South Korea’s very normalcy is a triumph. The country is rich, democratic and stable — and became that way in record time. Korea suffered under brutal Japanese occupation from 1910 to 1945 and then was flattened by the Korean War in the 1950s. Yet what just a few decades ago was a poor, agrarian society brutalized by conflict is today known for cutting-edge technology and its status as a cultural powerhouse. Even the problems it does have are those of other rich countries — what some might call #firstworldproblems: slow growth, high-income inequality and long working hours.
The horror show to South Korea’s direct north — the Stalinist prison-state of North Korea — only further highlights the extraordinary success of the country.
Yet under the leadership of President Moon Jae-in, the most left-wing leader in the history of South Korea, those achievements are in peril, says Rep. Lee Ju-young, the deputy speaker of the South Korean National Assembly and a member of the opposition Liberty Korea Party. In an interview over lunch, Mr. Lee, who is visiting the United States this week as part of a delegation of his political party, suggested that Mr. Moon is ideologically sympathetic to North Korea and that he is systematically undermining South Korea’s national security and its democratic institutions.
“Since the inauguration of the Moon administration [in 2016], several disconcerting events have taken place,” Mr. Lee says. “The first thing the Moon administration did was take over the press. And once they had the press in their pocket, they attempted to have the judicial sector also come within their control. And once they had the judicial sector, they also put the prosecutors in their pocket.”
South Korea, which lacks the expansive press freedoms guaranteed by the first amendment, has launched a wide-ranging attack on “fake news” with chilling implications for free expression. Under a new law propagated by Mr. Moon’s government, the country’s national police force — the equivalent of the FBI — is charged with investigating and even criminally prosecuting those accused of publishing false information.
Mr. Moon’s administration, keen to improve relations with Kim Jong-un, has also been accused of silencing defectors who testify about the atrocious conditions north of the 38th parallel. One defector turned journalist for Chosun Ilbo, South Korea’s leading newspaper, was barred by the government from covering inter-Korean talks, for instance.
Mr. Moon’s administration has also been “fast tracking” judicial reform, meaning it will not accept amendments to the changes from the opposition parties. And meanwhile, a highly controversial election reform bill, passed without any opposition support, has outraged the opposition. (And occasioned one of the many brawls in the National Assembly that South Korea is famous for.) The bill, which introduces a proportional representation system, will have the effect of reducing the number of seats held by the Liberty Korea Party — the implicit goal of the reform, charges Mr. Lee.
Mr. Lee is scathing about South Korea’s friendly posture toward North Korea, which he said is based not just on a desire for friendly relations on the part of the administration, but a genuine ideological fealty between Mr. Moon and dictator Mr. Kim.
“The Liberty Korea party is furious,” he says. “Our government is not doing anything,” about North Korea’s continued weapons programs, he charges — programs that directly threaten South Korea in a way they do not (as yet) threaten the United States. Even as North Korea has done nothing to earn the world’s trust, Mr. Moon is still desperate to boost relations. He has repeatedly invited Mr. Kim to visit Seoul, for instance.
It has always seemed ironic that Mr. Moon, who cut his teeth as a student activist against South Korea‘s-then military dictatorship, has been accused of undermining democracy at home and supporting North Korea, perhaps the least democratic state on Earth. Shouldn’t Mr. Moon, given his early experiences, be supportive of democratic institutions in office?
Not necessarily, says Rep. Kang Seok-ho, a member of the visiting delegation. Mr. Kang offers an intriguing way to understand Mr. Moon’s ideology: “He did fight against the military dictatorship,” Mr. Kang observes. “However, fighting against the military does not mean he was fighting for democracy. His ideology is really rooted in socialism and Communism. Once you take that into account, I don’t think you can really call him a democratic fighter.”
More than once during our lunch, Mr. Lee suggested that South Korea risked turning into Venezuela. That might seem like hyperbole — Venezuela is defined by breadlines, catastrophic murder rates and dictatorship.
Could South Korea really become anything like that? Well, it was only a few decades ago that Venezuela itself was stable, democratic, and prosperous — the richest country in Latin America, in fact. History does not move in a straight line, and institutions can corrode. Neither ascension or decline are inevitable. The Liberty Korea Party is here with that stark reminder.
• Ethan Epstein is deputy opinion editor of The Washington Times. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org or on Twitter @ethanepstiiiine.
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