Cheonan Incident Korean Politics

A Nation in Denial: On South Korea’s Mid-Terms

I’ve taken a good long while to chew on the results of South Korea’s recent election, and while I’m ready to offer some unscientific speculation about what it didn’t mean, I really wish that I had some good, reliable polling numbers to give me a more concrete idea of what motivated people to vote, and what didn’t. With that said, my main interest in the results (below the fold for the winners) is the media consensus that it was rebuke for President Lee’s hard line toward North Korea after the Cheonan Incident, or, as the BBC put it, “a blow for Mr Lee’s tough stance on North Korea, accused of sinking the Cheonan.”


If that’s true, then this was the most consequential election in South Korea, because it was effectively a referendum for surrender to North Korean terror. America cannot defend a people who are able but not willing to defend themselves. Even more fundamentally, there was no hard line, merely the absence of that comfortable denial to which South Koreans have become so accustomed. This is what Roh Moo Hyun duly delivered when North Korea committed outrages during his presidency, but President Lee Myung Bak is made of sterner and smarter stuff than that. Lee asked for and got an international report of investigation, which confirmed my immediate suspicion that North Korea did it. Armed with this result, Lee lobbied for the oxymoron called the “international community” (or United Nations, take your pick) to restore deterrence and preserve peace. The response was a lot of Chinese obstructionism, denial, and callousness; the predictable bupkes from the U.N.; and not much more from the Obama Administration, at least so far. The only consequences North Korea has suffered, aside from the loss of some trade Kim Jong Il was clearly prepared to sacrifice, was that a few North Korean soldiers must now endure the agony of K-pop on loudspeakers and giant TV screens, though to be fair, I’m sure Amnesty International would denounce this as torture if we played it for Khalid Sheikh Mohammad.

The thing is, I’m not sure that the media have this right. I think they found a simple, easy headline that oversimplifies a slightly different point, which is that Korean voters chose not to fulfill President Lee’s expectation that the Cheonan Incident would propel him to victory at the polls. But there are important differences.

How badly the GNP really did, of course, depends on your expectations. The GNP had expected to win nine of the 16 big races last week. Pre-election polls showed them winning big where they barely won, or barely lost. The GNP obviously thinks it lost; hence the ritualized gesture of the the resignation of its party leader, whom I seem to recall was already a somewhat controversial figure. Of course, up until the Cheonan incident, the GNP was expected to suffer big losses. One analyst said, “Without the Cheonan incident, the opposition party would have won in Seoul as well.” After the incident and President Lee’s initially clumsy but commendably calm handling of it, however, the GNP expected that Korean voters would rally to Lee following a surge of patriotic unity.

It’s safe to say this much: those expectations were misplaced. Here, then, is how I explain this:

1. The people, including many conservatives, don’t like Lee’s megaprojects.

Some politics are local, and that’s especially so when the candidates, after all, are running for mayor and governor, not for President or the National Assembly. The GNP’s losses in central South Korea appear to have had more to do with local issues than international or security issues:

The ruling party was powerless even in North and South Chungcheong provinces and Daejeon, where voters rallied behind the GNP in previous local elections. The GNP’s defeats in those areas clearly reflected the dissatisfaction among Chungcheong residents with the government’s revision of the Sejong city blueprint, which overturned former President Roh Moo-hyun’s plan to create a new administrative capital, creating instead a regional business hub.

Not even conservatives like these grandiose plans. Lee’s intra-party opponent, Park Geun-Hye, opposed the Sejong City plan and sounds tepid on the four rivers project. I understand why. Frankly, both projects sound like money pits and unforced environmental disasters to me. I’m not certain whether this helps explain the loss of the GNP governorship in Incheon which must have hurt.

2. The mid-term effect.

First, here are the partisan voting patterns:

About 48 percent of voters supported candidates from the Democratic Party and two other opposition parties, while 40 percent voted for candidates from Lee’s ruling Grand National Party (GNP), according to the election commission. In midterm elections four years ago, GNP candidates won more than 50 percent of the vote. [WaPo, Blaine Harden]

Note that Democratic Party votes are lumped in here with all other opposition parties. For all we know, a good share of these votes were for the arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party, which actually won the mayoral election in Daejon. This doesn’t tell us all that much.

Mid-term elections tend to draw fewer moderate or “swing” voters. They turn out people who dislike the party that holds most of the power and favor the party in opposition. Swing voters also tend to hold the party in power responsible for whatever isn’t right with the country at the time. We saw this in 2006 and 2008, and we’ll see it again in 2010. In fact, it’s a well established historical trend. Whenever this happens, pundits are fond of calling it a mandate or a referendum, which is often true, but less true than pundits often assume, typically because they (a) favor one party over another, or (b) want the party they favor to behave differently. But an equally important reason why ruling parties lose mid-term elections is that voters loathe a monocracy. They like checks and balances. (Consider this my warning to you not to overestimate the meaning of 2010, other than the fact that voters think the Democrats have too much power and want to trim it back.)

“The public sentiment to check the GNP and keep the balance seemed to have reduced the gap between the ruling and opposition parties,” said Jeong Han-wool, executive director at the East Asia Institute, a Seoul-based research group. “The ship incident seems to have reinforced the existing conservative votes for the ruling party, but was not enough to change the minds of independent and left-leaning voters.” [Washington Post, Blaine Harden]

We saw this same disparity of turnout in the Korean election. “Complacent” supporters of the GNP didn’t turn out in high numbers. More voters — not all of them leftists, I’d guess — responded to opposition calls to keep the GNP’s “monopoly” in check. Said another,

“The opposition DP’s victory in the local elections was a surprise to the market as the last polls had suggested a GNP landslide victory,” said Kwon Young-sun, an analyst at the Japanese investment bank Nomura International. “We interpret this result as Korean voters’ choice for reining in the ruling camp.” [Yonhap]

Leftists, by contrast, twittered off to the polls like disciplined cadres:

Turn-out was at 54.5%, the highest for local polls in 15 years. Large numbers of young people were said to have voted. The BBC’s John Sudworth in Seoul says that perhaps this group, thought to be more liberal in its outlook, chose to register its protest against a conservative president and his tough anti-North Korean stance. [BBC]

Again, some of this is to be expected, but adults on both side of the Pacific ought to be plenty worried about how extreme South Korea’s left really has become.

3. The results weren’t quite as advertised.

By picking up seven seats, the Democratic Party beat expectations, but it’s also important to remember that one of the seats stolen from the GNP was won by Lee Hoi-Chang’s arch-conservative Liberty Forward Party. Two others were won by independent politicians whose affiliations are not yet clear.

4. Anti-Americanism sells better than national security.

Regardless of what drove this election, the lackluster reaction of South Koreans to the murder of 46 of their sailors ought to make Americans much more realistic about how South Koreans see us, and the costly support we lend to their security. In fact, it ought to make them angry. Consider: to this day, the Hankyoreh is still exploiting the deaths of two young South Korean girls killed accidentally by a U.S. Army vehicle in 2002 to stir hate against America. For more than a year after the incident, Americans in Korea were confronted with massive demonstrations, violent attacks on U.S. facilities and military personnel, and ugly displays of anti-American bigotry. It worked; that hatred is what installed Roh Moo Hyun into a misbegotten presidency that even he came top regret, though Roh’s party renewed its lease on power by exploiting it again in 2006 (the Humphreys expansion) and 2008 (the urban myth that was Mad Cow). Whatever can be said of North Korea’s impact on Korean voters, it sure doesn’t sell at the ballot box, or on the streets, like anti-Americanism obviously does.

5. People are in denial.

The sentiment may be easier to understand when you live within range of thousands of artillery tubes and missiles, many of which carry chemical, biological, and thermobaric warheads. My guess is that plenty of South Koreans, for various reasons, are still in denial about the Cheonan Incident. For most of them, I suspect, it’s a passive denial, rooted in their terror of confronting its implications. Denial certainly holds some appeal to these people on an emotional level, though on a rational level, if confronted, they’d mostly concede that North Korea did it. This mostly motivates people to stay home on election day. These are, in a very real sense, the kind of people that terrorism is meant to reach and influence. They may accept the truth of what happened, but they’re scared enough to sell their freedom, one bought peace at a time. How else do you reconcile this election result with pre-election polls that show most Koreans believe North Korea deliberately attacked the Cheonan, or that most South Koreans support sanctions against the North? The most plausible answer is that the poll of potential voters and actual voters are two different things, and polls can’t always measure the complexity of opinion beneath a simple “yes” or “no” answer.

Another guess I’ll advance: These same people probably want Uncle Sam around to make sure it all proceeds gradually enough. Maybe a sense that Uncle Sam won’t always be there will awaken some of them from this denial, but if it doesn’t, there’s nothing Uncle Sam can really do about it. It’s the job of South Korea’s president to lead South Koreans.

6. Stupidity is a persistent thing.

By now, you’re wondering: Is he really saying that everyone who voted for a Democratic Party candidate this year is stupid? Yes, I am. Every last one of them. The DP’s response to the gravest national security crisis in Korean history since 1968 has been a mendacious and unpatriotic blend of conspiracy theories, expedient ankle-biting, and weak-minded counsel against the urgent priority of restoring deterrence. The DP deserved to be punished and marginalized as the lunatic fringe and North Korean puppet it has become, but it wasn’t.

Here, I generally lump the DP with the Korean Left because functionally, I see little difference in their views. The Left’s denial is a different sort from the denial of moderate voters; this is on-the-spot guidance fed to them by their puppetmasters in the Guidance Bureau, and if you think I’ve crossed the line to wacky John Birch Commie conspiracy territory, I’d only ask you to review the evidence of just how extensive North Korea’s network of influence in South Korea really is.

The hard left’s denial isn’t passive, it’s active and strident. This denial, of course, is faith-based, not fact-based. Having concluded either that Kim Jong Il is incapable of such evil or that only President Lee really could be, they defy all of the evidence and cling to an assortment of theories about reefs, the torpedo’s German origin, or (most convenient of all) a joint exercise with the Americans “gone wrong.”

You can’t dismiss this as a vocal lunatic fringe, either. It has the capacity to swing mid-term elections and get millions of people into the streets. And South Korea only just completed a ten-year period when this group held the levers of power in Seoul, propped up Kim Jong Il’s regime with billions in aid, and allowed North Korean spies to run amok in the Blue House, bedding officers for classified documents and cajoling major generals for war plans. But the problem is, ten years from now, the zany lunatic fringe voters will still be voting, and the geriatric conservatives won’t be. This suggests that unless President Lee can bridge this generation gap, demographics will be destiny, and the two Koreas will be in a race toward collapse.

(On a side note, consider: if you were Kim Jong Il and the Reconnaissance Bureau informed you one day that they’d managed to get one of their operatives elected as President of South Korea, what would you do next? Have the new president open the DMZ and let your tanks roll to Yosu? Not a chance. Your emaciated little kingdom has half of South Korea’s population, and surely some parts of the Army would break away and resist. The Americans might intervene. Worst of all, you wouldn’t want your soldiers to get a look at Seoul, would you? Instead, you’d steer your new subordinate toward gradually distancing himself from the Americans, stirring anti-Americanism among southerners, weakening South Korea’s defenses, suppressing criticism of your regime, and keeping you well supplied with cash — no questions asked. All of which sounds a lot like what did happen when Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were in office. I’m just saying.)

What should Lee do about this? One thing he certainly ought not to do is to prosecute people for espousing zany views, which is what some people are calling for now in the case of one such group, called People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy. I obviously can’t prove they’re working for the North Koreans, but it’s telling that their rhetoric is indistinguishable from North Korea’s. But PSPD is only one of these groups. There’s the Hanchongryon, and Korea’s largest labor organization and teachers’ union both show symptoms of having this virus. Certainly not all of these people are knowingly working for the North Koreans. Lee can’t prosecute all of them, nor should he. But he ought to order his police (investigation hasn’t been their strong suit, traditionally) to investigate and prosecute people for actively working for the North Koreans in South Korea. Rather than giving them long show trials and jail terms, the government ought to expose them and their organizations publicly, brand them with the stigma of criminal convictions, remove them positions of influence in schools and unions, and fine them. And one point where I strongly agree with the conservatives is that the South Korean government ought to investigate who is funding these groups. I emphasize: I speak here only of those who knowingly work under the direction of the North Korean government and its agents.

One good piece of news here is that so far, President Lee is at least trying to explain matters to his people:

On Monday, South Korean President Lee Myung-bak renewed calls for a strong response. “If we fail to sternly respond to North Korea’s wrongdoing in cooperation with the international community and build up solid military readiness, a second and third provocation like the Cheonan incident can occur anytime,” he said in a nationally televised speech. [AP, Hyung-Jin Kim]

He has far to go, and there are great obstacles in his way. I wish him luck. His country is worth saving.

Seoul — Oh Se-hoon (incumbent, ruling Grand National Party)
Incheon — Song Young-gil (former lawmaker, main opposition Democratic Party)
Busan — Hur Nam-sik (incumbent, GNP)
Gwangju — Kang Woon-tae (former lawmaker, DP)
Daejeon — Yum Hong-chul (chair professor at the University of North Korean Studies, Liberty Forward Party)
Daegu — Kim Bum-il (incumbent, GNP)
Ulsan — Park Maeng-woo (incumbent, GNP)

Gyeonggi Province — Kim Moon-su (incumbent, GNP)
Gangwon Province — Lee Kwang-jae (former lawmaker, DP)
North Chungcheong Province — Lee Si-jong (former lawmaker, DP)
South Chungcheong Province — An Hee-jung (DP supreme council member, DP)
North Gyeongsang Province — Kim Kwan-yong (incumbent, GNP)
South Gyeongsang Province — Kim Doo-gwan (former minister of government administration and home affairs, independent)
North Jeolla Province — Kim Wan-joo (incumbent, DP)
South Jeolla Province — Park Joon-young (incumbent, DP)
Jeju Province — Woo Keun-min (former Jeju governor, independent)



  1. Brilliant essay, one of your best and most comprehensive ever, Joshua.
    I am in Korea, and the 4 rivers issue was HUGE.
    That said, your analysis could not be more spot on in regard to the SK Left’s attitude toward the DPRK. Of course, these voters would themselves no more foreswear their freedom, franchise, or french fries for actual DPRK governance – to them, that is a comfortable ‘political DMZ’….

    If the sinking of the Cheonan failed to arouse democratic support for a policy of deterrence, then something bigger will. And South Korea has just voted for that very thing.


  2. Not even conservatives like these grandiose plans. Lee’s intra-party opponent, Park Geun-Hye, opposed the Sejong City plan and sounds tepid on the four rivers project.

    Park only opposes Lee’s new “business hub” plan. She supports the old Roh “administrative capital” plan, which if anything was more grandiose. By the same token, most of the Chungcheong voters who turned against the GNP favor the old plan and punished Lee for changing it, not because they’re inherently opposed to the project.


  3. Astute and thought-provoking, as usual.

    A proofreading note — should the word “operates” in your parethetical “side note” be “operatives”?


  4. I think you’re putting far too much emphasis on the Korean public’s interest in North Korea in general (which is very little) and the level of disdain the “Korean left” has for LMB in particular (which is extremely high). I’d also discount quite a bit of your insinuation that the large pockets of the Korean left are puppets of Pyongyang – those are the types of accusations that pushed the left out of caring for North Korean human rights in the first place.

    I’d also vehemently disagree with points 4, 5, and 6, which I’d say are a bit out of left field, especially points 5 and 6. (I’d also point out that points 1,2, and 3 have been widely discussed in the Korean language press)


  5. Interesting analysis. My own thought about the election was that the same young people who marched against American beef went out to vote against the GNP and thereby swung the election. The ones old enough to vote, anyway. Those young people have already shown themselves susceptible to believing outlandish conspiracy theories, so why wouldn’t they readily believe that the South Korean government manufactured the evidence that the North Koreans sank the Cheonan?

    By the way, “he came top regret” should be “he came to regret.”

    Jeffery Hodges

    * * *


  6. The seemingly widespread support the for the Left in Korea probably reflects a widespread distrust of the Right amongst the 30 and 40-somethings in Korea rather than widespread pro-North Korean leanings.

    The distrust of the Right is quite understandable if one grew up during the 25 years of authoritarian military dictatorships of Park and Chun. Back in the 70s and 80s, the South Korean government “cried wolf” far too many times to quiet dissent and hide corruption. The fact that North Korea did indeed pose a real threat and really did truly atrocious things (e.g., assassination attempts on the President, blowing up airliners full of construction workers who were coming home from the Middle East) kept us in line, but each time we were tricked I think most of us kept tally.

    By the 1990s, South Korea had bulked up far too much for North Korea to swallow but the Right wing in South Korea still tried to use the same tricks. They were even more discredited when many of the hardline right-wingers themselves and their children were dodging military conscription. Serving 2+ years in ones twenties is one of the greatest sacrifices the suffering males of South Korea make so there is quite vehement hatred towards chicken hawks and that is exactly what many of the Right wingers in South Korea are perceived to be. There was much press about the fact that the vast majority of MB Lee’s security advisers had managed to avoid conscription.

    President Lee got elected because after 10 years of the Left, South Koreans became tired of perceived incompetence. In spite of, or perhaps because of, the redistribution-ist policies of the Left, Korea’s economy is worse off and the distribution of wealth and income is becoming more skewed. We were willing to put up with some of the corruption again, but many feel the Right has lost its competence.

    I think these trends probably reflect the South Korean political mood more than true support the North. In fact, the problem in South Korea is that people just do not care about the North Koreans at all. When reunification is discussed, people worry about the extra taxes they may have to pay and completely overlook the humanitarian tragedy.

    The current looney Left I believe is likely to vote more to the right as they grow older. It will take some maturing and it is taking some weird turns but I definitely see it happening.


  7. Wait, leftist domination in politics and education eventually produces generations of people incapable and unwilling to defend themselves?

    Also, people who are dismissing Stanton points, have no idea. If you just visit South Korea on the surface you probably will never see any Anti American b/c of typical South Korean hospitality. However work in a multinational corporation in Korea and get into your South Korean coworker’s comfort zone and you can see that Anti Americanism run pretty deep even in the most benign and apolitical South Korean while North Korea is distant concern.

    It felt it was good thing to American of Asian descent and not Caucasian b/c the Anti American protests in Seoul whenever they occurred can be a scary thing. My white colleagues never really felt threatened because of the police presence, but it made them uncomfortable.


  8. Han Kim,

    I agree for the most part, and it should also be noted that the South Korean right hasn’t been any less guilty than the South Korean left in indulging in ultra-nationalism, xenophobia and anti-Americanism (supporting the U.S. military presence along the DMZ doesn’t always translate to an admiration of Americans themselves or American culture).

    Still, I think Joshua is right about the amount of North Korean infiltration in the past decade, and it’s especially telling when the SK left does things like support the Kaesong Industrial Complex out of shallow nationalism despite the horrendous working conditions, low wages and prohibition on organizing.


  9. I hear a lot about behind-the-scenes action in the GNP, and I agree with Han that the party is its own worst enemy.


  10. Great article! Lends more credence to my thoughts that we should pack up and leave Korea. Don’t get me wrong- I love Korea. I married a Korean, I learned the language, and was an exchange student with the Korean Air Force for a year. But the anti-Americanism gets tiring after a while. I even see it among the many Korean AF officers I know. Tellingly, the most pro-American Korean AF officer I’ve met was a former nKAF MiG pilot who defected. On the other hand, there are far more people in the US who are anti-American than in Korea. To be sure, I encountered far more anti-Americanism when I was going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA than I’ve ever experienced in Korea…


  11. There are times when I wish I could pull a Park (Park Chung-Hee) and just take over that woefully ignorant state (S Korea) and make them see that appeasement and blithely listening to the liberal media isn’t exactly the kind of medicine they need. Don’t they realize that they can’t have their cake and eat it, too?

    That country is just going the wrong way. If the people there insist on placing priority on having plastic surgery and injecting themselves with Botox over working towards a better future, than all hope is lost.

    (Yes, I’m Korean American, let’s not have someone come in here and get carried away by calling me a racist bigot)


  12. To be sure, I encountered far more anti-Americanism when I was going to the Defense Language Institute in Monterey, CA than I’ve ever experienced in Korea…

    The attitudes and behaviors of the people of Monterey, California, shouldn’t be generalized to all people living in the US.


  13. While I too worry about many things going on in Korea, I am not that worried about the anti-Americanism.

    I think a large portion of that is explained by sheer stupidity and xenophobia that is far too common all over the world. Even here in liberal and cosmopolitan Northern California there are periodic outbursts against immigrants. It would be less embarrassing if we mowed our own lawns and wrote our own software. Sadly, Korea certainly has its share of xenophobes and bigots.

    Another aspect can be explained by media sensationalism and the opportunities having a large contingent of US soldiers presents to such media. A large population of 20-something single men will always have much stupidity. Anyone who has lived near frat houses in a college town will agree with that. But when it is foreign soldiers doing stupid things, it makes huge targets for sensationalist media. Ham-handed and arrogant statements by the US military, and the usual share of cover-ups and miscarriages of justice never helps the situation. There is more than enough blame to go around.

    I have not spent time in Germany or Japan which have also had large US forces for extended periods but I am guessing that the relationships with locals and the US forces is just as complex as it is in Korea. Some Okinawans certainly seem to want the US bases out.

    There is also an overwhelming amount of positives as well. Koreans embrace much of American culture. The K-pop idol groups feature Korean-American kids amongst their members and a large number of Koreans send their kids to study in the US if they can afford it. Even the Left-wing politicians send their kids to the US to study! While President Roh Moo Hyun was getting under President Bush’s nerves, Roh’s son was getting an MBA at Stanford University.

    On balance, I am far less worried about anti-Americanism breaking out into anything really ugly than the general psychosis that seems to grip South Korea. The rampant materialism reflected in the plastic surgery and Botox craze that Steven Yu wrote about is the worst of the symptoms. I have always felt Korea is in need of a counter-culture movement to rediscover its values. The problem is that the would be Bob Dylan’s and Joan Baez’s are all snatched up by the K-pop idol factories before puberty and turned into robots.



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