South Korea has lurched to the right after Lee Myung-bak of the Grand National Party was elected president. Many are now worried about the disintegration of friendly ties to the north, serious labor and human rights violations in the south and an increased subordination to the United States.

Lee, a corporate CEO who was inaugurated Feb. 25, has said he wanted to “restore” relations with the U.S., and is attempting to enact laws that have raised fears of a step backwards towards the era of authoritarian rule. Lee also promises chillier relations with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea).

The new president has called for closer cooperation and a stronger military alliance with the U.S. This has been cause for consternation among Koreans, many of whom see the U.S. as an occupying presence and have been happy with the previous administrations adminstration’s attempt to assert a more independent path.

The National Police Agency announced March 15 a plan to build a special police force to suppress illegal demonstrations. Civil rights groups have condemned the proposed force as not unlike the riot police that existed during South Korea’s old military dictatorship, which were later disbanded because of public outrage at the number of people the force killed.

Human rights organizations believe that the proposed special force, if created, will result in violence. There are likely to be many more demonstrations this year than last, especially on labor issues, given that Lee is expected to take a hard line against labor.

“Police data show that illegal, violent demonstrations account for just a small portion of all demonstrations,” Park Rae-gun of the Sarangbang Group for Human Rights told The Hankyoreh, Korea’s largest liberal newspaper. “The government plan is anticipated to cause unnecessary physical confrontations.”

Economic and labor issues are a major concern in South Korea. While statistics show that Lee is out of step with most South Koreans on relations with the U.S. and its military bases and how to handle reunification issues, he was elected overwhelmingly due to unhappiness with the economic policies of the Roh Moo-hyun government. Initially riding into power on a wave of support from labor and progressives, Roh alienated this base, especially labor, with a number of issues, including corruption and incompetence in his administration, but mainly on issues such as the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

“Our society has experienced a rapid polarization of the economy from the neo-liberal policies instituted after 1997,” said the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in a statement. The reason Lee was elected, said the KCTU, was because Roh “wasn’t able to alleviate the polarization that has excluded the socially weak.”

But the Lee government will be far worse, says KCTU, as it promotes policies that have “disappointed the public, such as deregulation regarding corporate activities, relaxing restrictions on the finance industry.” Furthermore, Lee’s government stresses weakening labor laws and pushing privatization of the public sector. By ratifying the Korea-U.S. FTA and promising more free trade agreements, the new leadership will exacerbate the polarization in Korean society.

Lee is considered an authoritarian. One of his more blatant examples is his announcement that a canal will be built across the country. He openly stated that he knows most people are against it, and said that they will change their minds once it is finished.

“Many are concerned that democracy,” concludes KCTU’s statement, “nurtured through a difficult historical process after 1987 is in danger of moving backward.”

Relations with the DPRK, which had been budding over the past two administrations, are also under threat. Lee accused the Roh administration of appeasing North Korea. In reality, Roh had been, with the approval of most Koreans north and south, trying to build up relations between the two states through economic integration. Experts predict that this will be hard to undo, but Lee is likely to try his best.

After attempting to abolish the South Korean Unification Ministry altogether, Lee nominated Nam Joo-hong, known as a hard-line anti-North extremist, to run the ministry. While Nam withdrew after liberals in parliament threatened to block his assignment, this has been seen as indicative of the attitude Lee takes towards the North.

Lee won the election by a large margin—48.7 percent of the vote in a three-way race. But this has more to do with unhappiness with the previous government over economic issues more than any agreement by most South Koreans with Lee. Besides winning a minority of the votes, there was also a low voter turnout by Korean standards.

dmargolis@pww.org

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