Korean politics often are bewildering to foreigners, who naturally compare what is observed here to what is happening in their homelands. The labels of “right” versus “left” and “conservative” versus “progressive” seem to be in conflict and, at times, even diametrically opposed.
Recently, I was reminded of this when discovering my college-educated wife’s ignorance of the so-called Autumn Rebellion, or Daegu Uprising, that took place in her hometown.
I found my wife’s obliviousness to her hometown’s history a bit unsettling. The 1946 Daegu Uprising was part of the first Communist attempt to take over southern Korea in the American zone before the Korean War.
Three student demonstrators and 38 police died, according to official records. An additional 163 civil workers and 73 civilians died, according to one revisionist account. Regardless of the body count, the revolt involved thousands of people, with both sides engaging in bloody revenge and retribution.
This uprising was one of the leftists’ larger, futile actions to establish a People’s Republic of Korea under Pak Hon-yong (1900-1955), a Korean independence and Communist activist.
One might think my Daegu wife would have some knowledge of the event. In fact, she has only a vague understanding. It was neither included in her studies nor mentioned at home during the fascist period. She first came across a reference to it in a novel she read while in college. For her generation of Korean “baby boomers,” she is quite typical - and for very good reason.
If one stands back and looks at Korea in the 20th century, its political development competes for international recognition with the nation’s economic gains. From a feudal state to becoming a Japanese colony, and then suffering the Korean War followed by de facto dictatorship leading to a series of military governments and, ultimately, emerging as one of Asia’s most stable democracies - Korea has a remarkable track record.
But imagine what it must have been like in 1946. If someone at that time was Korean with a 20th-century political awareness, one’s political understanding would have been largely - or entirely - the result of a Japanese education and experience.
And if one had never been outside Korea or Japan, one’s political sophistication would have been greatly impeded by Japanese censorship.
With national liberation came an opening of information floodgates, at least in the southern half of the nation, as well as the return of exiled patriots. Some of these people were socialists and communists, while others were liberal and conservative capitalists. Soon, there was an open competition of political ideas and factions. The Soviets naturally supported the communists, while the Americans supported the capitalists.
In the South, the most notable opportunist was future president Park Chung Hee, the younger brother of one of the key leaders of the Daegu Uprising, Park Sang-hee. Like his older brother, the younger Park was a socialist if not an outright communist. After his bother was shot dead as leader of the Sunsan town extension of the Daegu rebellion, Park Chung Hee was arrested and jailed. Given his military training as a young officer in the Japanese Imperial Army prior to Liberation, the future president of Korea once again switched sides. Later, the daughter of his older brother married Kim Jong-pil, a major conspirator in Park’s 1961 military coup. Kim went on to found the notorious Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) and twice served as prime minister under Park.
Given all of that, it’s no wonder that Koreans of my wife’s generation were kept in the dark. During the dangerous chaos of the early years of post-liberation Korea, one can only imagine how extremely dangerous it must have been to maintain a consistent political position. No doubt there were such people, but I fear a good many were killed during the various repercussions that marked the era.
Those politicians who survived were, shall we say, “flexible.”
Up until Kim Dae-jung became president in 1998, politicians who supported and were included within the government were labeled as “conservatives,” and those politicians who were barred from participation in the oligarchy labeled themselves as “progressives.”
During the past 25 years, the conservatives have been known to lean toward collusion with the chaebols and deregulation. Progressives talk more about strengthening the social safety net while arguing for a more flexible stance on North Korea. But beyond the grandstanding, there is little principled party differentiation. Ultimately, party allegiance essentially comes down to personalities and supporting factions.
Peeling back the Korean politicians’ patina, one finds the core values are based on opportunism with fancied monikers of political adherence. Many of Korea’s fragile modern political traditions were extinguished during the first two decades of the Republic.
When democracy finally surfaced in the late 1980s, Korean factions coalesced more around personalities and geographic regions than political principles. Consequently, on the surface, Korean politics seem bewildering and even contradictory.
The conservatives tend to be more international in their perspectives, given their overseas business experience. The progressives tend to be more nativist, with their extremists at least tacitly supporting North Korea, which operates more like a racist mafia state than a Stalinist nation. In other words, the conventional political labels really don’t apply so neatly in Korea. But given Korea’s modern history, it is understandable why.
By Tom Coyner