Electioneering in Busan
B.R. Myers

I suppose I’m the last Pyongyang watcher anyone would expect to see near the stage at a Moon Jae-in rally, shouting “To the left! To the left!” at the candidate from amidst a group of fervent supporters. The inflated orange garbage bag on the fellow’s head made the moment seem dreamlike even to me. For the first time in ages I thought of the bubble-crested tropical fish in the Bermuda Aquarium, where I spent many a childhood Saturday.

As so often in life, the explanation is mundane enough. Moon was in Busan on April 22 for a sort of homecoming rally, having lived here on and off for several years and represented my own Sasang district in the National Assembly. I was there with another professor to gauge the mood. The strange headgear? A Sajik Stadium ritual dear to Lotte Giants fans, who put their trash in the bags after the game. And we were shouting for Moon to turn towards us for the benefit of a man, right behind me, who seemed frantically anxious for a frontal photograph.

The audience was a young one on the whole, with an average age of about 32. It had been worn out early on by speeches from too many local dignitaries. Only for the blue-jacketed Minjoo big shots from Seoul did it come to life. Pak Young-sun went over especially well, despite having supported one of Moon’s now-vanquished Minjoo rivals. An elderly lady next to me said, “She will be president after Moon.”

Arriving to sustained cheers about an hour into the proceedings, the rather hoarse candidate read out a speech from a runway extending into the crowd.  The self-congratulatory question and answer format — He: “Who is going to create jobs?” Crowd: “Moon Jae-in!” — wore thin fast. Rather than look at his fleshly profile from a few yards away, a lot of people near the runway turned their backs on him to film the video screen at the back of the stage. I found myself wondering how many of them will actually vote on May 9.

At a dinner party in Seoul a few weeks ago, a Minjoo lawmaker assured me that although my favorite politician Chang Hana is no longer in the National Assembly, the party as a whole is following up on her efforts to legislate for the better treatment of animals. Sure enough, Moon spoke out only a few days later, with a dog in his arms, about the need to adopt stray animals and reduce the costs of veterinary care. Unfortunately he said nothing on this theme yesterday — or at least, nothing I could make out over the din of Busanite chatter around me. Had I been at the sound check I would have said, à la Roy Scheider: You’re going to need a bigger amp.

Intent on projecting firmness, Moon raised his voice whenever talking of anbo or security, but did little more than describe himself — or let the crowd identify him — as the candidate best prepared to solve the current “security crisis.” Sensibly enough, he treated Ahn Cheol-soo, the People’s Party candidate, as his only rival. (Ahn, who is also from Busan, had held a rally in the exact same spot the day before.) I heard only one or two digs at Hong Jun-pyo, the least obscure of the many candidates now fragmenting the conservative vote. Hong Quixote, as the press mocks him, has even less chance of victory now that a jaunty account of assisting an attempted date rape has been found in his long-unread memoirs. The nickname is no longer appropriate; Cervantes’ hero was nothing if not chivalrous.

Interestingly, neither Moon nor the many speakers who preceded him spoke of building trust with the North. This despite the appearance on stage of Kim Dae Jung’s son Kim Hong-gul, who did time in prison for much the same sort of thing that…. Well, as I said in another post: Corruption is bad here only when the other side engages in it.

Yet Moon’s visit to Busan came a few days after he refused to characterize North Korea as the South’s main enemy in a televised debate, and just one day after newspapers printed evidence backing up a not unconnected assertion that been first made last autumn. According to Song Min-soon, the foreign minister under President Roh Moo Hyun, Moon Jae-in (who was then Roh’s chief of staff) urged the government to consult with Pyongyang in 2007 before deciding how to vote on North Korea’s human rights record in the UN.

No one can deny that Pyongyang was contacted, or that South Korea then abstained from the vote. Last year Moon claimed to have forgotten what went on; this year he suddenly recalled having only recommended “monitoring” the North’s position. But now a government document has come to light that includes Roh’s regretful remark: “I shouldn’t have asked [Pyongyang], but Chief of Staff Moon told me to.”

At the rally yesterday, Moon gave his stock response to all allegations of this nature that have dogged him since his last campaign in 2012: The conservatives are engaging in saekkallon, the discussion of ideological “color” (especially redness), to divert public attention from their own failures. But the problem of his attitude to the North worries many South Koreans who were happy to see Park Geun-hye thrown out of power.

Unfortunately most of the Anglophone press lazily calls Moon a liberal, leaving readers to assume that “centrist” Ahn Cheol-soo must be somewhere between Hillary and Trump. In fact, in an American election campaign, both the Minjoo Party and the People’s Party would be posited well to the left of our Democrats. Both contain several politicians whose past statements in regard to North Korea or the relative legitimacy of the two Korean states would strike most US liberals as bizarre.

The Trump administration will have to begin talking with either Moon or Ahn on May 10. Whoever it turns out to be, intra-alliance conflict over North Korea is almost certain to flare up within months of his takeover. The Western media should start paying more attention to the ideological landscape of the peninsula as soon as possible.