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August 8, 2010

Behind the Sabre-Rattling: The Political Situation in South Korea

by Jon Chandler

The Political Situation in South Korea

As North Korea marked the 57th anniversary of the cease-fire that ended fighting in the Korean War with a highly-choreographed stage show praising Kim Jong Il's military genius, South Korea and the United States wrapped up four days of large-scale military drills off the east coast of the peninsula and made plans for more. This ratcheting up of tensions is just the latest in a series of escalations following the sinking of the ROKS Cheonan, a South Korean naval vessel, in disputed waters four months ago.

The Cheonan Incident

Late in the evening of March 26, a mysterious explosion on or near the Cheonan caused it to break in half and sink within a span of about 8 minutes. As a result, 46 sailors - including 10 conscripts - were killed. While the South Korean government has since concluded that it was the result of an attack by a North Korean submarine, the cause of the sinking was not immediately clear. Other credible theories include a collision with a mine left over from the Korean War and an internal explosion caused by the ship running aground in the shallow waters of the area. Also complicating matters is that the sinking happened within 75 miles of joint US-Korean anti-submarine exercises being carried out at the time.

What was clear, however, was the confusion within the South Korean military establishment. Immediately after the incident the ROKS Sokcho, another South Korea warship nearby, fired on what was reported to be an unidentified vessel fleeing the area, for example. It was later revealed that the Sokcho had actually fired at a flock of birds that had been misidentified on its radar screens!

Government Response

Despite the obvious confusion surrounding the incident, President Lee Myung-bak and his conservative Grand National Party soon made moves to make use of the tragedy to further their own agenda. The defining characteristics of the previous two administrations - under former democracy activists Kim Dae-jung and Noh Moo-hyun - were a commitment to a robust domestic atmosphere of political debate and discussion and an attempt at reconciliation with North Korea. Since President Lee's election, the GNP has been persistent in its attempts at reversing both. The Cheonan incident has provided them with the political cover to push those aims further.

Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy" was an attempt, continued by his successor Noh Moo-hyun, to ignore the bad behaviour and provocations of the North Korean regime and instead offer aid and support as inducements to increased good behaviour and cooperation. Although the result was 10 years of relative peace and stability, the GNP was able to stir up and exploit public frustration over the amount of waste and graft involved in the aid to the North. After coming to power in 2008, Lee Myung-bak used the excuse of North Korea's "nuclear ambitions" to suspend any further expansion of relations between the two Koreas. The sinking of the Cheonan gave President Lee the chance to put an end to existing trade links as well.

The other notable achievement gained under President Kim was the cementing of hard-fought political rights gained as a result of the mass democracy movement that forced an end to 30 years of military rule. Here too, President Lee pushed for limitations and reversals. Over the two years that his administration has been in power, strong attempts have been made to limit public assemblies and demonstrations, and riot police have increasingly been used for crowd control of even the smallest and most innocuous of gatherings. The Lee administration has also used lawsuits to put pressure on media outlets and individuals critical of his policies. And now the Cheonan incident has provided the GNP with an easy excuse for further suppression of dissent. A former presidential secretary under Noh Moo-hyun has been sued for libel for criticizing the government's investigation of the sinking, for example, and the government announced that it will also attempt prosecute anyone spreading "groundless rumours" on the internet about the incident.

Public Reaction

The attempt by the GNP to use the Cheonan tragedy for their own political advantage has so far backfired, however. In the past, conservative politicians have been quick to make use of the bukpung, or "northern wind," to whip up national security fears and red-bait liberal and labour candidates in the aftermath of border incidents with the North. This time, however, the South Korean public appears to have rejected the ploy.

With opposition to the Lee administration weak and divided, the local elections held on June 2nd were expected to be an easy win for the ruling party. To push its advantage, the government timed the release of an advance summary of its report on the Cheonan incident to coincide with the start of the election campaign. Instead of the expected rout, however, opposition parties increased their vote-share considerably and picked up a number of key victories, including most significantly wins in Gangwon-do province and Incheon city, both of which border the DMZ with the North and have historically been conservative strongholds.

But attempts by the Democratic Party, the main liberal opposition party, to deflect public opposition into support for their own party have also failed. In the aftermath of the local election results, the DP appealed for unity with the other opposition parties in the July 28th by-elections for the National Assembly. They also combined their progressive front rhetoric with increased attacks on the Democratic Labor Party, the political wing of the Korean Congress of Trade Unions - and the main party the DP were courting! As a result, the seemingly strengthened opposition faired far worse against the GNP in the by-elections than they did in the local elections, losing even "safe" seats to the ruling party. The liberal opposition has since fallen back into factional in-fighting, and it remains to be seen whether the DLP will learn the need for independent class organization or continue down the current Korean nationalist path that has lead to splits within its party and on-again, off-again electoral alliances with the liberals.

And although most of the rest of the world has been quick to accept the conclusions of the South Korean government's report, there is now a growing body of opinion in South Korea - as much as 30% according to recent opinion polls - that the Cheonan sinking wasn't the result of an attack by the North after all. Deep skepticism of the Lee Myung-bak regime and its handling of the report on the sinking has been bolstered by public criticism of the report's findings by an independent group of Russian investigators and by a number of prominent South Korean academics.

Roots of the Conflict

While it is unlikely that the sinking of the Cheonan was the result of a false flag operation -as many conspiracy theorists here would have it - whatever the actual cause, it is clear that both South Korea and the US have cynically used it to push their own policy agendas. For the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration, that has meant renewed attempts to silence domestic opposition. For Obama, the incident has provided the chance to flex some military muscle in the region. While building up tension with North Korea provides a convenient bogey man for the United States, the growing imperialist rivalry with China is far more significant.

At the root of the current conflict in Korea is over a hundred years of imperialist competition and domination. From 1905 to the end of the Second World War, Korea was under a brutal colonial occupation by Japan. After Japan's defeat, imperialist rivalry between the US and its allies on one side and the Soviet Union and China on the other lead to the bloody, inconclusive war that divided North and South Korea. While the military dictatorship set up on the Stalinist model in the North persists, a mass democracy movement tied to industrial action forced an end to the US-backed dictatorship in the South.

With almost 30,000 US troops still permanently stationed in South Korea, however, US imperialist influence remains strong. Whatever the postering that goes on between governments North and South, this is the key fact that remains. Rather than being there to defend South Koreans (or anyone else, for that matter), the US keeps a military presence in the region only to serve its own interests. When these interests are set against those of its imperialist rivals, the end result for Korea is that tensions are kept high and Korea is kept divided.