The New Right: Political Winds in South Korea

Article excerpt

Progressive politicians have dominated South Korean politics for the past half decade. This environment has fostered a more participatory democracy, manifested by the strengthened voice of non-governmental organizations. However, the current government's repeated blunders in everyday issues, such as its failure to harness dangerously increasing real estate prices or its inability to take a strong stance against Japan in the conflict over the Dokdo Islands, have spawned discontent among moderates and conservatives alike. Many young conservatives, however, are also dissatisfied with the traditional conservative party, which is still associated with corruption during the authoritarian rule and economic failure in the late 1990s.

Against this backdrop, self-proclaimed "rational conservatives" have formed an alternative conservative option. Mostly middle-aged academics, these members of the "New Right" are forming non-governmental organizations in order to increase their voice in society and balance Korea's increasingly left-swinging ideological pendulum. The emergence of the New Right has sparked hope for many who are disillusioned by Korea's ideologically polarized politics. However, the New Right in its current state is in danger of degenerating into a transient fad. In order to secure a permanent place in the political spectrum, the New Right must find a voice independent of both traditional conservatives and governing liberals.

The basic ideology of the New Right consists of both traditional opposition to the progressive party and innovative departure from the current conservative party's stance. The most striking differences from the latter are the New Right's emphasis on civil liberties and flexibility concerning humanitarian aid to North Korea. The ideological foundation of the New Right is not democracy but classical liberalism--the promotion of individual freedom in both the civil and economic sectors of society. This ideological premise allows the New Right to oppose the current government's market regulations and to simultaneously embrace an increasingly popular emphasis on civil liberties. Furthermore, these new conservatives' emphasis on human rights has prompted them to stray from the hard-line stance of the traditional conservative party regarding North Korea. While the Grand National Party (GNP), the leading conservative party for decades, still refuses to recognize North Korea, the New Right has agreed to recognize it as a separate country while maintaining a vocal opposition to North Korea's authoritarian regime and gross violations of human rights. They are also more open to the idea of amending the anti-communist National Security Law, as part of their effort to promote civil rights. The New Right's flexibility is an important and positive asset and will be crucial in its struggle to carve out a distinct identity in South Korea's political universe.

On economic and foreign policies, the New Right maintains a more traditional stance that is closer to the views of the mainstream conservative party. Rational conservatives share the belief that the current leftist government's anti-US policies are detrimental to national security and prefer to look West rather than East for strong allies. The New Right, however, does draw a fine line between old and new by professing to have a more open and rational approach. In a Joonang Daily poll of 117 university professors, more than half answered that they considered traditional conservatives to be "blindly in love with America" and, in contrast, they wanted to "strategically use" the country for South Korea's national interest. On the economic front, the New Right believes that there is a national consensus on the need of an open, free economy and that Seoul should work toward integrating itself into the world community. Recent progress toward free trade agreements with the United States was met with applause among all ranks of new conservatives. …