South Korea: Conservatives returned to power, time for class struggle

On Wednesday 9 March, South Koreans went to the polls to decide who will rule over them from the Blue House for the next five years. Yoon Suk-yeol of the hard-right conservative People Power Party (PPP) won out in the end, with a campaign based on reactionary, misogynistic demagogy. This result exposes the complete inability of the liberals to defend the interests of workers, women and the oppressed. The South Korean workers must prepare an independent class fight against the new government, and the capitalist system it represents.

Return of the conservative right

This year’s general election was dominated by rivalry between the two main bourgeois parties in South Korea. Despite the vitriolic rhetoric that both sides hurled against one another, and the more open chauvinism of the PPP, there is little fundamental difference between the two candidates and their parties. In the end, Yoon Suk-yeol of the PPP garnered 48.49 percent of the vote, narrowly beating the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) candidate, Lee Jae-myung, who garnered 47.8 percent of the vote. The PPP also swept the board in the concurrent parliamentary by-elections, winning 4 out of 5 of the contests.

The People Power Party is the latest iteration of the conservative political bloc that has frequently changed its name over the years. It was founded by politicians who served in the former right-wing military dictatorships in South Korea. It strongly favours alignment with US imperialism, and is deeply tied to the oligarchic corporations in South Korea known as the ‘Chaebols’. Among the former presidents belonging to this party are the former CEO of Hyundai Engineering & Construction, Lee Myung-bak, and the daughter of the notorious military strongman Park Chung hee, Park Geun-hye. The latter’s presidency was toppled by a 2017 mass uprising against corruption with heavy trade union involvement.

After being deposed from power, the PPP returned with an unlikely champion for their cause: Yoon Suk-yeol. Less than a year ago, Yoon was serving as the Prosecutor General for the Democratic Party administration of Moon Jae-in, and he even prosecuted two of the former conservative presidents. But a subsequent falling out between Yoon and Moon led Yoon to resign and run as the candidate for the main opposition party, the PPP.

Yoon is himself embroiled in a corruption scandal that involves his mother-in-law. He is also known to be deeply associated with superstitious shamans. In this campaign, Yoon leaned on extreme reactionary rhetoric to consolidate his support base.

Aside from open support for cutting taxes and deregulation, and calling for workers to toil 120 hours per week, Yoon also demagogically whipped up chauvinism and stirred up the basest reactionary attitudes in society, claiming that structural sexism no longer exists in South Korea, and that feminism is the cause for the country’s declining birthrate. He also promised to abolish the ministry of gender equality. Additionally, during his campaign, Yoon also joined many PPP politicians in the social media campaign #멸공 (myulgong), which stands for “Exterminate Communists,” fanning the tired trope that the bourgeois liberal DPK are in fact communists in league with the North.

There is no doubt that his administration will be a zealous enforcer of the will of the Chaebols. Through him, the South Korean ruling class is getting ready to launch a fierce assault on the labour movement and the oppressed.

However, Yoon’s success was not so much a victory for the reactionary sentiments that he peddled. Rather, he rode to power on the back of massive disappointment in the DPK, which promised progress and change. The failure of the DPK is an indictment of the bankruptcy of bourgeois liberalism. This needs to be clearly recognised so that the Korean working class can take a class independent political fight to Yoon and the PPP.

Failure of the liberals

The DPK with Moon Jae-in came to power on the back of a mass struggle in 2016 that toppled the previous conservative government of Park Geun-hye. Moon’s supposedly ‘progressive’ administration won a further mandate from voters in 2020, where they achieved the biggest majority in the national assembly for any party since South Korea’s transition to bourgeois democracy in 1987.

Nevertheless, the DPK changed absolutely nothing for the better, despite their mandate. South Korea’s already eye-watering income inequality continued to increase after Moon Jae-in took office with the slogan for a “fairer society”. The wealthiest 10 percent of South Koreans had an average monthly income of around 13 million South Korean won ($10.5k USD) – over 10 times greater than the poorest 10 percent of the population.

Working conditions remain extremely poor in South Korea. In this 10th-largest economy in the world, workers endure the second-longest working hours for an OECD country, at 163.6 hours per month. Workplaces remain extremely unsafe, with an average of 2.4 workers dying every day in industrial accidents in Korean workplaces.

South Korea’s housing crisis is a particularly pressing issue that strikes a nerve for many young people. It too remained completely unresolved under the DPK. The failure was so stark that Moon even apologised for “not pushing for a large expansion of the housing supply much earlier.” This apology is completely meaningless, not only because of Moon’s inaction, but also because Moon’s own officials have been implicated in abusing insider information to buy land, which pushes up housing costs for ordinary residents.

Another factor is the Moon administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic that deeply hurt the working class. While South Korea fared better in suppressing the spread of the virus in comparison to the shambolic performance of the West, working-class people had to endure draconian restrictions that tended to change arbitrarily, while receiving very little support to endure the lockdowns. At the same time, trade union mobilisations were severely repressed in the name of pandemic control.

Even in the face of a rancorously anti-women Yoon campaign, the DPK’s ‘pro-feminist’ posturing was utterly hypocritical. As of 2020, three years into Moon’s administration, the gender pay gap in South Korea remains at a whopping 38 percent. But the problem of the oppression of women goes far beyond pay. As a representative from the Korean Women’s Hotline explained: since 2018, there has been absolutely no improvement to the already extreme oppression that women face, ranging from employment and income inequality, to violence, assault, sexual exploitation and more.

The root of the oppression women suffer is class society. Today, the capitalist class relies on the division of the working class along gender lines in order to cut across the class struggle. The capitalist DPK is fundamentally incapable of improving the lot of women, despite their ‘feminist’ credentials, because they defend capitalism. Their words of sympathy for the plight of Koreans facing double oppression as workers, and as women, ring hollow. The PPP, by contrast, is more than happy to stir from the bottom and bolster its support among the most backward layers of society at the DPK’s expense.

More than this, since Moon took office, a string of high profile DPK politicians were implicated in sexual assault allegations against their female subordinates. Accomplices in the covering up sexual crimes still occupy high positions in government and in the DPK’s campaign this year, as Song from Korean Women’s HotLine pointed out. This disgusting hypocrisy is clearly visible for all to see.

It is no wonder that prior to the election, approval for the DPK government under Moon Jae-in fell to 43 percent, a far cry from the 81 percent that he enjoyed when he was elected.

Lees posturing towards the right only signalled his willingness to represent the very same political status quo that he howled against in the past image Lee Jae myung Official FacebookLee's posturing towards the right only signalled his willingness to represent the very same political status quo that he howled against in the past / Image: Lee Jae myung, official Facebook

Another aspect of the DPK’s failure is the personal role of their candidate, Lee Jae-myung, hitherto the governor of Gyeonggi province that surrounds the Seoul Metropolitan area. Lee was considered to be a lightning bolt candidate who rose to prominence with his left-leaning rhetoric, such as his calls for the break up of the Chaebols and the implementation of a universal basic income. Some have called him “South Korea’s Bernie Sanders,” while rivals within his own party used to consider him a dangerous populist.

However, as we explained before Lee’s eventual nomination as the DPK presidential nominee, his loyalty to this bourgeois party and his failure to offer a socialist alternative to the crisis in South Korea would eventually push him to the right towards accommodation with the political establishment, as we have seen since he won the nomination.

In the campaign, Lee ditched his characteristic criticisms of South Korea’s oligarchic Chaebols. Instead, he became a candidate of “national unity”, stressing the importance of “integration of conflicting ideals” and even promising to launch a young cabinet “regardless of party faction or age.” This posturing towards the right only signalled Lee’s willingness to represent the very same political status quo that he howled against in the past. Lee’s rightward lurch took place in lockstep with President Moon’s own capitulation to the conservative right, above all his pardoning of Park Geun-hye, whom the masses had toppled earlier. Again, this was all in the name of “national unity.” In effect, the DPK wants the South Korean working class to submit to their ruling-class oppressors.

Even the liberal-leaning journal Hankyoreh admitted that Lee failed to differentiate himself from the existing establishment:

“Lee also failed to make it clear to voters how a Lee presidency would differ from Moon’s… Lee appealed to voters by promising to make his government different from Moon’s but failed to shore up enough support as a result of the many personal controversies he was embroiled in.”

As neither of the candidates and their parties represent the working class, no genuine class-based demands were put forward. Despite the high turnout, there are less illusions in either of the candidates than we have seen in the past, and more voters voted against one or other party. As Hankyoreh observed:

“The fact that the two major parties, the Democratic Party and the People Power Party, did not show any innovation or vision throughout the campaign but instead focused more on mudslinging and division also contributed to the fact that voters did not show up in overwhelming numbers to support to either of them.”

This is an important refutation of the ideas that the victory of the PPP reveals a general and inexorable shift to the right in South Korean society. On the contrary, Lee’s former popularity showed the desire for a genuine alternative, which has been disappointed with his betrayal and the reactionary policies of the DPK. In fact, neither of the two main bourgeois parties are especially popular. There is a vacuum in South Korean politics that has yet to be filled with a genuine working-class alternative.

Worker’s alternative needed

The stark lack of enthusiasm for both parties is reflected in the poll that Channel A conducted on 1 December 2021, where more than 50 percent of respondents indicated that they dislike both Lee Jae-Myung and Yoon Suk-yeol. Earlier in April, a survey conducted by Seoul National University showed that six out of 10 Koreans – more than 58 percent of the population – are in a state of “chronic anger” primarily due to “the immorality and corruption of political parties”.

More tellingly, another survey conducted by Ipsos and the Policy Institute at King’s College London showed that 91 percent of South Koreans consider there to be a conflict between the rich and poor in society.

These figures show that anger against the ruling class and the entire capitalist establishment is oozing from every pore of South Korean society. It is not hard to see why Squid Game, a television show with class struggle as its central theme, could become such a runaway success in the country. Not to mention the major strike that broke out last year, in which many participants dressed up as characters from the show.

Yet in the absence of a genuine class alternative that offers the path of a bold fight back against the capitalist system, this year’s election descended into a choice between two evils. Many workers and youth probably found this to be an extremely difficult choice to make, given that both candidates represent the rotten status quo that can only get worse.

KCTU has to transform its militancy on the industrial front into a struggle on the political front through the establishment of a political party with a mass base image KCTU Official FacebookKCTU has to transform its militancy on the industrial front into a struggle on the political front through the establishment of a political party with a mass base / Image: KCTU, official Facebook

But it cannot be ignored that, in such a political vacuum, a layer of desperate youth could temporarily swing towards reactionary ideas. Surveys showed that PPP’s support among men in their 20s has increased significantly. Whereas in 2017, only 7 percent of men in this age group supported Liberty Korea, the PPP’s predecessor, in 2022 44 percent of them supported the PPP. In the face of a deeply hypocritical liberal government and a rapidly deteriorating living situation, some confused youth will reach in any direction for solutions, including to the right. But the experience of the conservative right in government will soon burst any illusions they may have.

The only force that can puncture the lies, hypocrisy and divisive lies of the ruling class and bring clarity in this situation is the working class. To this end, South Korea’s labour movement holds extraordinary potential.

In recent years, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) grew tremendously through their militant mobilisation during the struggle against the Park government in 2017, and in militant industrial struggles since then. They defiantly launched a nationwide strike action and protest against all of the capitalist political parties last October, despite severe repression from the DPK government. This class independent banner is an excellent start.

The incoming Yoon administration will be a ferocious enforcer of the Chaebols’ interests and will waste no time in launching attacks against the working class. Yoon has never hid this part of the agenda in his campaign, and the DPK, though still having a majority in parliament, will do nothing substantial to stop him. However, in the context of enormous discontent against the existing society, such an attack from the PPP will only produce an angry backlash from the masses, and they will need an organised leadership to win this fight against the capitalist class.

This is why the KCTU has to transform its militancy on the industrial front into a struggle on the political front through the establishment of a political party with a mass base. They are the only mass organisation of the working class that can build a genuine socialist political alternative for the Korean masses. Namely, this means expropriating the Chaebols, expelling US imperialism and establishing a genuine workers’ democracy. If these ideas are not raised in the political front through a mass working class party, then the labour movement still effectively cedes the initiatives to the bourgeois parties that will continue to attack the workers.

The KCTU must draw in an even broader layer of the Korean working class and youth by genuinely championing their class interests. In this process, the unions must strenuously resist all forms of chauvinist division and reaction, answering with a programme of united class struggle to end the hellish conditions of Korean workers.

Though the open, brutal face of the Korean capitalist class has won this election, the Korean working class is far from defeated. To genuinely spread the above ideas among the masses and lead them to victory, a Marxist revolutionary organisation needs to be built. We of the international Marxist Tendency urge any class conscious youth and worker militants to join us in this task. There is no time to waste.