Jasmine Lee, the First Non-Ethnic Assembly Member (Part II)

[Part I]

Now, for the second part of Eric's question:

Also, it seems that the Saenuri Party is making a greater effort than other parties to appeal to immigrants to Korea. From a western perspective, this is perplexing as one would expect a progressive party to be more, well, progressive. Could you help to provide some context on this?

Certainly. Given Korea's upcoming presidential election at the end of this year, the Korean will use this question to give a bit of primer about Korean politics, which would help one understand this oddity.

As of today, Korean politics can be divided largely into two camps:  conservatives and progressives. Broadly speaking, Korea's conservatives and progressives generally follow the same direction as the rightist and leftist politics of the United States or Europe. But there are peculiar aspects in Korean politics, owing to Korea's history, that drive Korea's conservatives and progressives into unexpected directions. Thus, to understand Korea's political landscape, one must first understand modern Korean history.

[Full disclosure:  The Korean and his family have been staunchly progressive, so read the rest with that bias in mind.]

Here is a very fast recap of modern Korean history. In 1945, Korea gained independence from Japan at the conclusion of World War II, but was immediately divided into North and South Korea. In 1950, North Korea invaded South Korea; Korean War ended in 1953. From 1953 to 1988 (or 1993, depending on who you ask, which is explained further below,) South Korea went through a series of fascist dictators, who justified their murderous dictatorship by (1) pointing to Korea's miraculous economic rise, and (2) citing the threat of North Korea attempting to invade the south once again. After waves and waves of democratization protests, South Korea's first democratic administration was established in 1988 (or again, 1993, depending on who you ask.) Since then, Korea has had 3 or 4 presidential elections, leading to this point.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.

Let us zoom in a little bit more. To understand the current-day Korean politics, a good starting point is 1979. In 1979, the long-time dictator  Park Chung-Hee was assassinated, ending Park's 16 year rule and giving a faint hope of democracy in Korea. Yet in December 1979, two-star general Chun Doo-Hwan came to power through military coup. In the following year, Chun's army massacred hundreds of democratization protesters in Gwangju, and claimed that the protesters were the militia controlled by North Korea.

By 1986, however, Chun Doo-Hwan capitulated to the waves and waves of democratization protests, and promised to hold a free election. In the presidential election in 1987, there were three major candidates -- Roh Tae-Woo, Kim Young-Sam, and Kim Dae-Jung.

The two Kims were both ambitious champions of democratization struggle, having begun their political careers in very young age. Kim Young-Sam became a National Assembly member at mere 26 years old, and was house-arrested and survived assassination attempts in the course of fighting against the dictatorships of Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan. Kim Dae-Jung likewise began his career young, becoming a National Assembly member as a 37-year-old. Kim Dae-Jung ran for president against Park Chung-Hee in 1970, and remarkably lost by less than a million votes, in an election that was clearly rigged in favor of the incumbent dictator. He would also survive multiple assassination attempts, and had to walk with a cane for the rest of his life.

Tragically for Korea's democracy, the two Kims could not form a unified slate against Roh Tae-Woo, Chun Doo-Hwan's right hand man. The two Kims ended up splitting the votes (each earned approximately 27-28% of the votes,) allowing Roh to win simply by earning 36% of the votes. Although Roh won in an election that was (mostly) fair, democratization activists lamented that the dictator's hand-picked successor ended up continuing the rule.

Yet, as attested by his final vote tally, Roh Tae-Woo administration was a lame duck from the start. In order to break through the weakness, Roh engineered a game-changer: Roh's Democratic Justice Party would merge with two opposition parties, one of which was Unification Democratic Party led by Kim Young-Sam. The result of this "Three Party Merger" was Democratic Freedom Party, which is the precursor to the current-day New Frontier Party. In 1992, on the back of the merged parties, Kim Young-Sam became the president.

In the following election in 1997, Kim Dae-Jung finally got his due and narrowly defeated Kim Young-Sam's successor Lee Hoi-Chang. In 2002, Roh Moo-Hyun, who entered politics along with Kim Young-Sam but left his camp in protest of the three party merger, won the presidential race as Kim Dae-Jung's successor. In 2007, however, Lee Myeong-Bak from the opposition regained the Blue House, and that's where we stand now.

Note what kinds of conflicts would arise in each period of Korea's tumultuous history, and how the conservatives and progressives would be formed along those lines of the conflicts. Korea's conservatives essentially belong to the big umbrella created by the three-party merger. Within it, there is an uneasy coexistence between the beneficiaries of the former dictatorship and former pro-democracy activists who are nonetheless conservative. The leading conservative party of today -- New Frontier Party, or NFP -- is strong in southeastern parts of Korea, as Gyeongsang-do natives Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan prioritized their home region for economic development. Conservatives are pro-United States, the patron state of South Korea even through its dictatorship period. Conservatives are hawkish against North Korea, and usually do not hesitate to accuse the progressives as North Korean fifth column.

Progressives are on the opposite side of those lines. Instead of being a big umbrella, Korea's progressives are more bound by shared political stance of leftist pro-democracy activists. The leading progressive party of today -- Democratic United Party, or DUP -- is strong in southwestern parts of Korea, where memories of Gwangju massacre are still quite fresh. Progressives are ambivalent or suspicious of United States, precisely because it was the patron state that propped up the murderous dictatorships of Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan. Progressives are more engagement-oriented with North Korea, and are suspicious of  the attempts at Red Scare, a favorite tactic by the dictatorships to justify their existence.

Notice how much of the conservative-progressive division is a result of the particulars of Korean history, rather than the policy preferences more regularly seen in other democracies. To be sure, policy preferences along the camp lines do exist in Korea. Like conservatives of many other countries, Korea's conservatives tend to prefer lower taxes and pro-business policies. Like leftists of many other countries, Korea's progressives tend to prefer more active intervention of the government in the market and distributive taxation policies. But these policy preferences are not the only driving purpose of Korea's political camps. Although one could argue that this is true in the politics of all countries, it is worth pointing out that policy preferences of each parties are not set in stone, and can change unexpectedly based on their historical roots as well as the realities of contemporary politics.

And at the time of the National Assembly elections two weeks ago, the political realities dictated that the NFP undergo significant changes. President Lee Myeong-Bak's popularity has cratered, at this point only garnering around 30% approval rating. As a former CEO of Hyundai, Lee's policies were unapologetically pro-business, pro-free trade, anti-labor and anti-distributive policies. The result was a disastrous drop in popularity, and the progressives made significant inroads by arguing -- probably correctly -- that Korea needs to strengthen its social safety net. The strength of this argument crested in October 2011, when the progressives took over the Seoul mayor's seat.

Desperate to regain footing, the conservative party -- known as Grand National Party at the time -- resorted to drastic measures. It changed its name to the New Frontier Party. The NFP's leadership resigned, and a newly formed Emergency Response Committee, comprised mostly of outsiders and fresh faces. The party distanced itself from the president, and co-opted the most popular progressive platforms such as more generous welfare benefits for families with young children and lowered tuition at national colleges.

It is in this context in which Jasmine Lee was recruited into the NFP. As one might have expected, progressives in Korea have been more attuned to the voices of minorities in Korea. But it is also important to note that, at least at the elite level, conservative of Korea do not have a particular aversion to immigration, unlike the conservatives in United States or Europe. In fact, at a high level, there is a bipartisan agreement in Korean politics that continued immigration and multiculturalism are necessary for Korea's future. In this context, recruiting Jasmine Lee was essentially a matter of who moved in first. NFP, being the party more desperate for change, simply happened to take in Lee first.

In fact, even as a card-carrying progressive, the Korean's personal feeling is that it is not a bad result for Lee to be in a conservative party. There is no question that the conservatives are stronger in Korea, and have greater access to various social institutions -- the bureaucracy, religious organizations, media, civic groups, etc. -- to effect real change. Lee's membership in the conservative party would also serve to discourage the growth of the xenophobic, far-right elements that plague the American and European politics. (Although, to be sure, there is ample potential within Korea's the far-left to develop its own version of xenophobic politics.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at askakorean@gmail.com.