[Editorial Note] The article was published on December 26, 2016. It recorded many views within the progressive forces at the time. It is a good article to understand the progressive forces of S. Korea.
In today’s South Korean society, the terms of ‘progressive’ and ‘conservative’ are widely used as a measure of political inclinations of individuals or groups. However, the terms are very subjective and arbitrary because their boundaries and ranges can expand or shrink like rubber bands, depending on the perspective. For example, the Democratic Party(민주당) can be a progressive party from the perspective of the extreme right, but from a different perspective, it is a conservative party. Besides, the Democrats call themselves “centrist party.” The identity of the People’s Party(국민의당) is no different from that of the Democratic Party. According to one’s point of view, a party can sometimes become a progressive party, sometimes a conservative party, or even a centrist party.
Still, it is widely accepted that the ruling Saenuri Party(새누리당) is a conservative party, and the Justice Party(정의당), the fourth party in the National Assembly, a progressive party. Behind this idea there lies a public consensus: while the Saenuri Party represents the interests of big capitalists such as Chaebols(재벌) and far-right conservative forces, the Justice Party represents lower class people such as workers and peasants. From this, one can see that the words “progressive party” and “conservative party” express the social relations between classes which the parties represent. It would be difficult to dispute that the Saenuri Party is a conservative party. However, can we call the Justice Party a progressive party?
The Justice Party: a product of backwardness and a rightward shift
The Justice Party was founded in October 2012 by some social democratic forces and some liberal forces. The former were once members of The Democratic Labor Party of South Korea and had Sim Sang-Jung and Roh Hoe-chan as their representatives. The latter were Cheon Ho-sun, Rhyu Si-min, and co, coming from the previous Roh Moo-hyun government. But this wasn’t the first time that these two forces came together. At the end of 2011, they established the United Progressive Party in the form of a “one roof, three families,” along with nationalist leftists. Let’s take a closer look at the roots of the two forces.
Social democratic forces such as Sim Sang-Jung and Roh Hoe-chan participated in the foundation of the Democratic Labor Party(민주노동당) based on the KCTU along with the labor leaders in 2000. Subsequently, nationalist leftists joined massively, and party members soared. Thus, the Democratic Labor Party became a popular progressive party in 2004 winning as many as 10 seats in the 17th general election. However, the two forces collided fiercely over how to view North Korea and competed with each other for inter-party leadership competition. Nationalist forces took advantage of strong organizational power and the majority in members. Social democratic forces countered them with a “following North(종북)” frame. With this regressive competition going on, the Democratic Labor Party gradually turned rightist.
Then in early 2008. Party reform proposals of the ad hoc committee for settling the presidential election aftermath, of which Sim Sang-Jung was the chief, were rejected by opposition from nationalist forces. Then social democratic forces left the party to form the New Progressive Party(진보신당) a month later. And the nationalists aforementioned stayed in the Democratic Labor Party, dominating the party. As a result, two separate progressive parties came to exist. Meanwhile, other allegedly ‘progressive’ political forces emerged. Some of the so-called ‘pro-Rohs’(친문, who were admirers of the late president Roh Moo-hyun) such as Cheon Ho-sun, Rhyu Si-min were weeded out amid the internal conflicts of the Democratic Party in 2008 and founded the Participation Party(국민참여당). They had been senior members of the Roh Moo-hyun government. So even though it pretended to be a progressive party, it was the party of pro-Rohs who were neoliberals to the core.
But in 2011, ahead of the 19th general election, there was a voice among grassroots calling for the unification of all progressive forces. People were tired of the tyranny of Lee Myung-bak administration. A strange consensus began to be formed between the Democratic Labor Party remnants and the Participation Party, both of whom were calculating their gains and losses in the run-up of the general election. The Democratic Labor Party remnants wanted a partner who could dilute their “following-North” images, and the liberals wanted a partner with some organizational power. Sim Sang-Jung, Roh Hoe-chan, and Social democrats in the New Progressive Party also joined the row. In the end, they agreed upon the so-called “the grand unification of the progressive.”
However, within the New Progressive Party, there were overwhelming voices of opposition to the unification, and then at the extraordinary party congress, the agreement was rejected. After that, the unificationist group led by Roh Hoe-chan, Sim Sang-Jung, and Cho Seung-soo left the New Progressive Party and rushed to organize the Solidarity for New Progressive Unification(새진보통합연대), joining so-called ‘the grand progressive unification(진보대통합)’ again. For their political purposes, they not only dumped the party decision but also kicked the party that they had made by themselves to the curb. It was a typical example of opportunist politics. Also, it was no different from the undemocratic behavior of the nationalists whom they once criticized.
Nationalists and social democrats who had been at odds with each other only a few years ago met again without any processes for reconciliation. They joined hands with pro-Roh remnants to form the United Progressive Party in December 2011. In the process, however, the content of progressive politics has been severely compromised. For example, pro-Roh liberals showed extreme disgust at the term “labor,” which the other two accepted unwillingly. They began the era of full-fledged pseudo progressives, excluding “labor” from the party name. In the 19th general election held the following year, the United Progressive Party(통합진보당) made a deal with the Democratic Unified Party(민주통합당, which was a major liberal party in S. Korea, changed its name as the Democratic party in 2015, and won the presidential election in 2017) on the congress seats to make an electoral ally of the opposition parties and gained 13 seats.
But the uneasy “one roof, three families” situation could never last long. The former Participation Party members such as Ryu Si-min revolted as they had been pushed out of the party leadership after the election. They alleged that nationalists had committed proxy and double votes on the Internet during the inter-party proportional candidate primary. The nationalists countered by accusing the former Participation Party members of committing systematic ballot rigging, such as fraudulent use of IP and setting up a call center. Then, Ryu Si-min, who quickly turned into a patriot, took advantage of the following-North frame to denounce the nationalist forces, interrogating the reason they did not sing the national anthem. “The National Anthem” scandal of Ryu Si-min was an ideological terror against the whole progressive forces who had rejected national rites and instead performed ‘people’s rites’.
As a result of Ryu Si-min’ revolt, “one roof, three families,” ended. From August to September 2012, Ryu Si-min and pro-Roh liberal forces left the United Progressive Party. Social democrats such as Sim Sang-Jung and Roh Hoe-chan, who had already abandoned progressive politics, also followed suit. They soon formed the “meeting for building a new progressive party,” and quickly founded the “Progressive Justice Party(진보정의당)” on October 21 of the same year. It was the birth of a bizarre political party that uses an absurd word of “justice,” which was described as “the advantage of the stronger” in Plato’s The Republic and was used by Chun Doo-hwan, the past dictator of S. Korea. (cf. Sung Doo-Hyun’s “Why S. Korea’s Progressive Forces are In Powerless Situations?”)
Becoming an Opportunist Party
At the time, Ryu Si-min’s “internal whistle” became the food of the far-right media and provided law enforcement officials with a pretext for repression. Eventually, two years later, the United Progressive Party was disbanded by the constitutional court rule. Given the situation, Ryu Si-min’s chauvinistic insanity was far more outrageous than the reckless use of the majority power of nationalists. Therefore, the progressive political forces may well wage a war with Ryu Si-Min and co. For that reason, Sim Sang-Jung and Roh Hoe-chan were also in a position to criticize Ryu Si-min. Instead, they joined hands with Ryu Si-Min. It was no different from the behavior of conservative politicians, who always gather and then split according to their interests.
As the United Progressive Party did, the Progressive Justice Party emerged from the overall degeneration of progressive politics. Thanks to this, two disparate political forces could be thoughtlessly united following their interests without considering what was in common in their standpoints. As a result, the ideas that once they had respectively became burdens. If an idea cannot defeat another idea, there are two options. Break up with each other, or ban the ideas altogether. In this, the Justice Party took the latter option.
The Progressive Justice Party turned rightist very rapidly. For example, at the “2013 Reformative Party Congress of the Progressive Justice Party”, held on July 21, 2013, it changed its name to the Justice Party(정의당). It removed the word “progressive(진보)” at all from the name, just like the members of the “United Progressive Party” removed “labor” from the name of the party. Cheon Ho-sun, who served as a spokesman for the Blue House during the Roh Moo-hyun administration, was elected as the head of the party. It released a statement that “we are to widen the concept of ‘work’ by escaping from old and narrow labor politics focused on trade unions.” It revealed once again its distaste for the labor movements as was when the United Progressive Party had been founded.
The following year, in March 2015, the Justice Party held a third party congress. It adopted a new program that declared a transition from the so-called “ideological progressive politics” to the “realistic progressive politics.” It officially abandoned the ideas, one of the premises of a progressive party. Moreover, its line of “realistic progressive” was reminiscent of the pragmatism that the Lee Myung-bak administration had already sucked and spewed. The Justice Party presented “Political Reforms for Democracy and Strong Party” and “Democratic Reforms of Korean Capitalism.” as its goals and visions. “Strong Party” was paradoxically expressing its weak presence, and “Democratic Reforms of Korean Capitalist”, its surrender to the capitalist system. Their use of language was just the same as that of the conservative parties.
Now the Justice Party changed its ideological position and became an opportunist party. Nevertheless, it did not remove the nametag of the “progressive” on its chest. Furthermore, in November 2015, it increased the size by absorbed “the Solidarity for Labor Politics(노동정치연대),” “the Progressive Gathering+(진보결집+),” and “the National Gathering(국민모임),” etc. And it started anew with a new name of “the United Justice Party(통합정의당),” declaring the slogan of “a reformative progressive party that opens the future of progressive politics.” It appointed to the second-order of the proportional candidate list a national security expert, and persons representing minorities, such as the physically challenged, were in the lower rank of the list. It was far from what was expected of a ‘progressive’ party. All of these were the performance of the opportunists preparing for the 20th general election in 2016.
In the general election phase, the Justice Party proposed the candidate unification of the opposition parties to the Democratic Party and the People’s party. But they declined the proposal. In the twentieth general election, the Justice Party won only six seats, fewer than before. It was actually defeated in the election, given that it was the time when the popular demand for progressive parties was higher than ever with the crisis of capitalism. The Justice Party gave up its progressive character for the seats, but the result was that it lost both.
Showing no presence while people struggled to demand the president’s impeachment
In 2016, the 20th general election resulted in the defeat of the ruling Saenuri Party. But for the progressive political forces, it was a death sentence. This is largely attributed to the fiasco of the Justice Party disguised as progressive. After the election, the Justice Party played no significant role. For example, when the “Megalia Controversy” broke out in July, the party leadership only fanned the controversy, showing a vague attitude. Thanks to this, hundreds of members left the party at once. A progressive party should have led its members to debate intensely on such events, narrowing the gap and seeking common ground. But in an opportunist party with no idea, any serious debates were regarded as bothersome and wasteful.
In November, when the candlelights demanding the resignation of President Park were flaring up, Sim Sang-Jung, the head of the Justice Party, proposed a one-point constitutional amendment to shorten Park Geun-Hye’s term at a press conference. “If the National Assembly’s impeachment procedure is not feasible, we should also consider another national impeachment methods, including the constitutional amendment of the president’s term.” Unfortunately, on the same day, Chung Jin-suk, the parliament leader of the Saenuri Party, also proposed a one-point constitutional amendment at his inter-party meeting. He said that “we can make a new constitution with national consent and adjust the term of President Park Geun-Hye according to the constitution.” However, the proposal of a one-point constitutional amendment disappeared since then, in the face of criticism that it is not suitable in terms of cause or reality.
It was meaningless to evaluate the validity of the one-point constitutional amendment because the impeachment procedure of Park Geun-Hye had already started. However, it wasn’t a mere coincidence that the leader of the self-proclaimed progressive party and the parliament leader of the conservative party proposed the same solution to Park Geun-Hye gate. It plainly showed that the viewpoints of the leadership of the Justice Party, including Sim Sang-Jung, were not very different from those of the Saenuri Party. Thus even though the Justice Party took to the street with candles and cried for Park Geun-Hye’s retirement, its approval rating didn’t much increase compared to the Democratic Party.
Furthermore, during the struggle against Park Geun-Hye, the Justice Party agreed with the Democratic Party and the People’s Party to demand to end the rail workers’ strike. If the Justice Party were a real progressive party, it should not have voiced the same thing as the conservative opposition to the workers’ strike. However, the Justice Party failed to show more than “cooperation of the opposition parties” in everything. It is because they wanted to resemble conservative opposition parties, rather than to be distinguished from them. In this way, it showed an example of the pseudo-progressive and opportunist party.
The Justice Party is not a progressive party. It’s an opportunist party
The Justice Party has no progressive ideas. Without ideas, there cannot be any productive discussions, and without discussions, it is difficult to establish any concerted principles. The logic of authority and power determines everything. Therefore, it is difficult to expect any consistent stance from the Justice Party. Plus, because there aren’t any progressive ideas in the Justice Party, progressive policies cannot exist either. The historical mission pursued by progressive politics is, of course, ignored. Instead, the day-to-day administration of the party is centered solely on elections. The party does show us some pledges for elections, but the actual content of the pledges is not much different from that of conservative opposition parties, and most of them only pander to popular public opinions. As a result, the party revolves around several celebrities rather than policies. The purpose of the party’s work is not the realization of progressive ideas, but maintaining the trivial power that the party currently has. There is no room for resistance or progressive politics for systemic transformation.
Meanwhile, the members of the Justice Party have no conscience. Thus they never feel any regret or remorse on the opportunist behaviors they committed under the disguise of being progressive. No one has seen pro-Roh liberals regret or make an apology for having taken sides with neoliberalism and having brought workers and peasants’ lives to the brink of ruin during the Roh Moo-hyun administration. There is also no conscience in former social democrats such as Sim Sang-Jung and Roh Hoe-chan. They are responsible for the splits and degenerations of progressive politics since the founding of the Democratic Labor Party. They invented the ‘following-North’ frame under the pretext of fighting nationalist tyranny in the party, which became a repressive weapon for the ruling class and the far right. But they have never regretted or apologized for it.
A party with no ideas and no conscience cannot be called a progressive party. Nevertheless, if the Justice party calls itself a progressive party, or there is anyone who calls it a progressive party, it is deceiving the masses and mocking the progressive politics itself. The truth is that the Justice Party is not a progressive party. It is just a typical opportunist party. There is no progressive party in Yeouido right now. Therefore, the progressive party of our era must be built anew by breaking the fetters of capitalism, based on the power of the working class.