Saturday, September 22, 2012

Progressives Love Progress, Right?

As I noted in my last post right here at Destination Pyongyang, this December’s presidential election is shaping up to be a fascinating battle, pitting as it does the rightwing dictator’s daughter Park Geun-hye against democracy activist and former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-in, and both of them against the entrepreneurial, philanthropic founder of AhnLab, Ahn Cheol-soo.

Such a triumvirate does not merely demand that the South Korean citizenry decide who they want to lead their country for the next five years, it also implicitly asks every voter to decide what kind of Republic of Korea they would prefer to live in.

Today, Kyunghyang Shinmun, the smaller of South Korea’s two big leftwing newspapers, threw this question into sharp relief, asking a handful of progressive South Korean figures which of the two leftwing candidates, Moon or Ahn, they would support when the time comes to unify behind a single candidate, something that should happen in early October.

The answer, at least according to author Gong Ji-young, is Moon Jae-in. Gong is a veteran of the democratization fight, a decorated author (a glittering career that includes 2009’s ‘The Crucible/도가니’, the book that was later turned into a stunning film of the same name), and a ‘Power Tweeter’ (aka ‘Power Blogging in 140 characters or less’) with 473,740 followers hanging on her every word.

In her view, Moon Jae-in is “the people’s candidate.”

“When Park Geun-hye was the first lady of a dictator, student Moon Jae-in was a resistance fighter being dragged away by the police,” she points out in the piece. “In the 1980s when Park Geun-hye was living out the Chun Doo-hwan era on her inheritance, Moon Jae-in was living the life of a human rights lawyer.”

“He who can smash the ‘princess leadership’ of Park Geun-hye is not a prince,” she goes on. “It is the power of the workers, in particular the laborers. Therefore, the opposition candidate to Park Geun-hye is not Ahn Cheol-soo, it is Moon Jae-in.”

Her analysis of Park and Ahn is, while polemical and a little overblown, basically sound. Park is indeed the daughter of Park Chung-hee, South Korea’s de facto founding father and poster boy for trampling the human rights of the masses in the pursuit of breakneck economic growth; equally, Moon is indeed a democracy activist turned human rights lawyer, much like his ideological forebear, the late President Roh Moo-hyun.

But what is far harder to understand, what calls into question Gong’s vision of South Korea’s future in toto, is the rationale behind her rejection of Ahn Cheol-soo.

“Ahn’s very biggest weakness is obviously that he is a member of the elite,” she says. “For the opposition to have to worry about choosing Moon or Ahn is fantastic, but Ahn is deep within the elite… a member of the elite’s elite.”

“I know very well how much sincerity Ahn has,” she concedes. “Nevertheless, that is different to going to the prison to actually meet the people at the bottom and the people who are in jail because they don’t have 5,000 won.”

Gong’s sentiment is echoed in the piece by leftwing playwright and director Lee Yun-taek, who notes, “If Ahn Cheol-soo is a man who flies, then Moon Jae-in is a man who walks.”

“Where Ahn Cheol-soo is the son of a rich family and Park Geun-hye is the daughter of a president, so Moon is the man in the ragged school uniform from the urban poor,” he adds.

It is surely true that Moon has a better grasp of those things that really hurt the people on the lowest rungs of society. It is also surely a point in his favor that, as Gong says, “Moon is a man who will listen to anyone, no matter who they are.” 

But by the same token, are the South Korean voters to accept that Moon has never run a company, never exported a car, steel girder or MP3 player when he is standing for the right to lead one of the world’s most advanced export-oriented nations?

I admire Moon Jae-in, and much of me would like him to win. His vision of a more equitable society speaks to the soul of anyone who has one, while his apparent honesty and disinterest in the lure of power is like a shot in the arm for a South Korea (and a Destination Pyongyang) rendered weary by five corrupt years of President Lee Myung-bak.

But for all that, is he the ideal man to run the whole show? And if he is, from whence does his legitimacy stem? South Korea is lucky enough to be home to some of the finest shipbuilders, steel, cars, chemicals and electronics manufacturers on earth. It is a nation that can also lay claim in the best possible way to being Adam Smith and Napolean’s mythical “nation of shopkeepers.” For what reason is "a medical doctor, professor, self-taught computer entrepreneur, and corporate leader" Ahn Cheol-soo not a good person to run such a country, as Gong Ji-young and Lee Yun-taek apparently believe? 

Ahn is a man who is, one can rightly say, "representative of everything mainstream Korea dreams of becoming.” Not only that, he is a progressive with a businessman's mind and a businessman who has succeeded in the cutthroat world of South Korean society while retaining a moral and ethical compass. Can progressive veterans of the 1980s learn to love this man? It's a new challenge, and one that Gong Ji-young is apparently unwilling to take. 


  1. A great article.

    Do you know is there an agreement between Ahn and Moon to avoid splitting the vote and both losing, again?

  2. Not yet. But there really needs to be, eh?