A guest article from Asia Elects.
Since the fall of the conservative government led by former-president Park Geun Hye, the election after the scandal which brought her down was won by the liberal Democratic Party (더불어 민주당) candidate Moon-Jae In. The massive scandal that shook the country took its toll on the conservative Saenuri Party (새누리당) which imploded in the polls. In this political storm, the progressive and left-wing parties seized the opportunity and garnered a small but impressive base. During the presidential elections, the Justice Party’s candidate Shim-Sang Jung received about 6.17 per cent of the vote, the second-largest vote share a progressive candidate had ever received. But the Justice Party’s growing popularity stalled at 7-10 per cent in the polls after Roh-Hoe Chan, the floor leader, passed away from suicide. Things got worse for the Justice Party after the recent government scandal surrounding the Minister of Justice, Cho Kuk, when the party’s support fell to a new low. So where did it go wrong?
A decade of the divided left
During the dark times of the military dictatorships of the 1980s, the shock of the 1980 Gwangju Massacre gave birth to the Korean student movement and the left as we know it today. As news of the Gwangju Massacre spread to the university campuses around the country, it gave students a goal; to fight for Democracy. In the following years, various movements theorized and rioted against the government. Out of this, two movements came into existence: the NLPDR (National Liberation) camp, formed of students who were sympathizers of the Juche ideology of the North Korean regime, and the PD (People’s Democracy) camp who believed in Marxist-Leninism. Most of the PD and the NLPDR factions have since moderated throughout the decades, now resting around social democracy and moderate leftwing nationalism.
After the 29th June declaration which led to the democratization of the country, the founders of these respective movements decided to form their own political party that represented the working class, farmers and the lower classes of society. This led to the formation of the Democratic Labour Party (민주노동당), which was formed of a number of NLPDR factions, PD and various other leftist groups. Their first elections were promising, at one time even surpassing the governing party in the polls. However, after the NLPDR faction took control of the leadership during the 2004 party congress, the party became divided between the NLPDR and the PD. The party split, dividing and severely weakening the South Korean left. To this day the two factions greatly dislike each other for the divisive past of the Democratic Labour party.
A still very conservative society
After the end of the Second World War and the liberation of Korea, the nation’s political sphere was heavily divided between the communist left and the right. When the peninsula was divided, many communists found themselves on the southern side of the DMZ and went on to form the Workers Party of South Korea (남로당). However, the repression and persecution of leftists led to a stark division in Korean politics and a conservative political leadership. The situation for leftists improved after the Gwangju Uprising and the democratization that followed. However, Korea still remains a conservative society to this day which does not help for the already struggling progressive activists.
So what now?
At the moment the only progressive party that can exercise any meaningful power is the Justice Party. This appeal has brought in many new party members throughout the years of the party’s existence. However, the party still lacks an electoral appeal to the wider public. With most of national politics dominated by the centrist Democratic Party and the right-wing Liberty Korea Party (자유한국당), successor to the former governing Saenuri Party, there is little space for the Justice Party to find an opening for electoral success. The recent leadership have toed a line of being sympathetic to the Democratic government. This move, however, has seen criticisms come from the activist base of the party which argues for a stark differentiation between themselves and the Democratic Party. If the party continues this line until the general election next year it will most likely see a divided party with risk of another schism.