017, paving the way for the current left-leaning Moon Jae-in administration and sparking yet more rebrands among the Right. In the Right’s most recent disaster, Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea won an absolute majority in April’s general election.

Go right to jail   

Now, the PPP’s Kim is giving his troubled predecessors the cold shoulder.

Currently, Park is serving a compound sentence of over three decades for corruption and abuse of power. Her predecessor Lee is serving 17 years for corruption.

The oldest and most notorious of Korea’s ex-presidents, Chun – who oversaw the 1980 Gwangju massacre, but who escaped a life sentence via presidential pardon in 1997 – is free. However, Chun will be sentenced next Monday in a court in Gwangju after a defamation suit related to the massacre was served in 2017.

The PPP’s Kim made clear his stance on the national trauma of 1980 when he visited Gwangju in August.

That was a turnaround. Many conservatives say Gwangju’s democracy activists turned radical when they raided armories to do battle with the troops deployed to suppress them.

“I do understand that our party predecessors were not keen on recognizing the contribution that this movement made to national democracy, and even some lawmakers that had affiliations with our party have made derogatory comments,” Kim said.

“Now we have proclaimed our political rebirth I believe proper closure was in order so I went to Gwangju in August to offer my sincere apology as party leader.”

Smoke rises over the city of Gwangju and pro-democracy protesters mass in the street as a military helicopter flies overhead in this photo from May 1980. Photo; AFP

Rudderless Right

In the decades since Korea democratized, once-hidden information has become available from the years of military rule. Moreover, the old black-and-white, anti-communist education systems, heavily based on the threat north of the border, has ameliorated – particularly after North Korea plunged into famine, poverty and general decrepitude in the 1990s.

In this increasingly liberal social environment, public attitudes toward past presidents have hardened. Park Chung-hee, once admired as the author of Korea’s economic miracle, is now reviled as a dictator. Likewise Chun – who, for all his faults, exited power after a democratic election – is now widely seen as a murderer.

Even for the milder acts of Lee and Park, the PPP’s Kim offered no mercy, saying only, “We felt greatly disappointed about what happened to two former presidents.”

While Kim’s stance on the sins of his political ancestors may be welcomed by the Left, many conservatives reckon the PPP’s political compass has gone awry.

On November 24, Kim did not launch the kind of blistering attack – for example, on the government’s failure to bring surging real estate policies under control – that is the hallmark of Korean political leaders.

 “As the People Power Party, we want to reconcile with everyone,” Kim said.

That may be a nod to the zeitgeist, but with a by-election for Seoul mayor imminent in April 2021 and a presidential election set for 2022, Kim’s genteel strategy is questionable. What is needed, says a long-time Korean observer, is a clear political philosophy.

“One of the difficulties for the opposition is that they never really ideologically rebranded after democracy came to Korea, they sort of drifted from being the party of the dictators to being the same grouping, but in a democracy,” said Mike Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “So, it is not quite clear what they represent.”

Many conservatives despise the PPP.

Ousted South Korean leader Park Geun-hye arrives at a court hearing in Seoul. Photo: AFP

“The name itself indicates that the party does not understand what conservatism is,” Hanjin Lew, a conservative columnist and supporter of imprisoned Park Geun-hye told Asia Times. “It is like asking for a revolution – that the public has to stand up against the establishment.” 

Conservatives are not only abandoning the party, they are also changing their reading habits.

Korea’s three leading print newspapers, the Chosun Ilbo, Joongang Ilbo and DongA Ilbo are broadly right-wing. But after they dropped their support for Park in 2016-2017, many conservatives canceled their subscriptions. Now, right-wingers prefer the news and views from a cohort of conservative commentators who have migrated to YouTube.

“The Korean media establishment has failed to live up to the expectations of conservatives,” Lew fumed. “YouTube is very suitable for conservatives as it is a ‘one-man media.’ Anyone can become a YouTuber. It works really well for conservatives as it is based on individual sovereignty.”

Neglect of mainstream media recalls the activities of student protesters of the 1980s. They eschewed heavily censored newspapers, instead distributing undergrounds tracts among themselves.

And in another political irony, the dissatisfied conservatives are employing the mass mobilizations tactics used against Chun in 1987 and Park in 2017.

Old-school conservatives – the vast majority of whom are also old citizens – have, as of 2017, hit streets en masse, waving Korean and American flags and denouncing the Moon administration. 

However, they have not enjoyed the success of the Left in overthrowing Seoul administrations. This year, Covid-19 has drastically reduced their activities and they have not been helped by right-wing Christian groups which have been slammed nationwide for spreading clusters of infection.

“We can’t do anything under the ‘Chinese virus,’” said Cho, who was until this year an organizer of conservative ralliers who gathered in their hundreds of thousands. “If the coronavirus is lifted, if that control is gone, we will have big rallies or some movement to make new parties.”