When South Koreans went to the polls yesterday they registered their unambiguous backing for President Moon’s Democratic Party and the peace process that is a signature policy of his administration. In doing so, they also dealt a devastating blow to the country’s main faction hostile to North Korean diplomacy.
Here’s how one South Korean outlet summed up the results: "In what was considered an opportunity to measure the public support of the Moon Jae-in administration one year into its term, the Democratic Party achieved an enormous victory in the local elections of June 13th, providing even more political flexibility for Moon’s government…. At the same time, the Liberty Korea Party suffered a historically crushing rout that has seen its power wither, leaving it solely with its [traditional strongholds]…as the party appears on the verge of being swept away in a maelstrom of internal discord with members looking for someone to blame for this defeat." (Translation of original Korean by author.)
The Democrats took 14 of the 17 metropolitan districts voted on today, including the city of Busan and Southeast Gyeongsang Province – both former mainstays of the Liberty Party. They also captured 11 of the 12 seats in the National Assembly bi-elections held the same day. The assembly now houses 130 Democratic representatives to 113 from Liberty with the full election coming in 2020.
While these results were largely expected, they represent a stunning fall from grace for the once-dominant political force in South Korea. Harsh as the outcome was for the Liberty Party as a whole, it may be the final death knell for its leader Hong Jun-pyo, who had declared his intention to retire from politics if Liberty failed to take at least six of the major jurisdictions voted on today.
If this truly is the end for the beleaguered conservative leader, it’s to his credit that he went down swinging during a final election rally in Seoul on the eve of the vote, deriding the Singapore summit for failing to deliver any concrete results. It was the kind of rhetoric that – coming from an ostensibly influential South Korean politician – should be music to the ears of the anti-peace American media establishment. But his time is up, and South Koreans have shown that politicians who oppose North Korean diplomacy don’t hold sway in the country any longer.
A Victory for Peace Politics
At 60.2%, this was the largest voter turnout for regional elections since they were first held in 1995 – a fact attributed to the political awakening of younger generations in particular since the fall of impeached ex-president Park Geun-hye (now imprisoned for corruption). The youth movement of Korean politics is not going away and young Koreans have made a clear statement about how they view the current direction of their country and the party leading it.
By overwhelmingly backing the Democrats yet again, South Koreans have issued a stinging indictment against the tactics of the old "national security" right wing (some of whom practically threw tantrums on air while watching the Singapore summit on June 12th). This proves that, in South Korea at least, peace politics is winning politics.
Agents of Their Own Future
As North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un sat with US President Donald Trump in the opening moments of their summit, he stated that it was time for North Korea and the United States to "leave the past behind." South Koreans clearly feel the same way about a right wing that is now past its political expiry date.
With this vote, it becomes clear that the majority of South Koreans are in no way on the fence about the peace process, worried that they were "abandoned" by Trump in Singapore, or "nervous" about the suspension of joint military drills on the North Korean border (as some Western media figures have erroneously opined, often while quoting "experts" from the think tank CSIS, which is heavily funded by the US weapons industry).
South Koreans have used this election to definitively endorse the cooperative North-South movement taking control of Korea’s destiny. A future of peace by Koreans and for Koreans – rather than one of constant crisis and tension – is something they demonstrably desire.
President Moon could only watch from hundreds of miles away as the Singapore summit took place. But with the positive results of this election and the historic Trump-Kim encounter, he can now continue to pursue cooperation with North Korea that is unfettered by the traditional constraints daunting peace politicians in the South. The two Koreas will continue to carve out a new diplomatic path – one that will go through the US for as long as possible, but that can go around it if necessary.
It is on that score that Moon turns the page to the next chapter in his diplomatic journey for peace as he heads to Russia – another "major partner" in the South’s diplomatic mission – to meet President Vladimir Putin on June 21st. This will mark the first visit to Russia by a South Korean president in 19 years, and Moon will go there with domestic political winds squarely at his back.
Stu Smallwood currently works as a Korean-English translator based out of Montreal, Canada. He lived in South Korea for eight years from 2008-2016 and has a (useless) MA in Asian Studies from Sejong University in Seoul. In addition to Antiwar.com, his writing has appeared at Global Research and the Hankyoreh. He can be reached by email at stuartsmallwood[at]gmail.com or through his Twitter handle @stu-smallwood.