Last week was a tough week for Park Geun-hye, when her party lost its majority in the National Assembly. The simplest explanation for this is that historically, ruling parties usually take beatings in mid-term elections, particularly when their own voters don’t show up to vote. The ruling party may poll well in the abstract, but a party that enters an election divided is likely to underperform expectations.
Republicans, take note. And don’t look so smug, Democrats.
Something like this appears to have happened in South Korea this week, but I suspect that economics and quality-of-life issued mattered, too. For decades, South Korea’s economy has been based on a model in which the working classes toiled, sacrificed, and saved to develop its economy into a vibrant and prosperous one. A little research quickly confirms one’s anecdotal observation that Korea’s public policies are still a relic of that era. Obviously, South Korea’s society and economy have changed dramatically since Park Chung-hee was President. Its human development index is now higher than that of France, Finland, or Belgium, yet its average wages are lower, and its disposable income is significantly lower, due to its high cost of living. This, despite the fact that Koreans work more hours than in almost any other OECD country, and despite Korea having one of the OECD’s highest rates of fatal industrial accidents.
As human development rises, people naturally expect more from life. The “Hell Chosun” narrative can sound pathetic and whiney coming from a country that, after all, shares a peninsula with North Korea, but South Koreans who expect more of that thing we like to call work-life balance still have a point. Why, for example, do South Korean companies still expect people to show up to work on Saturdays, especially after staying out late enabling their boss’s drinking habits?
With the probability that the new National Assembly will frustrate Park’s plans for economic and labor “reforms” — and there is no more dangerously misused manipulation in our political lexicon than the word “reform” — Park isn’t going to be able to bust unions and lower trade barriers for the remainder of her time in office. One can reject the repellent political views of some of South Korea’s unions and still believe that as a general matter, unions play an important role in giving workers a voice for better pay and working conditions, things that are very much on the minds of young South Koreans today.
In time, Park may come to see this loss as a gift. Her economic agenda might have been good for South Korea’s economy in the short term, but politically, it would have been a fast drive into a hard wall. Few South Koreans will miss it. Over the long term, ultra-free-market policies also create classes of losers. In this country, they’re currently voting for Donald Trump and Bernie Sanders in droves, ironically threatening to overturn the very principles that made America great. Park’s policies, too, might have been exceedingly controversial going into the next election. Even in the minority, the opposition would have stood a good chance of blocking them and riding their obstructionism to victory in the next election.
Saenuri leaders who haven’t resigned have been holding crisis meetings about the future of their party, and Park has to be wondering whether her legacy will be the Sewol Ferry disaster. It doesn’t have to be so. American presidents — most famously, Richard Nixon, and most recently, Barack Obama — have historically turned outward when hostile congresses frustrated their domestic agendas. Park isn’t going to have a strong legislative legacy, but she can claim one really significant accomplishment — the North Korea human rights law that passed, just in the nick of time. Park should implement that new law as liberally as her country’s canons of construction allow.
Only this year, we saw the first signs that Park had shed her cautious exoskeleton and shown us some spine. She finally began to pupate into a leader, and her leadership on North Korea has been the brightest spot in her generally lackluster popularity. Koreans don’t find Park very likable, but they liked the way Park handled Kim Jong-un last August, and they supported her when she shut down Kaesong, a scam that remained popular years after it had manifestly failed to achieve its stated purposes. It makes good political sense, then, for Park to spend the remainder of her term capitalizing on her strength—her emergence as a national, and global, leader in responding to a rising North Korean threat.
South Korea’s own unilateral sanctions are important to this symbolically and diplomatically, but they will not be the policy that records Park’s destiny in Korean history. Yes, South Korea’s sanctions can help seal the leaks in a global sanctions regime, and enforcing sanctions gives Park the credibility to ask other states to do the same, but South Korea lacks America’s unique financial power. Its unique power is a far greater thing — the power of nationhood and national legitimacy. President Park is the only elected (and therefore, legitimate) leader of the Korean nation, and the South Korean Constitution claims the entire Korean Peninsula as its territory.
Thus, if South Korea marshals its considerable technological talents and finds a way to open communications directly with its citizens north of the Imjin River, North Korea cannot long resist the changes that its downtrodden have steadily advanced, despite the regime’s efforts to stifle them. Forget loudspeakers — Seoul should open south-to-north broadcasting on the medium wave band, and build a string of cell phone towers along the DMZ to open the channels of direct engagement to Koreans north of the DMZ.
Then, Park should do something truly historic. This year, on the August anniversary of Korea’s liberation from colonial rule, Park should address the people of North Korea. She should tell them that they are her countrymen, too. She should tell them in unambiguous terms how Kim Jong-un has squandered their food, their money, and their sweat to support a bloated military, a system that terrorizes them, and an opulent lifestyle for which no more evidence is needed than His Corpulency’s omnipresent moonscape. She should tell them that even as she sanctions his regime to slow his capacity to terrorize Koreans on both sides of the DMZ, she will also do everything in her power to ease their suffering.
One way to do this will be to ease restrictions on remittances sent by the refugee diaspora to their families back inside North Korea. She can ask churches and NGOs to use these family bonds to fund informal clandestine networks inside North Korea to get food, medicine, medical care, and news to those who need it most. She can continue to push the United Nations and its member states to hold North Korea’s leaders accountable for crimes against humanity. She can urge other U.N. member states to freeze the assets that are misspent for weapons and luxury goods, and increase pressure on the regime to accede to humanitarian reforms.
In doing so, Park can become a leader to all Koreans, and begin Korea’s long-overlooked preparations for reunification by rebuilding the broken foundations of North Korea’s civil society. She can give Koreans north of the Imjin River what they’ve never had — the knowledge that a legitimate Korean government has not forgotten them when their need is greatest. Park would also be building a legacy for her own party. After all, although most Asian-American and Latino voters tend to vote Democratic, Cuban-Americans and Vietnamese-Americans still vote Republican. Undoubtedly, this reflects the sense that in their hour of greatest need, the Republicans stood in solidarity with them.
More than ever, one senses that the current trends in North Korea cannot continue for long. Kim Jong-un has demonstrated ineptitude as a leader, both domestically and internationally. He may be gone in two months or five years, but it’s hard to see how his misrule, with its dependence on hard currency from abroad, survives a growing, self-inflicted international isolation for much longer than this. Reunification could be a moment when South Korea absorbs 23 million traumatized, alienated, and restive people. How much better it would be if instead, reunification begins with the hopeful sense among North Koreans that their new government will lead them toward the things that Pyongyang has so long denied them — rice, peace, and freedom.