Statement on South Korea’s 18th presidential election (All Together)
The 18th presidential election, which sharply polarized Korea,ended ominously with the election of Park Geun-hye as president. Most organized workers must be in a mild state of panic. And indeed the radical left, including All Together, is facing a tough period.
The election was held in the context of a re-invigorated crisis of capitalism, deepening inter-imperialist tensions in the Asia Pacific region, and the growing instability of the existing imperialist order.The Korean economy was sinking deeper into crisis along with the rest of the world, and hard-right governments were coming to power in Japan and China as a byproduct of the US “pivot to Asia”.
With a sense of urgency, the Korean ruling class seems to have reached a consensus that a hard-right government that will pass on the burden of the economic crisis to the working class is needed in order to safeguard their interests. So, they decided to throw their weight behind the dictator’s daughter who had served as the acting first lady (in place of her assassinated mother) under her father’s rule, seeing in her the promise of a Korean Margaret Thatcher. To get her elected, the ruling class and the right wing as a whole created an atmosphere where Park Geun-hye was heaped with praise by all the major newspapers and TV networks. Even the National Intelligence Service, the prosecution, and police aided her campaign covertly and overtly.
Conservative politicians ranging from Kim Jong-pil, Lee Heo-chang, Na Kyeong-won, Oh Se-hun to Lee Jae-ho all proclaimed their support for Park Geun-hye. One prominent Saenuri Party (the conservative ruling party to which Park belongs) spokesperson noted: “This is the first presidential election in history where the right as a whole, from the moderate to the so-called ultra right, in absolute unity supports the presidential campaign. It is as if anyone who withdraws from the campaign would be branded a traitor.” Park carefully and skillfully maintained the unity of the right. She took issue with the former president Roh Mu-hyun’s remarks on the NLL, or the Northern Limit Line (a notional line which the right claims is a maritime border that North Korea ought to respect, but which Roh Mu-hyun supposedly gave up to the North),whipping up a Red Scare, and exploited North Korea’s rocket launch for the same purpose.
The divisions among working class political organizations
On the left side of the political polarization, votes were cast in support of Moon Jae-in as an expression of anger toward the Lee Myung-bak regime and fear of a hard-right government taking power.
Moon Jae-in from the United Democratic Party, a capitalist reformist party, could take advantage of the sense of crisis felt by workers and the oppressed who were desperate to stop Park Geun-hye and the Saenuri Party, rightly perceived as the heirs of former dictatorships and the allies of chaebols. In one of his final campaign rallies in downtown Seoul, Moon Jae-in promised (rather vaguely) that he would “wipe the tears of Ssang Yong and Yong-san.” (The reference is to the 2009 strike at Ssang Yong Motor Company that led to a 77-day siege ending in defeat and mass layoffs for the workers and a string of suicides resulting from the trauma of police brutality, financial ruin, and sheer hopelessness. Yongsan was an earlier case of police brutality where five squatters and a policeman died of a fire caused by a reckless police operation to evict the squatters).
When the choice presented to voters was only between Park and Moon, with progressive parties plagued by divisions and crises, anger against layoffs, precarious employment, the naval base in Jeju Island and so on found expression through votes for Moon. This sentiment also prevailed among organized workers. The political struggle between the classes shifted somewhat rightward and expressed itself in a left-right polarization between Park and Moon. Consequently, Moon Jae-in received 14.7 million votes, 2.7 million more than Roh Mu-hyun. Organized workers backed Moon, albeit reluctantly, as the lesser evil. But this was not enough to beat Park who rallied the ruling class and the right behind her as never before.
Recent political history shows that the only time when even capitalist reformist forces were able take power waswhen the ruling class was divided amid a political and economic crisis,while the working class and the oppressed demonstrated their power through a mass struggle. Thus Kim Dae-jung was able to prevail over Lee Heo-chang by a1.6 percent margin,and even that only in the midst of an upheaval brought about by the KCTU’s all-out strike from 1996 to 1997 and the East Asian Financial Crisis. Roh Mu-hyun too could win by just a 2.3 percent margin thanks to the “Roh Wave” generated by the 400 thousand-strong candle light protest over the killing of two teenage girls by the U.S. army.
But during the presidential election this year, the labor movement failed to show its strength or potential. This was partly owed to reformism, but especially to the severe internal row among working class-based political organizations, including the scandal surrounding the United Progressive Party (UPP). Therefore the progressive parties were utterly incapable of forming a left pole of attraction in this “left-right” contest that also contained an element of class conflict.
Things were not so bad as recently as the general elections this year. At the time, the political polarization found expressionnot only in the rallying of the right behind the Saenuri Party but also in the doubling of seats for the UPP.
The UPP, however, soon scored its own goal. It got bogged down in an internal strife over the primary election-rigging scandal. As the majority Stalinist faction in the party adamantly refused to give up their political vested interest, the UPP was reduced to a vegetative state through ugly infighting and witch-hunts mounted by the right. The KCTU withdrew its support for the UPP, and the party split. Amid the aftershock, many current and former high-level leaders of the KCTU and the KDLP moved to Moon’s and Ahn Cheol-su’s camps. (Ahn is the legendary founder and CEO of an on-line security company who competed against Moon to become the unified candidate against Park). In short, the labor movement could neither produce its own political expression in this election, nor provide a united response.
The level of class struggle was not sufficiently high, either. True, the labor movement was gradually regaining its confidence to a fight back since the candle light movement in 2008 and the subsequent great recession. The number of working days lost to strikes as of August this year is 731,528 days, the highest figure in four years since 2008.
Nevertheless, working class activity does not yet exhibit sufficient strength to pull the majority of the middle class to its side. As the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky observed, “far from being repulsed by extremism, the middle class is drawn to that social force which provides the strongest and the most resolute leadership”. The display of strength and cohesion on the part of the entire ruling class and the right,who closed ranks around Park and the Saenuri Party, must have exerted a pull on the majority of the middle class. They must have inspired confidence that they would discipline the left and the working class with a firm hand.
Park Geun-hye’s bumpy road ahead
Park’s rise to power will lead to a period of demoralization and disorientation for organized labor and progressive youths. Even more clearly right-wing than her predecessor Lee Myung-bak, Park’s coming to office is certainly a grim development. Her inner circle is dominated by scoundrels who justify the 1961 military coup and the judicial murders of 1975 as necessary for economic development.
The reelection of a conservative government will also reinforce the upper hand of the right in official politics. Park will try to use this momentum to tilt the balance of forces further to the right. In particular, her government will try to squeeze workers harder and to impose austerity in order to increase the efficiency, profitability, and competitiveness of Korean capitalism in the face of a deepening global economic crisis. Already the share of welfare spending in next year’s budget has fallen for the first time in a decade, as did the rate of increase in welfare spending. Also, under the pressures of inter-imperialist competition, Park will move ahead with the construction of the naval base in Jeju and seek to strengthen the US-Japan-Korea alliance.
Talk of carrying out such tasks through “social dialogue and compromise” is empty rhetoric, as Park lacks the necessary connections to organized labor or NGOs. Rather, the forces of “public order” at the core of Park’s clique, represented by the likes of Kim Mu-seong, will come to the fore, ramping up witch hunts against the “pro-north left” and the radical left. That is why we think the working class and left-wing political organizations are in for a tough period.
But the situation may turn around before too long. The Park regime will have to embark on these attacks in the midst of a political crisis that inevitably follows a profound economic crisis. While she will try to keep her promise to the ruling class of bringing labor movements under control and reestablishing national discipline, her right-wing populist pledges about welfare and distribution will mostly be thrown out of the window. Her middle-class supporters will then start to lose faith and defect.
Corruption will also afflict Park’s presidency. As can be gleaned from the huge sum of illicit money she received from the former dictator Chun Doo-hwan and her de facto ownership of a scholarship fund her father had confiscated from civilians, Park is herself a corrupt figure. The issue of corruption will erode the credibility of the rulers, which could then easily plunge them into the sort of internal strife where everyone tries to blame everyone else. Already Park had to get rid of many of her associates in the course of her campaign to prevent corruption scandals turning into PR nightmares. Such divisions among the ruling class can give workers the confidence to fight back.
Working class political organizations must unite through united fronts
What is important now is for the labor movement and the left to unite and get ready for the new government’s coming attacks, and to build networks of resistance and solidarity. The left must not give up building a progressive alternative to the Democratic Party, even though it cannot rule out a priori the possibility of allying with the Democratic Party under specific circumstances. In building the working class struggle against the effects of the economic crisis, it is crucially important for progressive politics to overcome its divisions and firmly hold its ground.
Although working class political organizations are currently divided and in crisis, this is no cause for despair. It is not that the daily organizations of rank and file workers have been destroyed, it is merely that the political leaderships of the working class are divided and disoriented. Those who support the idea of workers’ power must relate to and communicate with workers who are shocked by Park’s rise to power. They must join efforts to build broad and diverse united fronts against Park’s attacks, as well as support and participate in initiatives to rebuild and grow the progressive party to the left of the Democratic Party.
Of course we must analyze the overall balance of class forces in a cool-headed way, neither exaggerating the opportunities nor underestimating the obstacles that lie ahead, all the while striving to present our political views at every turn.
Workers’ Solidarity All Together Steering Committee, December 21, 2012