Moon’s First Week — B.R. Myers

On May 12, his first Friday in office, Moon Jae-in ordered the scrapping of his predecessor’s plan to introduce state-issued history textbooks. According to the Blue House, it’s the president’s firm will that history education not be politicized. This news made me mutter words “out of use except in the vernacular,” as Joe Orton used to say.

Once every autumn I troop off with other Dongseo professors to a room filled with new high-school textbooks, in order to find fresh questions to ask student applicants to our department. Americans who keep hearing the South Korean education system praised would be shocked by how lightweight and picture-driven the social-science books are. The awfulness of the history ones defies description. It’s not so much that they lean pro-North and anti-ROK as that they do so in such preposterous fashion.

From a popular and very typical history textbook in my own collection (살아 있는 한국 근현대사 교과서, 2007, p.288), here’s a graph showing an 800% increase in the North’s industrial output from 1946 to 1957, during which time, the book falsely claims, the East Bloc cut off aid.

And that’s before the Ch’ŏllima movement kicked in. Puts the Miracle on the Han to shame, eh? Needless to say, the source for these statistics, cited underneath in tiny print, is the “Democratic People’s Republic of Korea.” Government-issued history is fine so long it’s from that government.

And here’s the book’s only graph of economic growth under South Korea’s military dictatorships (p.291):

The teachers’ union has dinned this sort of stuff into kids’ heads for over twenty years now. The broadcast media’s version of history is scarcely less tendentious. One can no more de-mythologize the most ideologically-charged topics on a TV show than in a classroom. (I have already noted the “centrist” People’s Party’s effort to ban unorthodox discussion of the Gwangju uprising.) The internet portals like Naver and Daum do their bit too.

Not surprisingly, public opinion appears to have been influenced, if not as much as the dominant opinion-makers would like. (There have been other factors too of course.) At any rate, the mainstream is clearly to the nationalist-left of where the center used to be. The only man who came close to troubling Moon in the election campaign was Ahn Cheol-soo, who, right down to his IT hobbyhorse, was basically a throwback to Kim Dae Jung.

That still leaves a swelling elderly demographic that identifies with conservatism, but it’s of an increasingly watery sort. As the center-right writer and former politician Jeon Yeo-ok noted in a recent interview, there is no significant force here that could be considered conservative by Western standards. The party currently calling itself the Liberty Korea Party (to the right of which is no party of importance) has long been to the left of American Republicans. Although the foreign press was quick to swallow the KCNA’s description of President Lee Myung Bak as a hardliner, he gave about 75% as much aid to Pyongyang as Kim Dae Jung had given (not counting the money with which the 2000 summit was purchased). He would likely have exceeded that amount if not for the North’s two attacks in 2010.

Park Geun-hye, for her part, campaigned on a promise to “democratize the economy,” and the welfare system expanded steadily during her rule. While she drastically reduced aid to the North, she was far from a hardliner by normal standards, as could be seen from her administration’s response to the DMZ land mine incident in August 2015.

Since 2000 it has been clear that institutions once considered reactionary — the military, the National Intelligence Service, the so-called Cho-Joong-Dong triumvirate of newspapers — have been shifting leftward. I remember a Chosun Ilbo journalist in the Roh era telling me his paper had toned down criticism of the North so as not to irk the administration too much.

Yet to read foreign correspondents, many of whom seem to be relying for “background” on local millennial fixers, you would think that the entire spectrum here had moved in the opposite direction — that even advocates of inter-Korean reconciliation now understood the need for firmness with the North and a close alliance with the US, while the elderly flag-wavers had drifted off the chart, as it were, into quasi-fascist territory.

During the election campaign, vox-pop articles were written so as to suggest that whereas the young people who supported Moon had given informed thought to the issues, the old folk backing conservative candidates were nostalgic for dictatorship, unreasonably panicky about the North, and perhaps a bit senile.

A random example, from Bloomberg last month:

Jeon Byeong-kwan took to the streets late last year, joining millions of demonstrators seeking to oust former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and protest the nation’s “wealth cliques.” The 29-year-old event planner from Seoul sees Park’s downfall as progress toward a fairer society.

His grandmother, 82-year-old Bae Ok-nam, disagrees. She views it as a betrayal of her generation’s long struggle to rebuild a war-torn country that transformed it into Asia’s fourth-largest economy, an effort largely directed by Park’s father, the “great economic leader” Park Chung-hee.

“Did we really have to jail her? That broke my heart,” she said.

Wealth cliques? One might have expected a financial news network to mention that the wealth gap and the years of salary needed to buy an apartment both increased when the South Korean left first took the presidency in 1998, and continued increasing until 2008, when the conservatives took over. The proverbial “Gangnam leftist” is not the walking contradiction he’s made out to be; inflation is always good for the rich.

I don’t mean to imply that Moon is just another phony. Here in Busan’s Sasang District, which he represented in the National Assembly, even conservatives concede that he’s nothing if not down to earth. I had initially doubted all that stuff about his human rights work in Busan in the 1980s, assuming he’d just helped student radicals. Then I heard from an apolitical elderly Busanite how Moon’s pro bono advocacy in an apartment-contractual dispute had saved her family from being turned out on the street. “I would do anything for him,” she said.

I wouldn’t go that far, but I would have voted for him had I been able to. The issue of animal rights means much more to me than any political stuff, and the Minjoo Party is the only one here with any significant interest in it. (In my last post I referred to the former lawmaker Chang Hana’s efforts on this front.) If Moon carries through on his campaign rhetoric about animals, he will have done more than all US presidents combined. I bring this up only to emphasize that I am not rooting against the fellow. Far be it from me, as a guest in this country, to side publicly with any political party. My interest is in discussing an aspect of South Korean politics which, despite its great relevance to the US-ROK alliance and the ongoing nuclear crisis, gets little attention from the American press.

Last week the new president wasted no time in showing that the old flag-wavers had at least sussed him out better than foreign journalists had. Although his inaugural speech sounded like it had been written in ten minutes, his talk of creating an entirely new South Korea, and running the country “like a country,” was in line with the textbooks’ negation of ROK history. So too was his refusal to invest the moment with any heightened formal significance, any show of respect for the almost 30-year-old democratic tradition he inherits; it’s only the state, after all.

As far as the South Korean left is concerned, everything good in the country’s past came from the streets, from the masses. The indivisible popular will or minsim was the great force behind everything from Syngman Rhee’s ouster to the Sunshine Policy — left-wing presidents being but instruments of that will to the “revolution” that brought down Park Geun-hye. Hence Moon’s plan to move the presidential offices to Gwanghwamun, where the minsim can be megaphoned straight into the leader’s ear.

His first significant move as president was to make Im Jong-seok his chief of staff. The announcement was met with groans from conservatives who knew that name all too well. As a young man Im chaired the North-loyal National Association of Student Representatives. In 1989, at the age of 23, he arranged, in close coordination with the Kim Il Sung regime, a visit to North Korea by a South Korean female student. (Her anti-Yankee tirades gave the dictatorship a propaganda windfall at a crucial time.) After evading South Korean authorities for almost a year, Im Jong-seok served 3 and a half years of a 5-year sentence for violating the National Security Law.

Only a small minority of those who belonged to the so-called Juche Thought movement, which peaked in the early 1990s, have publicly renounced it. The rest have simply toned down their public statements and activities without expressly contradicting their younger selves. Im Jong-seok is in the latter camp, known here as the undonggwŏn.

To be fair, the US never saw much formal renunciation of support for Castro and the Viet Cong, yet few ex-hippies in American politics still think highly of them today. But people are much less easily disabused of radical nationalism than of far-left leanings. The difference in the economic performance of the two Koreas was and is beside the point to the radical nationalist, who simply blames sanctions and the scuttling of the Sunshine Policy for the North’s poverty. Nor has freedom of speech for anyone outside its own camp ever been high on the undonggwŏn’s list of values. There is therefore no reason to assume that Im now has a fundamentally different view of either North Korea or the United States. If he did he would have had the sense to say so upon taking office.

Moon deepened conservatives’ unease by choosing Suh Hoon to head the National Intelligence Service. For two years in the 1990s Suh lived north of the DMZ as head of the field office of the Korean Peninsula Energy Development Office (KEDO), which was created as part of the Agreed Framework (1994). As an NIS official under the Kim Dae Jung administration, Suh returned several times to the North to lay the groundwork for the 2000 summit. The press touts him for his wonderful, alcohol-enhanced rapport with top North Korean officials. Let me just point out, if only to show how different our two countries are, that such a resume, mutatis mutandis, would be more likely to impede a security clearance in Washington than to help someone get the directorship of the CIA.

Suh says his goal is to help bring about a third North-South summit. The conservatives are right in finding this very odd indeed. It’s one thing for an intelligence official to assist in secret preparations for a summit, and quite another for the director of the agency to see himself as a sort of second Unification Minister. An NIS chief determined to bring off another summit is bound to turn a blind eye to the North’s anti-ROK operations in the meantime.

The Minjoo Party’s line is that there are no “North-obeying forces” here to speak of. It’s worth remembering, however, that after Germany’s unification, some 15,000 agents and informelle Mitarbeiter of the GDR were found to have operated in West Germany. Considering the far greater appeal that North Korea exerted on generations of South Koreans in their formative years, it must have more allies here than Honecker had west of the Elbe. North Korean defectors are going to need to be extra careful from now on.

Cho Kuk, a former law professor at Seoul National University, is Moon’s senior secretary for civil affairs.  He has long been the first person most South Koreans think of when asked to name a “Gangnam leftist.” In a Youtube video posted years ago, an economic journalist wrily dismantled one of Cho’s indignant powerpoint lectures on the South Korean wealth gap. Apparently Cho had been teaching the country’s top students that while the rich got richer between 1999 and 2009, 80% of the South Korean population — the “lower 80%,” in Cho’s telling turn of phrase — saw its income shrink by about a third. Never mind where he got that information; only the most purblind ideologue could believe for a moment that such a devastating decline in income had taken place, and in the years after the IMF crisis at that. (If it had, as the journalist pointed out, there would have been an uprising.) And this is the man Moon chose for a position which, among other things, calls for special understanding of the lives and concerns of average people.

These appointments sent a message not only to the South Korean public but also to Pyongyang and Washington. Whether it was the message Moon intended to send will become clear very soon.