South Korea: ruling party defeated in key elections, what does this mean?

On 7 April 2021, voters in South Korea’s capital Seoul, and the key port city of Busan, delivered a stunning rebuke against the ruling Democratic Party (Minjoo). Although the conservative People Power Party (PPP) took hold of these two key cities, the election was regarded by the South Korean masses as a referendum on both President Moon Jae-in and the political establishment as a whole. As in many countries in the world, a socialist, working-class political alternative is sorely needed.

The votes that took place on the second weekend of April were mayoral by-elections for the cities of Seoul and Busan. The turnouts for such by-elections are traditionally low. This year’s turnout however rose above 50 percent for the first time. Voters clearly turned out to punish the ruling liberal DP. In Seoul, the DP candidate gained 39.2 percent of the votes, while their primary opponent, the PPP, won 57.5 percent. In Busan, the margin was even higher, with the PPP candidate gaining 62.7 percent to the DP’s 34.4.

The Democratic Party’s humiliating defeat surprised no one. The ruling party was widely expected to lose this election thanks to the rapid recent decline in support for incumbent president, Moon Jae-in, accelerated by high profile corruption scandals. In the wake of this election, many of the DP’s leading figures have been forced to resign for the loss.

This situation is a dramatic reversal of the overwhelming victory that the DP enjoyed in the legislative election last year, where they achieved the biggest majority in the national assembly for any party since South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987. Moon has gone from being a popular darling of the liberals when he first took office, to being regarded as practically the enemy of the people. What explains this sharp change?

Liberalism exposed: the rise and fall of Moon Jae-in

Moon Jae-in was elected president in 2017 after the South Korean masses toppled the previous corrupt and conservative administration of Park Geun-Hye, daughter of former right-wing dictator Park Chung-hee. In the absence of a mass, working-class party, the liberal DP under Moon’s leadership was able to style itself as a force for change. Moon’s own past as an activist who struggled against the military dictatorship boosted these credentials.

Moon Jae in Image public domainThe administration of Moon Jae-in has quickly exposed the bankruptcy of liberalism to the South Korean masses / Image: public domain

The DP was never going to change South Korea in the interests of the working class. This is because the DP, and its historical predecessors, represent the liberal wing of the South Korean bourgeoisie. For the most part, the most powerful mega-corporations (Chaebols) prefer the conservative parties. Nevertheless, the DP remains a loyal part of South Korea’s capitalist political establishment, which works in the interest of the capitalists against the workers. We cautioned against any illusions in South Korea’s liberal opposition back in 2016. Five years and a pandemic later, the South Korean workers are arriving at the same conclusions about the real nature of the DP through their own bitter experience.

South Korea’s highly advanced capitalist economy was built on Dickensian levels of exploitation of the working class. These conditions were enforced through state brutality, backed up by US imperialism. On top of this, South Korea has not been spared by the world crisis of capitalism that has been accelerated by the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic. The South Korean workers have borne the brunt of the social contradictions resulting from this crisis.

This year, South Korea is experiencing its worst unemployment crisis since the 1997 Asian Financial crisis. After eleven years of consecutive job losses, 2020 saw a further 980,000 jobs destroyed. Youth unemployment now stands at 9.5 percent. South Korean workers toil an average of 46.8 hours per week, while 21 percent of women workers have to work more than 50 hours. Despite the grueling work that they put in simply to survive, the household debt of ordinary South Koreans was the second-fastest growing in OECD (developed) countries, even before the COVID-19 pandemic struck. The ratio of household debt to disposable income now stands at 190.59 percent.

graph Image public domainSupport for Moon has rapidly declined with only a very brief reversal of fortunes after the outbreak of coronavirus / Image: public domain

With unemployment now skyrocketing on the back of the pandemic, the response of Moon Jae-in’s administration – like governments all over the world – has been one of massive deficit spending. The government's stimulus package last year brought the national deficit to a record 846.9 trillion won (US$750.5 billion). These packages, the majority of which went towards big business, haven’t shielded working people from the brunt of this crisis. The government however is already signaling that it aims to “curb debt growth” in the 2022 budget. This is effectively a plan for austerity, an inevitable consequence of attempting to spend one’s way out of a crisis.

Despite an extremely short-lived boost for Moon’s approval ratings based on the handling of the pandemic last year, the South Korean masses are starting to realise that nothing has fundamentally changed under the DP administration, which merely offered more of the same. The most infuriating example of this was perhaps the recent scandal where bureaucrats from the state-run Korea Land & Housing Corp. abused insider information to buy land, striking a painful nerve for ordinary South Koreans struggling with housing. As The Diplomat illustrated:

“Part of why the scandal has sparked so much backlash is because it hits a sore spot for South Korea, which has been grappling with soaring real estate prices for years. The problem of housing is so widespread it has even sparked a trend in reality TV, with shows like ‘There Is No House for Us in Seoul’ following prospective homeowners who go outside of the packed capital region to build their own home.”

Does Lee Jae-Myung represent an alternative?

While the PPP stood to gain from the demise of the DP, this is by no means indicative of a general turn towards the conservatives. In fact, the PPP candidates themselves are barely more popular than Moon. This is no accident. The PPP is the historical successor of the Liberty Korea (Saenuri) Party of deposed former president Park Geun-hye and the criminally corrupt former president Lee Myung Bak. While the party has changed names many times, it always maintained the brutal, corrupt, and rigged system of South Korean capitalism on behalf of a ruling class with roots in the old dictatorship.

The results of the recent by-election show that the Korean masses are frustrated with the political establishment but lack a viable alternative. The burning need to escape the hellish conditions of South Korea (which many young people literally call “Hell Korea”) are pushing workers and youth desperately in search of a political point of reference, seeking out someone to solve their problems. Paradoxically, this is currently expressing itself in a figure coming from within the camp of the DP, in the person of Lee Jae-Myung.

Lee is a lifelong DP member and the current Governor of the Gyeonggi Province, which surrounds the Seoul metropolitan area. He is notable for his fiery, populist rhetoric about standing up to the rich, curbing inequality, expanding public housinguniversal basic income based on taxing the rich real estate owners, and threats to break up the Chaebols. These stances have caused some in the press to label him, “South Korea’s Bernie Sanders”.

Lee Image Lee Jae MyungLee Jae-myung has been labelled by some as the "Bernie Sanders of South Korea" / Image: Lee Jae-myung

In February this year, a poll showed that support for Lee to become the next president topped all other major political figures by a wide margin. Even despite the DP’s massive defeat in the recent by-elections, Lee remains popular and stands out as the one of most popular candidates for next year’s upcoming presidential election. This further demonstrates that the recent success of the PPP hardly indicates that the South Korean masses are turning to the right.

It is understandable that many sincere Korean workers and youths would look to someone like Lee – who appears to stand up to the ruling class (at least in words). But it must be said, his policies are fundamentally liberal measures aimed at saving the capitalist system instead of challenging it. In an interview with Bloomberg he explicitly underlined why he is putting forward these policies: “The capitalist system could fall apart if consumption and demand aren’t supported.”

Rather than overthrowing this system, Lee imagines that the capitalist state can be cleansed of the ‘excessive’ influence of big business, and can play a role in reducing the inequality between the working class and the capitalists. Furthermore, Lee remains in the same DP that serves the same capitalist class interests that he purportedly opposes. The only way to meaningfully challenge the Chaebols, however, would be to break from the DP – which most of Lee’s supporters despise anyway – in order to establish a party based on the working class. Should he fail to make this break, Lee would, like Sanders in the US, end up being forced to accommodate himself to his party’s political establishment by shifting to the right, ultimately disappointing his support base.

Unfortunately, it is very unlikely that Lee will break from the DP on such a basis. He has never championed the political independence of the working class. Furthermore, he doesn’t think that revolutionary change in South Korea is necessary, meaning any programme he might attempt to enact would necessarily be constrained within the increasingly narrow limits of the capitalist system. What is far more likely is that Lee will follow in the footsteps of Bernie Sanders in betraying the workers and submitting to the bourgeoisie. This would be the result even if he wins the presidency should he remain within a bourgeois political party.

For a mass party based on the trade unions!

The South Korean working class can trust no one but themselves to transform society for the better. They must start by organising their own party that militantly fights for the working class to take power by expropriating the Chaebols, expelling US imperialism and establishing a genuine worker’s democracy. The Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), the biggest trade union federation in the country, is best placed to put this process into motion.

The militancy of the South Korean labour movement is exemplary in Asia. For example, the official state recognition of the KCTU – among many other reforms – was only won through a successful general strike in 1997. The trade unions played an active role in launching the strikes that deposed the Park government in 2016. With the right leadership and programme, the workers will surely be able to build the necessary political vehicle to fight through to victory.

But we must warn that it is not simply enough for the KCTU and the labour movement to establish a political party aiming to put itself in office. Such a party must base itself on a clear class-based socialist program that can politically mobilise its working-class base with the aim of the overthrowing – rather than propping up – the existing system. The KCTU itself learned this lesson the hard way with the experience of the Democratic Labour Party founded in 2000.

Workers Image KCTUThe militancy of the South Korean working class is exemplary. They cannot trust anyone but themselves to transform society / Image: KCTU

The DLP was an eclectic project that included social democratic trade unionists and Korean nationalists who did not hold a class perspective. The party leadership’s effort to maintain unity among the various irreconcilable forces that constituted the party in order to win parliamentary seats only led to more splits and rightward shifts.

This process produced an abortion. Today’s Justice Party, a minor party that brands itself as a “progressive” party rather than a labour party, is the product of those attempts. It has absorbed many bourgeois elements from the DP into its ranks over the years, in the process destroying the potential it had to become the political expression of the South Korean workers. Most scandalously of all, during the 2016 mass struggles to topple the Park Geun-hye government, when rail workers joined in by launching political strikes, the Justice Party joined the Democratic Party and the rightwing People’s Party in demanding to end the strike. Today as a parliamentary rump whose leader recently resigned over a sex scandal, there is no hope for the Justice Party to become the mass alternative that the working class needs.

South Korea today is a country of extreme contradictions. The Chaebols have accumulated tremendous wealth. But this wealth has been extracted through the brutal exploitation and overwork of the working class. Whilst South Korean workers have created this wealth, they languish in abysmal conditions. And whilst the working class of South Korea has shown an industrial militancy second to none in the whole region, as yet it has no clear political representation. Above all what is needed is a vehicle to give this militancy and class anger a clear expression. What is needed is not another ‘progressive’ party, but a party based upon the trade unions with a clear revolutionary programme that strikes at the root of the capitalist system.

If the labour movement takes up the correct perspectives and strategy, then a mass party of the working class, instead of just a minor parliamentary fraction, can be built up. In this process, leadership is the key factor in the situation. Aside from the need for a genuine mass party of labour, the most advanced workers and youth require a thorough grounding in Marxist theory, as a guide to action in the fight against capitalism, for a socialist society. The International Marxist Tendency invites all sincere workers and youth militants to join us in this international struggle.

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