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KOREA: New conservative groups band against Roh, Uri Party

Newspapers are labelling phenomenon "New Right Movement"

The Korea Herald
Tuesday, November 30, 2004

By Kim So Young

Street politics in Korea has been previously dominated by progressives resisting authoritarian governments and calling for radical political and social reforms. But that tradition may change this year because conservatives are breaking out and forming a series of groups, some even taking to the streets, to protest against what they view as President Roh Moo-hyun's leftist policies.

These newly emerging conservative groups argue that Roh and his ruling Uri Party have no interest in reviving the sagging economy and are focused only on pushing through reform legislation that would hamper the democratic and capitalist foundation of the nation.

But, unlike traditional conservatives, they also criticize the right-wing opposition Grand National Party for failing to shed its old and corrupt image and embroiling itself in power struggles and partisan politics.

Against this backdrop, academics, religious leaders and civic activists - self-proclaimed "rational conservatives" - are now rushing to found social organizations with the stated aim of balancing Korea's increasingly left-leaning ideological pendulum.

In the latest such case, a protestant nongovernmental organization and "the Liberty Union," comprising academics in their 40s, both launched campaigns last week, setting out to propose "right" directions for the country's development.

Moderate and conservative lawyers are also preparing to establish a bar association that matches the progressive Minbyun - Lawyers for a Democratic Society - that counted Roh among its members. Lee Seog-yeon, who successfully spearheaded a petition against the government's plan to relocate the country's capital out of Seoul, is scheduled to lead the group. And, more are expected to follow suit in the next months.

Some media have labeled this phenomenon as "the New Right Movement," a term that is now quickly spreading in Korea and to which politicians and experts are paying close attention to see how it will affect the nation's political landscape.

"Over the past few years, progressive groups have taken the political center stage, pushing conservatives to the sidelines accusing them of old and corrupt practices as well as moral inferiority," said political science professor Park Cheol-hee at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security.

"What is most important in the recent phenomenon is that young intellectuals and religious leaders who are not associated with corruption or immorality are stepping forward, vowing to represent the voices of real, rational conservatives."

Political science professor Kim Hyung-joon at Kookmin University said, "Threatened by the Roh administration's unstable state management, conservatives and moderates are joining forces while also drawing a line with traditional right-wingers. And, the groups appear set to fast expand their political power."

What drives conservative groups to unite?

The nation's society is being increasingly turned to the left and causing a sense of crisis that is prompting moderates and conservatives to start raising their voices, political experts say.

"Conservative forces appear to have acknowledged that remaining silent doesn't change the direction where the country is heading for. They used to consider themselves as a 'silent majority', believing most people remain conservatives even though their voices are not heard," Park said.

"But now, conservatives are coming to recognize the silent majority may no longer belong to them, and such recognition seems to be prompting the so-called new right movement."

As Roh, who taught himself to be a lawyer because his farming parents were too poor to send him to college, seeks to tackle social and political inequalities accumulated over the past decades, usually more well-off and elite conservatives have gotten a sense they are being targeted by those in power.

Roh's major policy agenda, such as restricting conglomerates and the printed media and promoting balanced regional development, stems from his hostility toward the conservative establishment and also reflect his intention to shake its foundation, experts believe. Naturally, conservatives fear the beginning of the end of their long domination of the country's political and economic resources during Roh's five-year tenure till late 2007.

"Conservatives are seeking to band together, fearing they will lose the vested rights that they have enjoyed so far," SungKongHoe University political scientist Chung Hae-koo said. "This trend (the new right movement) has emerged because conservatives are feeling a sense of isolation, while the country is going through a transition from a conservative and authoritarian period into a more liberal state."

Kookmin University's Kim Hyung-joon agreed. "Conservative forces are feeling a strong need for active political participation, as they share a sense of crisis since the 2002 presidential election that liberals will replace them as the dominant force of the society if the current situation continues."

Leading the new right movement are relatively younger intellectuals in their late 30s or 40s, different from earlier conservative activists who were mainly from the old generation and affected by the 1950-53 Korean War and the Cold War era.

The Liberty Union, for example, comprises about 60 professors mostly from the 386 generation - people who were in their 30s when the term was coined, attended college in the 1980s, and were born in the 1960s.

With little ties to the old conservative establishment tainted with political corruption, these new right-wingers proclaim they will reject old ideologies, both extreme right and extreme left, and try to heal ideological polarization now gnawing at the country.

"Korea's historic identity of free democracy and market economy is being undermined by the government. We launch this group in order to replace old ideologies and suggest a right path to development," the Liberty Union wrote in its founding declaration.

"We should say goodbye to the current politics where the government indulges in leftist populism and the opposition parties fail to come up with alternatives."

Because new conservatives oppose Roh's reform agenda while drawing a line in the sand with the opposition GNP at the same time, some express the hope that the new right movement will contribute to uniting an ever-more split Korean public.

They also expect the nation's ideological pendulum to find a balance as a growing number of conservatives compete with progressive activists who have formerly dominated public discussions.

"Many Koreans are concerned that radical reformers in the government and the ruling party are swaying national policies and public opinion," said political scientist Yoon Young-o at Kookmin University. "As long as it doesn't hamper social order, it is good for conservatives and liberals to compete fairly by voicing their respective opinions. As progressives have remained more vocal and active to date than their conservative counterparts, I believe the new right movement will help balance the nation."

But many others remain skeptical, suspecting the movement may be just another anti-Roh campaign.

Their criticism is grounded on the fact that these conservative groups seemingly focus more on hitting out at the Roh government for its reform plans, rather than trying to change the right-wing establishment.

Critics also point out that the Liberty Union and other conservative groups share mostly similar opinions with the GNP on the government's reform agenda, such as opposotion to repeal of the National Security Law and proposed legislation to restrict conglomerates, private schools and the conservative printed media.

"It appears that most of recently formed conservative groups, while boasting rational conservatism, are not that different from traditional right-wingers. Traditions of anti-communism during the Cold War era are still visible in the name of liberalism," SungKongHoe University's Jung Hae-gu said.

"Asserting that Roh and his Uri Party are undermining the nation's democracy and market economy, and calling his reform plans ideologically dangerous and divisive, is no different from what the GNP says."

Many experts also suspect the Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-a Ilbo, the nation's two most conservative dailies critical of the government, are intentionally promoting the new right movement to strengthen their case against Roh.

Political commentator Yoo Chang-sun wrote in the liberal Internet newspaper Ohmynews, "Those 'new' rightists say the Roh administration's reform agenda are splitting the nation and shaking the nation's identity. I'm sorry to admit this doesn't sound very new. If they are to become rational conservatives indeed, come up with a new conservative agenda before just attacking 'leftist ideologies or divisive politics' of the liberal government."

Political impact

Although new rightists do not overly support the opposition GNP, there is not denying their views on important pending issues and their criticisms of government policies are almost the same as those of the party. Because of that, political experts say there is no doubt that the emergence of the new rightists will help the GNP significantly.

"Apparently, the GNP has got strong supporters in its fight against the government," Kookmin University political scientist Yoon Young-o said. "New rightists will be a great help when the opposition party is staging an all-out war against the ruling party's push to pass reform legislation with a majority of seats in the National Assembly."

With the emergence of vocal conservatives, the ruling Uri Party may naturally face an increasingly uphill battle to push for its agenda, already fraught with weak public support.

Uri and GNP lawmakers have offered two different assessments of the new right movement, mindful of its potentially differing effect on the ruling and opposition parties.

Uri Party Rep. Lee Hwa-young told The Korea Herald, "The new right groups argue they are pursuing the middle of the road, but are they so different from the GNP? I see the movement simply as an attempt to create a new political force supporting the GNP."

GNP Rep. Hong Jun-pyo is candid about likely advantages the movement is expected to bring to his party. "Progressive leftists are not afraid of attacks from traditional conservatives, knowing their 'corrupt' counterparts are no more appealing to the public. Having emerged as an alternative to traditional conservatives, I think new conservatives will be able to successfully protest against the leftists' propaganda and populist politics."

However, despite all the buzz about the movement's political impact, experts say it is too early to say that the new right movement signals a "Big Bang" in the political arena, such as a reorganization of political parties.

The Chosun Ilbo and the Dong-a Ilbo broached the possibility that moderate conservatives within Uri and moderate reformers in the GNP might join forces to create a new political party with support from new conservatives.

But political scientist Park Cheol-hee at the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security played down the prospect, saying it "went too far."

He said, "At the current stage, it is not even clear whether new conservatives will be incorporated into politics."

Admitting there are signs that conservatives are banding together, Park said some conservative dailies are exaggerating the substance and giving excessive political focus to the groups.

Kookmin University political science professor Yoon Young-o has a similar opinion, saying the new right movement will not affect the current, virtual two-party political system.

"Some newspapers mentioned the possibility of a political reorganization due to the new right movement, but I think it is because they want the new rightists to enter politics," Yoon said. "But the time has gone that lawmakers band together simply according to their ideologies, and it is also an old thought that GNP reformists and Uri conservatives should join up with help from these new conservatives," Yoon said.

Asia Institute