Korea Moves Left – on South Korean social democracy

1 May 2018 – International Workers’ Day 2018

In 2017, Korea gained a new, left-leaning president, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party. In 2018, North and South Korea have been much in the news as the two countries make historic shifts towards a more constructive relationship. On a recent trip to South Korea, Martin O’Neill talks to Seungsoo Cho of the Korean Justice Party about inequality, trade unionism, the competitive society, and the relationship between the two Koreas, North and South.

The Korean Justice Party is a social democratic party, sitting to the left of the governing Democratic Party.  Seungsoo Cho is a former Mayor of Ulsan, an industrial city often described as the Detroit of Korea (and home to Hyundai Motors), and has also twice previously been a member of the Korean National Assembly, also representing Ulsan. He is Chair of the Justice Party in the Ulsan Metropolitan Area, Director of the Institute of Energy and Climate Policy, and is standing again for election to the National Assembly in a by-election for the Ulsan Buk constituency, scheduled for 13 June 2018.

Martin O’Neill: It’s wonderful to be here in Ulsan, and to have the opportunity to speak with you for Renewal. Korea, like Britain, had a General Election in 2017. It would be interesting to know, given that Korea, like Britain, seems to be moving to the left, what is the relationship between your party, the Justice Party, and the Democratic Party that now forms the government? How does the leftist Justice Party see the success of Moon Jae-in in ascending to the Presidency, replacing Park Geun-hye?

Seungsoo Cho: The Justice Party is favourable to Moon’s government, because the Democratic Party is less economically liberal, or neoliberal. But in terms of income inequalities and labour, there have been some slight differences in their attitudes and policies in the past, so there are areas to work on. But basically we are cooperating. 

MO’N: So a cooperative relationship, but what are the areas of difference?

SC: Nuclear power is a difference. Moon’s government is slowly reducing nuclear power; the Justice Party wants an immediate cessation of the use of nuclear power. So the difference is not about the goal but about the speed of change. 

MO’N: What’s the view of the Justice Party with regard to the proposals for a very rapid rise in the minimum wage here in Korea? The minimum wage level, if I’m right, is going to go up significantly. Is that the kind of policy that the Justice Party agrees with? 

SC: The Justice Party demands a sharp increase in the minimum wage, to 10,000 won per hour (about £6.30 or $9.30 per hour), to come immediately. Again the difference between us and the Democratic Party is not with the goal, but with the speed of change.

MO’N: Are there more fundamental differences, then, between the standard-bearers of the Korean left in the Justice Party, and the governing Democratic Party?

SC: There are some fundamental differences, so yes it is not just a matter of speed. It’s a matter of the government system and institutions. The Democratic Party is still relatively market-friendly and business-friendly. Whereas the Justice Party is fundamentally pro-labour, and connected to the trade unions.

MO’N: My next question, then, would be about the labour movement in Korea, and the strength of the trade unions. How are the trade unions doing here? Are they advancing or retreating? And what’s the relationship between the Justice Party and the trade unions?

SC: The power of the labour unions has weakened significantly in recent years. For example, the unionisation rate of organised labourers is less than 10 per cent. The Justice Party, the traditionally pro-labour party, is trying to maintain the traditional corporate relationship with the unions. 

MO’N: Where we are right now, here in Ulsan, would the unionisation rate be higher than that? 

SC: Yes, about 20 per cent of workers around here are unionised.

MO’N: And is that connected to the fact that we’re in a higher-income area, with lots of good jobs?

SC: The higher rate of organised labourers isn’t so much about the higher rate of wages around here. Rather it’s because of several things. First, this was the centre of the labour movement in the late 1980s. Because of the long tradition of unionisation, the workers are more combative. And also there are a few very big businesses around here (such as Hyundai) with large numbers of workers.

MO’N: The current government is talking about a big expansion of the public sector, as well as a rise in the minimum wage. Do you think that Korea needs to shift towards a system with a bigger state sector, creating jobs? Does the economic model need to change, with less focus on exports? What should the Korean economy be moving towards in the next 20 years?

SC:  There is a general consensus emerging, that the ‘mega-business’ style of the Korean economy, dominated by a few big conglomerates, doesn’t work any more. And another thing, the reason why the government needs to intervene in the economy is that the gap between irregular and regular, between temporary and permanent, workers cannot be solved by business alone. So the Justice Party is, in general, in agreement with the current government that the public sector should be expanded, to narrow the gap between those two categories of workers. 

MO’N: One thing that struck me, being at Seoul National University for three days, is the sense that Korea has become an extremely competitive society for young people. Some of the stories about the level of competition to get into good universities, and the lengths to which families will go to try to give their children the chance to go to the best universities, it feels like it’s in some ways become a hyper-competitive society. Is that something that worries you, or is it an established part of the culture?

SC: It is too competitive a society – in education, in jobs. As a result, people have become better off, but they are unhappy, because they are suffering from this fierce competitiveness across all areas of society. 

MO’N: Do you think that can or will change, in years to come?

SC: It should change. Part of the uproar around the impeachment of Park Geun-hye last year was not just against the corrupt former government, but social inequality, and the extreme competitiveness across society. 

MO’N: It’s something that was very striking to me as an outsider. 

SC: The Korean people have been exposed to years of colonialism, war, and American capitalism, and competitiveness was their strategy for survival. In the end, it has become part of the mindset.

MO’N: One thing that many people on the left in Britain would be interested in knowing is what role attitudes toward North Korea have for people on the left in Korea? It surprised me when I learned that there was a faction on the left that was actually quite pro-northern. Could you explain a bit about the different attitudes to the North, and what role they have in creating divisions within the left, and more generally?

SC: There are significant differences in attitude, even inside the left. Living in a divided country, no one is free from the North Korean issue here. Some of the far left groups, like the People’s Party, even deny the legitimacy of the South Korean government. But the moderate part of the left, like the Justice Party, is opposed to that radical line. We insist that the South Korean government has legitimacy, and that we have to pursue social democracy in the South, first. We are strongly opposed to North Korean positions on human rights and on nuclear weapons.

MO’N: Thinking of the Sunshine Policy that was developed in the late 1990s as the basis for engagement with the North, which we could see as similar to Willy Brandt’s ‘Ostpolitik’ of normalised and constructive engagement on the part of West Germany with their Eastern neighbours, does the Justice Party favour a policy of constructive engagement wit the North like that we’re currently seeing under President Moon? 

SC: The Justice Party is very positive about the engagement and dialogue with North Korea, and in that sense there’s no difference between the Justice Party and the People’s Party. On human rights and nuclear weapons we disagree, but here there’s no difference. 

MO’N: And so, a very big question for you: do you think we’ll see the reunification of Korea in our lifetimes? 

SC: Peace, and peaceful coexistence between the two Koreas is more important than reunification, which can only come gradually. The sudden collapse of the North Korean regime or any attempt to force reunification would be disastrous. 

MO’N: I guess that’s what happened in 1989 to the Eastern Bloc in Europe – a sudden collapse of regimes. You think that would be disastrous here?

SC: The collapse of the East German regime was sudden, but the transition was basically peaceful. And the enormous economic power of West Germany could compensate for any detrimental effects. But the sudden collapse of the North Korean regime could not be peaceful, and the South Korean economy is not that strong – not as strong as that of West Germany. And the hatred against the North would still persist – even after the collapse of the regime. 

MO’N: East Germany was also a much smaller population – maybe a fifth of the population of the West. So there are lots of ways the two cases aren’t analogous. One last question; to an outsider, it might seem like the last presidential election was very significant, and represents a shift to the left in Korean society. Is it a time for the left to be optimistic now in Korea? At the moment the Justice Party has only six MPs, so there’s a long way to go – but are there good prospects for advancing in the years ahead?

SC: The presidential election last year was a great moment for Korean society, and we did as a country move to the left. But we still have a long way to go to achieve a Korean society based on fairness and justice, and to overcome social inequalities. We are not that optimistic – nor pessimistic. Within the Justice Party we simply argue that we must make further steps towards a more equal, fair and just society – otherwise American style capitalism, market-friendly, business-friendly, growth-first social system will continue. 

MO’N: That’s a great note on which to end. Thanks for talking to us.

SC: Thank you. I want also to say that I have been reading about Jeremy Corbyn, and it is interesting to learn of the changes in the Labour Party in the UK. For some time, people on the left in Korea were dismayed to see the British Labour Party had got out of its traditional track. Now we are glad to see that you are back to yourselves.

With many thanks to Florence Sutcliffe-Braithwaite; to Jiewuh Song and Byeoung-kyu Kwon for logistics; and to Professor Jong-Sun Ryu for skilful translation.

Renewal send fraternal best wishes to Seungsoo Cho and to the Justice Party for the special election in Ulsan on 13 June!

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