We’ve reached the end of Yoon’s futile ideology war — now’s time to envision inter-Korean peace


A new sign is placed on the previous Office of Inter-Korean Dialogue in Seoul in September following a consolidation and downsizing of the Ministry of Unification’s inter-Korean dialogue and exchanges divisions. IMAGE/Yonhap

The Yoon administration has waged its ideological war on every possible front

A recent by-election for mayor of Seoul’s Gangseo District ended up being an easy victory for South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party. Considering that both the Democratic Party and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) made a concerted effort in the election, it served as a de facto mid-term referendum on President Yoon Suk-yeol.

While Kim Tae-woo, the PPP’s candidate, may have been chosen through a party nomination process, the stakes of the election became clear the moment that Yoon pardoned Kim (who had been responsible for triggering the by-election in the first place) on the occasion of Korea’s Liberation Day, on Aug. 15. That makes the Democratic Party’s 17.15-point margin in the vote especially painful for Yoon.

Aside from offering dark predictions for the PPP’s performance in next year’s general election, a considerable number of pundits have been issuing warnings about the Yoon administration’s approach to policy.

That has left the PPP little choice but to set up an innovation committee and driven Yoon to make a genuine effort to shore up public opinion, remarking that “the people are always and unconditionally right.” That also explains why Yoon has been placing a bigger emphasis on the economy and the people in his recent remarks.

Disappearing need to address North Korea issues

The fact is that when Yoon first became president, most Koreans had no idea he would place so much emphasis on ideology. There had been concerns that Yoon, given his tenure as prosecutor general, might exploit the power of the prosecution service for his own ends, but hardly anyone expected that Yoon would say things like “ideology is most important,” as he did during a PPP dinner on Aug. 28.

Since it has long been a truism in Korean politics that a party that tries to divide voters along ideological lines immediately forfeits the allegiance of moderates, the president’s behavior has engendered a range of interpretations.

Some attribute his behavior to being surrounded by members of the “new right” and the far right, while others see it as resulting from Yoon’s confidence that his core supporters are all he needs to run the country.

While the precise truth remains obscure, what can be inferred from Yoon’s behavior thus far is that his emphasis on ideology amounts to a fatal blunder based on ignorance of Korean society. It doesn’t reflect some firm conviction in the “freedom” he has mentioned so often since his inauguration, nor is it an alternative derived from a sharp reading of the geopolitical lurch toward a new cold war.

Yoon simply judged incorrectly that raising the banner of “eliminating the commies” would be enough to bring the majority of Koreans, including moderates, over to his side.

The Yoon administration has waged its ideological war on every possible front. One after another, the officials who handled North Korea policy under the Moon administration have been indicted since early in Yoon’s presidency, and he has denigrated the Panmunjom Declaration and the Comprehensive Military Agreement (concluded at inter-Korean summits on April 27 and Sept. 19, 2018, respectively) as representing a “false peace.”

There has been an investigation into a North Korean spy ring of the sort that often occurred during the days of the dictatorship, and investigators even concluded that an official with the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions was acting on orders from North Korea.

But despite repeated incidents involving “North Korea sympathizers,” South Korean society has maintained a surprising degree of equilibrium. No matter how often North Korean issues make the news, Yoon’s approval rating has been stuck around 30%. South Korean society has remained calm despite Yoon’s every effort to highlight the crisis of North Korea’s nuclear weapons, organize various military exercises and even hold a military parade in downtown Seoul.

While that reaction (or lack thereof) should be welcomed in the sense that the “war of ideology” has not permeated society, it also shows, paradoxically, that the urge to address the North Korean issue has dissipated in South Korean society.

There used to be a time when North Korean issues could sway voters’ sentiments. Why else would supporters of the conservative candidate for president have tried to drum up public support by asking North Korea to carry out a show of force leading up to the 1997 presidential election?

There was also a humiliating episode when Kim Tae-hyo, who currently presides over Korea’s national security policy as first deputy director of the National Security Office, tried to deliver an envelope full of cash to North Korea in a bid to help then-president Lee Myung-bak improve his standing. That suggests how much of an impact North Korea has had on South Korean domestic politics both under conservative and progressive governments.

But change has come slowly, starting from the bottom up. Politicians may still think that the North Korean issue can earn them votes, but that doesn’t determine the governments or political groups that ordinary South Koreans support.

Since South Korea has acquired absolute superiority over North Korea both in economic and military terms, South Korean society no longer perceives North Korea as being a genuine threat. Following South Korea’s economic development and growing cultural clout, South Koreans have begun to identify themselves with the prosperous societies of the West and to dismiss North Korea as a distinct country that is both backwards and impoverished.

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