S. Korean liberal, left parties in crisis

Less than a year before the Republic of Korea’s (South Korea) next presidential election, President Roh Moo Hyun, elected in a stinging rebuff to the country’s extreme right, announced Feb. 22 he would quit the ruling Uri Party by the end of February.

Roh, a human rights lawyer, was inaugurated Feb. 25, 2003, after breaking with the then-ruling liberal Democratic Party and forming the small Uri Party. His campaign was based, for the first time, on labor and democratic rights and peace with the state’s northern neighbor, making him South Korea’s first president without a major party base.

The far-right Grand National Party (GNP) impeached Roh on trumped-up charges, leading to the largest demonstrations in South Korean history. Roh was restored to office, and, in the legislative elections that followed, the Uri Party trounced the GNP, taking an absolute majority of the 299-seat National Assembly.

But now the crisis in the Uri Party runs deep. In a 2005 by-election in six electoral districts, Uri failed to win one seat, losing its majority in the Assembly as a result. Several weeks ago, 23 Assembly members defected from the party, leaving Uri with 110 lawmakers compared to 127 from the GNP. Other liberal and left parties, like the Democratic Party and the Democratic Labor Party, make up most of the balance. But the liberal and progressive parties often squabble among themselves.

Now Uri has only a 10 percent approval rating, compared to about 50 percent for the far right.

The GNP is considered the successor to South Korea’s various military dictatorships, including the infamous Park dictatorship. It continues to advocate South Korean subservience to the Bush administration and U.S. foreign policy in general.

Roh’s departure, based on his acknowledgement that his own unpopularity was a hindrance to the party in the next elections, is emblematic of a crisis in Korean liberal and left politics that has been brewing for some time.

One issue the Uri Party was elected on, peace and dialogue with the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea (North Korea), has yielded results. The recent six-party talks have turned out well, and there is an increased agreement in the south that working with — not fighting — the North Korea is the way to peace.

Also, Uri has delivered on its promise of more sovereignty. Under the park dictatorship, the U.S. controlled the South Korean military outright. Currently, the U.S. is allowed to take control of the military only in times of war. But against the wishes of the GNP, South Korea struck a deal with the United States for full control of the South Korea military to be turned over to South Korea in April 2012.

Polls show these developments are in tune with the sentiments of most South Koreans. So, why is Uri failing in the polls?

While the party has democratized the country, making the government more open, this has also led to several embarrassments when the news media picked up the president’s off-the-cuff comments, including his characterization of himself as “incompetent.”

Among other embarrassing moments, Uri chairperson Shin Ginam was forced to resign when it was revealed that his father had worked for Japan during the occupation. This resulted from a campaign the party launched to uncover collaborators and bring them to justice. The party has also been plagued with disunity and bickering. In three years, the party’s leadership changed eight times.

The economy also plays a big role in Uri’s low ratings. Park Hong Kyoo of the Institute of Foreign Affairs and National Security told South Korea’s Yonhap news agency that despite social achievements, the party performed poorly in economic affairs. He cited soaring real estate prices and high unemployment. The labor movement has criticized Uri for turning its back on workers, noting especially the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement.

While there is disagreement within left and center organizations, virtually all progressives, in both the northern and southern halves of the country, have urged the defeat of any GNP presidential candidate in December.