The New Rise of Korea’s Conservatism

Why did the Minjoo Party lose so badly?

Minjoo candidate Park Young-son and Liberty Korea candidate Oh Se-hoon

Election night for Seoul and Pusan mayors is not over yet, but the results area already clear. Exit polls indicate that conservatives have the upper hand by 59 to liberals’ 38 points in Seoul, and the gap is even greater in Pusan. The Liberty Korea party is already popping champagne over this thunderous victory. A look deeper shows even starker contrast: the liberals have completely lost the 20s generation, specifically men in their 20s. In Seoul, 72.5% of men in their 20s voted for conservatives — the highest level of support, even higher than 70.2% of men in their 70s. I believe the high right-wing support of 20s is not guaranteed, and most of the 20s men who voted conservative are mainly moderates. However this position will harden if Minjoo libs keep pivoting to the “candlelight revolution” and don’t suck up to their policies being fundamentally wrong.

After the end of the Cold War, both conservatives and libs changed their political position on what the new era would look like. If Cold War conservatism was based on anti-Communism and anti-democracy, the new conservatism was both successfully pulled away from these outdated ideologies. Roh Tae-woo showed conservatives can also make peace with North Korea via Noordpolitik(북방외교), North-South Basic Agreement(남북기본합의서), and both Koreas joining the UN(유엔동시가입), and Kim Young-sam showed the new conservatives were pro-democratic by sentencing dictators Chun and Roh to death (later pardoned). When Kim Dae-jung was elected, he needed to offer Korea a liberalist path in the post-Cold War world.

Kim chose two lanes: foreign policy based on peace and an embrace of feminist politics. Both the well-known Sunshine Policy(햇볓정책) (mainly North–South Joint Declaration(615정상회담), Kaesong Industrial Complex(개성공단) and Kumgang Mt. Tourism Complex(금강산관광단지)), and Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (initially Women’s Affairs Commission) began under his watch. The idea for Sunshine Policy was simple: eliminating mistrust via reconciliation. It was assumed North Korea would not feel a need to raise tensions if there was no threat across the DMZ. (This same policy was extended to Japan as well: hence the revised Korea-Japan Fisheries Agreement(신한일어업협정), which was seen as selling Dokdo out.)

What was North Korea’s response during 10 years of liberal-led Sunshine Policy? When South Korea began the FIFA world cup, North Korean ships sneak attacked at the Yellow Sea. (Soldiers who fought were ignored or shunned by the Kim administration.) When Kim Dae-jung (illegally) supplied Pyongyang with much-needed funds, they used it for the nuclear and ICBM programmes. When North Korea first tested its nuclear weapon, Roh Moo-hyun began deescalating the situation, leading to an inter-Korean summit exactly 1 year later. Except not even a week after Roh committed suicide due to unfortunate circumstances, North Korea tested a nuclear test — making 10 years of liberal “Sunshine Policy”a joke.

Current 20s generation spent their school years under Sunshine Policy era. Back then, everything was about reunification — North Korea was the long-lost brother, US was the big bad occupying power keeping us apart. Most movies at the time (JSA/Welcome to Dongmakgol) kept up this kind of pro-unification tone. Events like uncovering of No-gun-ri massacre(노근리학살) and Yangju Highway Incident(효순이-미순이사건) exacerbated anti-US sentiment, making it seem current US-Korea alliance was outdated and peaceful reunification with the north the future. However with the battles at Yeonpyeong(1.2차연평도해전) and continuing aggression (later including bombing Yeonpyeong island and ROKS Cheonan incident) there is now only left betrayal at both liberal government and North Korea. Therefore, while Moon’s Panmunjom Declaration and subsequent peacemaking was appreciated as deescalating tensions, too much of it bordered favoring North Korea over his own citizens.

Korea has a tough relationship with feminism. While the Ministry of Gender Equality should have prevented the exacerbation of gender conflict, the opposite had occurred. This is partly due to male-only military conscription, partly due to overblown rumours about Ministry policy (banning a snack because it “looks similar to the female genitalia”, or banning Tetris because it “resembles sexual intercourse”). But currently, hate against the Ministry is based on 1. Pushback from “family-oriented” policies such as the Shutdown Law(청소년 셧다운제), anti-porn laws(유해사이트법) or Kpop beauty guidelines(아이돌 외모규제 안내서) 3. Perception of being hypocritical, where victims of sexual violence from ruling government officials or public office members are ignored 2. Response to rising “anti-male” hate from radical feminist circles such as Womad. The ministry’s policies only increased male perception that women do not seek equality but undermining of their sociopolitical status.

Current 20s generation are well aware of conflict from both sides. Women being victims include the murder near Gangnam station in 2016 (offender said the cause was “women look down on me”, while the police concluded it was from schizophrenia), Soranet revenge porn website incident (police criticized for dragging its feet), and more. Men being victims include spy cams installed at public bathhouses and restrooms (in an attempt at “revenge” by radical feminist group Womad members), and a man stabbed at Seonmun university by a female student in 2019, among others. Liberals are seen as both the cause and perpetrator of increased gender conflict, for (badly) attempting to absorb PC values while not addressing more pressing sociopolitical inequities. 20s generation, male 20s specifically, perceive liberalism and the Minjoo party being against their interests. Furthermore liberals are hypocrites of their own: sexual predators such as Park Won-soon and Ahn Hui-jeong were proud feminists.

current South Korean president Moon Jae-in, then-Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, and then-North Chungcheong provincial governor Ahn Hui-jeong

The sense of betrayal in both how liberalism has dealt with North Korea and gender equality is real, and especially true among 20s generation. There are many other issues Liberals must also address, such as their econ/job market/housing policy. However on foreign policy and social issues, Liberalism has led Korea into a new age of conflict and darkness. While 20s and 30s mostly cast their ballot to whomever increases their fighting chance at a living wage and a house of their own, their conservative shift will become permanent if liberalism does not shift on North Korea and feminism alongside job market and econ growth.