Small Wars Journal

Freedom and Alliance in Jeopardy in South Korea: An Insider’s Testimony

Sun, 02/14/2021 - 5:29pm

Freedom and Alliance in Jeopardy in South Korea:

An Insider’s Testimony

By Inho Lee


We live in a veritable age of misinformation and false news often totally obscuring the true picture of reality.  Nothing shows this more starkly than the coverage South Korea is getting in the press abroad in the recent few years.  Korea was played up as a model country to emulate in its success in coping with the coronavirus pandemic and that success is often assumed to reflect a robust state of democracy, which brings together the Moon Jae-in government and its people. In certain quarters president Moon Jae-in is adulated not only as a democratic leader but also as a staunch champion of peace with North Korea. The Newsweek recently featured an article on progressive women’s organizations in the United States petitioning the Congress to have the American government declare peace with North Korea, seemingly seconding similar efforts being made by president Moon’s governing circle.  Korea’s image as a prosperous soft power seems to stand at a new high.


Many of us living in Korea under the full impact of the radical reforms instituted since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in government almost four years ago, after the so-called candlelight revolution resulting in the impeachment of president Park Geun-hye, do not know whether to cry or laugh hearing the praise heaped upon their country. There definitely is a high degree of truth to what is being said about Korea’s notable achievements. The worldwide acclaim given to such Korean phenomena as the K-Pop group BTS and the Oscar winning movie “Parasite’’ or the catchy dance song ‘‘Gangnam Style” by PSY a few years ago and the Samsung smart phones, is well deserved.  They genuinely reflect the tremendous success the Koreans as a nation have accomplished as an economic as well as cultural entity.  Korea, until the end of last November seemed notably successful in dealing with the Covid-19 pandemic situation.  Can all these success stories, however, be attributed to the politics of quasi-socialist populism pursued by the Moon government in the last three-plus years?  Will Korea continue to develop as a free and democratic country and reliable ally of the United States?


The answer, unfortunately, is a resounding no.  Many people in Korea, not just the generations with vivid memories of the Korean War, now live in fear and trepidation that the days of freedom and prosperity in Korea are numbered and the continued existence of the Republic of Korea as an independent nation is threatened. Such pessimism started to grip the society long before the onset of the coronavirus pandemic. Even a foreigner, General Berwell B Bell, a former Commander of  U.S. Forces Korea (USFK), the ROK/U.S. Combined Forces Command (CFC), and the  United Nations Command (UNC), recently sent to the Voice of America a letter of warning  pointing out how the transfer of the war-time command to the Korean side, assiduously sought by the Moon government, would greatly undermine the significance of the Korea-U.S. military alliance and expose the Korean people  to the danger of being unable to defend themselves if attacked by the  North Korean forces backed by their own nuclear weapons and their long-time allies China and Russia.             


 The latest political developments in Korea only fortifies the fear and suspicion the more conservative sector of the population had early on about the political and ideological direction in which the new government was leading the country. During the last weeks of 2020,  Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea, dominating the National Assembly by a three fifth majority, rammed through a whole bundle of new laws in the face of  frontal resistance from not only the inept opposition party but the concerned public at large   One new law stipulates that anyone making any remark considered derogatory to the honor of the participants of the Kwangju uprising of 1980 is liable to a fine of up to ₩50 million (roughly $50,000) or up to 5 years of imprisonment.  A wide-spread understanding of the Kwangju uprising, now officially enshrined as the “518 Democracy Movement,” is that North Korea’s underground instigation and intervention exacerbated what had started out to be a pro-Kim Dae-jung student demonstration during the power vacuum created after the assassination of President Park Chung-hi.  The second notable enactment concerns the launching of an investigative agency under the direct control of the President. Called “Gongsoocheo,” or the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO) , it will have an exclusive and irrevocable right to investigate and prosecute any charges brought against any government official  above a certain rank.  Judges and military generals will be no exception.  A third law deprives the National Intelligence Service (NIS) the right to conduct any search concerning pro-communist activities while still another criminalizes sending of information balloons and other items to North Korea. It is this last piece of legislation which triggered the attempt by the U.S. Congress to look into the violations of the human rights situation in South Korea, but that is touching only a tip of the iceberg.


  Now no North Korean or Chinese communist agent operating in South Korea needs to be worried about being caught and prosecuted while South Koreans cannot freely talk about their own history or events they themselves witnessed. Given the highly partisan character of Korea’s presidential system, no public servant will dare to raise questions, let alone objections, to anything the President and his ruling entourage do, unless he or she is prepared to risk not only a career, but possibly his or her own life.  The next remaining coup de grace to the Republic of Korea as a free democracy would be, many began to fear, the removal of the National Security Law.  Together with these aforementioned new laws, the National Assembly also enacted several measures designed to take away what remained of the employers’ rights of decision-making and other economic freedoms essential for maintaining the free market system to which Koreans have become accustomed.


 While these legislative acts taking away some basic constitutional rights were proceeding, two exceptionally courageous individuals, the Director General of Audit and Inspection, Choe Jae-hyung, and Attorney General Yoon Seok-youl were engaged in a deadly struggle to resist president Moon’s attempt to dismantle Korea’s nuclear reactor program and decimate the prosecutorial system which tried to probe into crimes associated with the president’s inner circle. A handful of young judges followed suit lighting new hopes. That, however, did not deter the ruling party from impeaching a judge, charged with having exercised undue influence on a judgement affecting the ousted president but found innocent by the court. This was a gross violation of the principle of separation of powers and unprecedented even in Korea. Furthermore, this happened only two days after the country was shocked to discover a secret government document file which revealed that while president Moon was pushing the policy of swiftly dismantling the nuclear energy system of the country, the government was planning to build a nuclear reactor for North Korea, possibly using some of the material from a south Korean reactor hastily dismantled by a presidential order.


                This is the current state of Moon Jae-in’s populist democracy in South Korea.  Two former Presidents, a former Chief Justice, three of the country’s former NIS chiefs, and countless other high-ranking officers of the former administration were imprisoned or harassed on various charges of misdemeanor or corruption soon after the launching of the Moon government.  In January this year, the ousted president drew a final sentence of 22 years of imprisonment with a fine and indemnity payment amounting to over twenty million dollars on highly disputable ground.  What Moon Jae-in and his covertly anti-American, openly anti-Japanese, pro-Chinese, and pro-North Korean regime has done is nothing less than a systematic attack on the liberal democratic governance so painstakingly built up over the past seventy years.  Besides those who have faced various forms of persecution because of their association with previous presidential administrations, many others suffered because they dared openly to criticize or caricature Moon’s politics of populism and provided leadership to the increasingly vociferous anti-Moon demonstrations.  One prominent leader of the anti-Moon rallies, a Protestant  minister named Chun Kwang-hoon, was at first harassed with a  charge of having caused massive coronavirus infection and then was imprisoned along with many other anti-Moon dissidents on minor violation of rules on mass meetings.


Not by coincidence, the country has witnessed over thirty unexplained and under-investigated suicides among prominent personages on both sides of the political divide since the inauguration of the Moon government. The most notorious cases involved a current opposition, but former ally politician Roh Hoe-chan, who supposedly threw himself out of the window at his mother’s apartment on the morning after his return home from an official group visit to the United States.  No autopsy was allowed, even though it was before the onset of the virus pandemic.  Another, even more sinister case was the disappearance of the powerful, long-time Lord Mayor of the Metropolitan City of Seoul who also was a presidential hopeful and political challenge to the Moon camp. Mayor Park Won-soon was found dead at a mountain ridge near the city and the explanation given by the police was that he killed himself, implicitly because of a sexual harassment charge brought against him.  No explanation was given as to how he died, and no picture was shown of the state in which his body was discovered.  The whole mysterious incident was covered up with a hurried official funeral of honor. Many killed themselves because they felt their honor violated by false accusations or were driven to choose between honor and life when pressured to give testimonies incriminating some powerful personages.


Moon Jae-in said at his inauguration that he would create a country no one had experienced before.  Here, he certainly lived up to his words, if not the positive meaning the naively wishful voting public had attached to those words. When he came up with the slogan, “peace at any cost,” the whole world seemed to welcome it, except those of us who still had horrid memories of the Korean War.  Moon and his close circle, unrepentant advocates of the juche ideology of Kim Il-sung at heart, if not in appearance yet, tried their best to persuade President Trump to believe that Kim Jong-un was ready to give up his nuclear program as though “denuclearization of the Korean peninsula” Kim talks about and “denuclearization of North Korea” Trump and the United Nations aim at, were one and the same thing.  In the eyes of those who truly understood the situation, there was an outright and worrisome deception from the start in Moon’s presentation of himself as a broker between North Korea and the United States.  Taking advantage of the so-called peace accord reached with North Korea’s military leaders in September 2018, Moon promptly established No Fly Zones, which placed a limit on reconnaissance capability, negatively impacted training, and halted the South Korean Navy and the Marines from live fire exercises in parts of the West Sea.  North Korea only strengthened both its conventional and nuclear arms directed at South Korea.  Again in the name of peace with North Korea, the Moon government stealthily violated the UN sanctions against North Korea and steadily complied with North Korea’s various demands, deceiving the eyes of Korean taxpayers and the world at large.  When Moon greeted the North Korean crowd standing next to North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, he called himself the “President of the southern side,” instead of  the “President of the Republic of Korea.”  It went unnoticed although it was a clear breach of the  ROK constitution, which stipulates the entire Korean peninsula as a territory belonging to the Republic of Korea.


 President Moon’s rejection of the historical origin and constitutional legitimacy of the country of which he was assuming the supreme power and responsibility was clear even before he became the president to anyone who had a clear knowledge of Korea’s tragic contemporary history as a forcibly divided nation.  Moon flatly denied that the Republic of Korea was an independent state launched on August 15, 1945 on a liberal democratic platform with the blessings of the United Nations and assistance of the United States.  Until that moment, America ran an occupational military government after the defeat and ouster of the Japanese from Korea in August 1945, just as the Soviet Union was reigning over the northern half of Korea. Moon, even after becoming the President of the Republic of Korea, for a while touted 1919 as the birth year of Korea until he ran into a roadblock when North Korea celebrated September 9, 1948 as its birth date.


            As a person old enough to have lived through all these historical moments and also as a specialist in Russian history, I could see early on that Moon Jae-in and his cohorts, the so called “progressives” and members of the “Democracy Together” Party (literal translation of the ruling party) in Korea, were no liberals in the normal American sense of the term, but really latter day Leninists under the guise of “progressive” fighters for democracy determined to make a clean break with the liberal democratic system established in  Korea in close alliance with the United States.  One-time enemy Japan also had become a friendly and helpful neighbor, especially since the time of President Kim Dae-jung.  The Democratic Party under Moon’s guidance was different from what it had been even under the long-time opposition leader, Kim Dae-jung. Under Kim, the “Democratic Party” was a leftist, progressive, long-time opposition party, but not anti-ROK and pro-DPRK. I was a Korean Ambassador to the Russian Federation appointed by President Kim Dae-jung and I should know. That is why I perceived the sinister meaning of the term “candlelight revolution” when it came in 2016-17, and in a paper written in the summer of 2018, argued that the assumption of power by President Moon could be likened to a “high-jacking” of the country, not a transition to a higher and more mature stage of democracy in Korea.  The only catch was that the hijacker had been welcomed into the pilot’s seat by 41% of the passengers sincerely believing that the smiling man would do a better job than the serious but uncommunicative woman pilot.  It was only after take-off that the passengers realized that the plane was moving in a strange direction, but now in mid-air, with several bodyguards of the new pilot monopolizing the only arms allowed on board, the worrisome passengers are too scared or resigned to speak up and rise in protest.  The air in the cabin begins to reek of totalitarianism while the world outside watches the plane unawares.


The similarity between the manner in which Moon and his circle of former fighters for “democracy” in Korea took power, and Lenin’s way of seizing power in October 1917 and consolidating it afterwards, is quite striking.  Lenin, like Moon, seized power not in the name of communism, but the Soviets, councils of the workers’, soldiers’, and peasants’ deputies, presumably organs of the only true, grass-roots democracy. He and his Bolsheviks even pretended to go along with the plan to elect a constitutional assembly to determine in a democratic manner which way the country was to go. When the Bolsheviks, however, found themselves to be only a small minority in it, Lenin thought nothing of using the Soviets to disperse the assembly by force.  Then under the cover of “soviet democracy,” Lenin earned the time to consolidate, without any overt opposition from other revolutionary groups, his own power by filling every important public post by his Bolshevik followers.  It was only after the personnel base for one-party dictatorship was firmly established that the Bolsheviks started openly to use the name Communist or Bolshevik.


  The Moon government has been following exactly the same playbook. The past three-plus years were a period in which the ground for a para-communist, anti-American, pro-Chinese one party dictatorship was gradually but firmly established with the ruling party now controlling three-fifth majority in the National Assembly. Both the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court are filled almost exclusively with President Moon’s appointees, all recruited from certain specific circles with strongly pro-North, anti-American orientation. Free press had come to an end even before when the government forced out the boards and presidents of the central television media, KBS and MBC, and started to harass even the social media unfriendly to the government. 


Amazingly enough, all this was done through a legal and democratic process of garnering wide popular support, just as Hitler had done.  Any and every means at the government’s disposal, short of an overt display of brute force, was mobilized.  The national debt skyrocketed, although taxes imposed on the tax-paying population, representing only about 60 percent of the population, rose so suddenly and so sharply that many small and middle-sized businesses went bankrupt and many owners were driven to suicide.  That, however, did not stop the government from announcing a plan to dole out to every household in the country “disaster relief” money amounting to $300 or $400 per person just as the National Assembly election approached in April 2020.  There lay one of the secrets explaining how a government could secure an unheard-of absolute majority in a mid-term National Assembly election on top of the wide-spread suspicion that a massive fraud in the process of vote counting occurred with active connivance of the Chinese responsible for the computers used in the counting.  Due to the spread of the coronavirus, election days were stretched over four days instead of the normal two, and the early votes showed a uniform pattern and ratio in favoring the ruling party candidates.


            The coronavirus in a peculiar way played into the hands of the Moon government.  At first, Korea was hit hard by the virus coming from Wuhan and the government’s refusal to close the door to persons coming from China in spite of strong requests from the medical experts.  The government party’s think tank, headed by Yang Jung-cheol, known to be Moon’s double and their kingmaker, had in the summer of the previous year signed a policy coordination agreement with the Central Party School of the Communist Party of China.  It was only when China closed its doors to Korea that Moon’s government shut the door to persons coming from China. Since that time, Korea started scoring rapid success in virus control, thanks to the experience accumulated by its dedicated medical profession while dealing with the prior SARS and MERS epidemics. The excellent medical insurance system set up by previous governments, the internet system, and ubiquitous cellphones made it possible to trace  every person suspected of having had contact with an infectant. However, this same capability and the population’s readiness to cooperate with the virus control effort, no matter the cost, gave the government the excuse to trace every person’s movements and stamp out any attempt to congregate in order to lodge complaint or opposition to  the government. 


The government was more interested in building up the image of the Moon government doing a good job  than in obtaining the best possible  result in human terms. As both the corona-related death and infection rate started to soar at the end of November, it was  revealed by an irate city mayor that  the Moon Jae-in government spent an unheard of sum of  about $120 million  in publicizing  its success in coronavirus control but, ironically and tragically, the Korean government has yet to secure any vaccine at all for its desperate citizens. It will probably be in the autumn of the coming year that most Koreans will be vaccinated.  This is but one instance of the government deluding the public both in Korea and outside with success stories, but failing to deliver the goods when called out.  Not surprisingly, President Moon’s popularity, together with that of the governing party, is plummeting, in spite of all the efforts to control any information adverse to its political image, sparing no means in retaliating against anyone who dares to challenge its monopoly of power.


       In fact, long before the onset of the pandemic, the Moon government started to draw strong, nation-wide protests on account of its radical measures, such as the sudden and hurried decision to dismantle the nation’s highly successful nuclear energy program and the so-called income-led growth policy of a sudden and sharp raising of the minimum wage and mandatory cutting down of working hours.  On top of the former government leaders being harassed under the vague pretext of “cleansing of all evils”, the heads of practically every major conglomerate were charged with all sorts of crimes and were forced to spend money and time in fighting for their life, not on economic but on political grounds.  Major pillars of the republic were all simultaneously under attack.  The vital engines of Korea’s phenomenal economic growth had to slow down as businesspeople, big and small, had to face not only competition from the outside, but attack from their own government.  Empty shops began to appear even before the pandemic.  Now the Moon government can conveniently blame all the foreseeable negative effect on the coronavirus pandemic, whereas an astute British observer and analyst of Korean politics had said as early as the summer of 2019 that Moon had to be either a communist or a rare President set out to destroy his own country. 


  What Moon and his ruling circle did since his assumption of power  was all to be expected by persons, who like me, knew from the beginning the ideological orientation and true political intent of that particular group--they had been systematically trained in their youthful days to worship Kim Il-sung and his heirs as the true carriers of Korea’s spirit of independence and moral legitimacy unlike their southern counterparts. The southerners, according to them, had become lackeys of American or Japanese imperialism.  Moon and his entourage, known as “progressives” or “NL” (National Liberationists) in public, had received rigorous training in the revolutionary tactics and hegemony theories of communist practitioners and theoreticians, such as Lenin and Gramsci . They also had accumulated practical experience in propaganda and agitation as would-be long-time fighters for democracy in Korea, who had worked behind the back of not only the government but the naive public.  That was how Moon Jae-in and his supporters were able to turn a minor scandal involving the woman president’s personal assistant  into a major political stage-set on which the incumbent President could be impeached without even a chance to receive a proper trial, and catapult themselves into supreme power.


President Park Geun-hye had many shortcomings as President.  The most serious perhaps was her mistrust of people and the resulting inability to communicate openly with politically experienced persons, even the most devoted of her supporters. That had the effect of alienating some of her strongest allies.  No one could dispute her devotion to the country and its anticommunist, liberal democratic cause.  If any politician could be free of personal greed, it was she.  In order to avoid any possible suspicion of nepotism, after becoming the President, she even cut herself off from her only sister, brother, and a beloved nephew, the only second-generation offspring of her murdered parents, President Park Chung Hi and Madame Yuk Young-su.  Such moral fastidiousness and steadfast devotion to the country, however, proved to be her undoing.  The woman, who had been called the “queen of elections” and enjoyed world-wide popularity and esteem after becoming the first woman president of the Republic of Korea, was suddenly depicted and excoriated in the leftist Korean press, with the world press following suit, as a person who was incapable of functioning as president without relying upon the prodding of a Rasputin-like figure. That commonplace woman, named Choi Soon-sil, even dictated presidential speeches, it was alleged on the basis of evidence which later turned out to be a forgery. The Korean people, who had prided themselves for having succeeded in democratizing the country through peaceful transition of power, suddenly felt justified in staging a revolution, the so-called “candlelight revolution,” jettisoning the hard-won recent tradition of peaceful transfer of power through an orderly election.


To those Koreans who had kept cool in the midst of the media-led frenzy, the “candlelight revolution,” a popular outcry followed by a hasty impeachment vote by the National Assembly and the Constitutional Court ruling in favor of that vote under immense popular pressure, all happening in a matter of five months, was nothing less than an act of treason designed to overturn the Republic of Korea as a liberal democratic country.  Unpopular or suspicious measures undertaken by the Moon government were not policy errors, as most puzzled citizens and even seasoned politicians in Korea and elsewhere seemed to  think. Those were measures carefully designed to deceive the unsuspecting public both within and outside Korea and attain their ultimate objective of bringing about unification of the two Koreas under the umbrella of nuclear-armed North Korea, meeting the least possible resistance from the would-be victims, preferably before they are even aware of what was happening to them.  Jettisoning, not strengthening, the Korean-American alliance as a step toward removal of the American troops from Korea was the hidden objective behind all the peace talks enunciated by Moon.  Likewise, weakening, not strengthening, South Korea’s competitive edge vis-a-vis North Korea, not only in defense capability, but also in economic stature and standard of living, is the goal.  Characteristically, the Minister of Unification spoke of the need to supply North Korea with the coronavirus vaccine, when, as it turned out, the Moon government has yet to secure a single dose of safe vaccine for its people, in spite of all its vaunted success in dealing with the pandemic.


What surprised those of us Koreans, who feared for a totally unconscionable but quite  likely and imminent demise of the Republic of Korea as a democratic republic, but were too astounded and frightened even to speak out, was not so much what the Moon government was doing as the gullibility shown by  both the Korean and American community of experts and other opinion-makers on one hand, and the Trump administration on the other.  A formal declaration of “peace” between North Korea and the United States, so eagerly promoted by President Moon and his lieutenants, would bring out massive demonstrations, encouraged by the governments on both sides of the South-North divide, clamoring for an immediate withdrawal of American forces in the interest of Korea for and by themselves.  The crisis was narrowly averted in 2018, we thought in Korea, only thanks to the radical worsening of the American relationship with China.  It is disconcerting that the Moon government and his party are continuing to lobby the United States for an “end of war” and “peace” declaration.


Another surprise was the brazen manner in which the Moon government revealed its moral bankruptcy and opportunism to the Korean public.  At first, the word “candlelight” had such an aura that no one could possibly raise any question concerning anything the new government did, no matter how astounding it might be.  Overtly destructive “reform” measures were instituted, of course, to the chorus of major media such as the KBS and MBC, securely in the government’s hand since the inception of Moon’s program of “cleansing of all accumulated evils.” However, no matter how skillful the new government was in stage-managing their program of destruction, their double-speak, moral laxity, and political arrogance were so patent that the public could not but wake up to the reality of the tragic situation. Unfortunately, however, we Koreans were already caught in what might be called a “no exit” situation by the end of Moon’s second year of presidency. 


A critical turning-point in the popular perception of the Moon government came when, in the summer of 2019, the President insisted on appointing as Minister of Justice a former law professor at Seoul National University  and his then-Blue House counsel in charge of civil affairs. Cho, a typical Gangnam bourgeois, had been a member of the pro-North underground circle “Socialist Labor Union,” with no indication of recanting it.  The president, unrelenting,  appointing him as the Minister of Justice in spite of the fact that various moral and legal  charges had been brought against him and his wife, such as  abuse of political influence in election matters, financial embezzlement, and the forging of documents to facilitate admission of their children to better schools.  That was when Attorney General Yoon Suk-youl, Moon’s own appointee, began to rebel and went on with his investigation of Cho’s affairs. A massive anti-Moon demonstration, on a scale comparable to, or even larger than, the candlelight demonstrations three years before, took place on October 3, 2019, Korea’s Foundation Day, and continued thereafter. Curiously enough, little of these critical developments won coverage in international media, let alone the government-dominated Korean media.  The Korean public began to wake up largely thanks to YouTube and other social media and a couple of stalwart conservative newspapers such as the Chosun and Munhwa Daily News. Anti-government demonstrations continued and President Moon finally let go the heavily tainted Cho as Minister of Justice.  That did not mean that Moon was giving up his attempt to define the concept of “justice” on his own.  Cho’s successor, a woman named Choo Mi-ae, herself heavily tainted, would continue the fight to get rid of the disobedient Attorney General no matter what moral or political cost.


Even more significant than the revolt spearheaded by the Attorney General Yoon is the mass alienation of those who had supported Moon with high expectations and helped him secure the supreme power.  Among the erstwhile supporters of the Moon force who turned critical were some political scientists and columnists of renown in Korea, such as Professor Choi Jang-jip of Korea University and Yoon Pyong-joong of Hanshin University.  They started issuing a warning that the government manned (almost exclusively) by a specific faction of the former democracy activists is exhibiting dangers of turning totalitarian.  Especially notable is the case of Professor Jin Joong-kwon.  Jin had been notorious for his acerbic tongue in criticizing the establishment and was endeared by those who had brought about the candlelight revolution. They were thoroughly deceived, Jin now says, in their expectation that  Moon would be a different kind of leader. Enjoying a degree of political immunity few others have because of his earlier reputation as a sharp and fair critic of the establishment and because he perhaps had done more than anyone else in bringing down President Park Geun-hye, Jin goes further and  says that Moon and his clique, his own erstwhile comrades at arms,  have degenerated into nothing but a pack of power-seekers. They would stop at nothing in order to achieve their dream of permanent dictatorship, even if that meant placing Korea under the tutelage of Xi Jinping, let alone Kim Jong-un.


            Why should anyone not fated to live under Moon Jae-in’s government take interest in all this incredible story of a president setting out not only to destroy the free democratic system of government, but also to see the demise of his own country as a genuinely independent political entity?  The first, and most urgent, reason is because of the policy implications for the United State and the free world as a whole.  What would happen if the Republic of Korea, with all its historic and socio-economic weight, goes totalitarian and falls under the sway of Xi Jinping’s China, as it seems quite likely at this point?  Moon Jae-in’s government already accepted China’s demand that Korea promise to refrain from three things: further installation of the THAAD, participation in the United States’ missile defense system, and development of Korea-Japan-US trilateral cooperation into a military alliance. China’s spokesman had the brazen audacity to reprimand when Korea’s pop group, the BTS, upon winning the Van Fleet prize awarded by the Korea Society, thanked the Americans for the sacrifice and help given during the Korean War, for being ungrateful. China had “helped Korea to resist America,” they said as if they were addressing the North Koreans not the South Koreans, and the Moon government had no retort.  The vast majority of Koreans still believe, contrary to the Moon government, that the Korean-American Alliance was, and still is, that indispensable security belt  which made and will make it possible for Koreans to achieve all the successes they are benefitting from.  We sincerely hope that the alliance remains firm and is further strengthened by coordination and cooperation with other countries sharing the same values, such as Japan and Australia. If, however, one party, the official government part of that alliance, we fear, falls under the sway of those who do not share the same values and objectives, then that could serve as  no ally at all, but could even turn out to be a Trojan horse. The Moon government refuse to see North Korea as the main enemy.  If the American government deals with the Moon government assuming that the latter were political and ideological heirs to all its predecessors starting with the Syngman Rhee government, with its blood ties to America, it would be a fatal mistake. It would be like giving massive aid to Kim Jong-un to strengthen his totalitarian grip over the country, thinking all the while that it would benefit the poor North Korean people. To the proposal to resume the joint Korean-American military exercises, Moon’s recent reply to the Korean public was that he would consult the North Koreans first.  It is time the United States and the United Nations contemplate seriously the implications of all the vast resources of South Korea being placed at the disposal of a president who often seems to be working in deference to the wishes of Kim Jong-un or Xi Jinping to the neglect of the security and interest of the vast majority of the South Korean citizens. 


It might be already too late to stop South Korea from going totalitarian people’s democracy with foreseeable consequences. Already, such safeguards for a free democracy as the separation of powers and freedom of the  press no longer function, although a vestige of them  still remain in form. The President and the ruling party can target anyone and do anything and there is no recourse.  It is the responsibility of the Korean people to cope with the crisis  they themselves have brought about.  The world outside, however, can and should try at least to prevent, at its own peril, the vast resources, economic, cultural, and intellectual, which that key country has been able to build up, largely with the assistance rendered by America and other free nations of the world, from being placed at the service of  North Korea’s dictator or the Chinese communist imperialists.


The second, and perhaps in the long run, more important reason why any thinking person, whether Korean or not, should take serious interest in Korea’s tragic history is moral and epistemological. How has the situation come about?  Is it not because all, and every one of us, have been contributing to it whether willingly or unawares? Four years ago, it was quite understandable why people, whether Koreans or foreign observers, staked high hopes and great expectations on the government born of the “candlelight revolution.”  After all, there was something poetic about powerless common people overthrowing the powerful by just demonstrating “peacefully.”  Korea’s democracy could be celebrated as “strong” and “vibrant.”  When that democracy has soured into a one-party dictatorship bordering upon totalitarianism and lamentation over the imminent death of the liberal democratic republic is increasingly audible, ignoring the patently obvious evidence is inexcusable and fatal to the continued survival of human society.  What happened, and how did it and how could it happen?


In retrospect, one may ask if South Korea in 2016 or 2017 was a country sick enough to require a “revolutionary” makeover.  No, it was not.  It was no Russia of 1917. Not even the Philippines of Marcos.  Koreans were proud of and envied for their successes in both political democratization and economic development with their social and cultural effects. The  long-time opposition party could win the presidential power through orderly elections and institute radical reforms, bringing former presidents of the Republic to justice and opening the door to North Korea.  There was not even a shred of hard evidence that the incumbent President Park Geun-hye, in spite of all her lack of political skills and acumen, committed any crime detrimental to the interest of her country, let alone deserving of impeachment.  A “revolution,” and presidential impeachment under such circumstances was bound to be a breach of social contract than its more faithful implementation, a reaction rather than a step forward.  It was in fact an act of treason disguised as a popular call for a revolutionary “cleansing of all accumulated evils” and a drastic reduction in the “imperial” power of the president.  The result obtained three years later is the exact opposite of what was promised, quasi-imperial power of the presidency and totalitarian control over individual life of the citizens.


Admittedly, all these “revolutionary” changes were brought about by following the letters of the country’s law and obtaining popular consent through voting in the National Assembly.   To say therefore that the result is justified, however, is tantamount to saying that everything Hitler did can be justified, because it was done with the consent and participation of the German people.  We have to admit the inconvenient and painful fact that South Korea, in spite of its great economic superiority over North Korea, lost the war of propaganda and agitation to the North so that the people have voted into power persons, starting with president Moon, who believe that bringing two Koreas together under the aegis of the nuclear-powered North Korea serves the best interest of the Korean people and would stop at nothing to achieve their goal. They have already succeeded in building a quasi-totalitarian political control system capable of suppressing voices other than their own, not only in Korea but in the world outside as well because they do not spare resources for propaganda and agitation. Their surprising success in hiring former House Foreign Affairs Committee Chairman Ed Royce, a longtime advocate of human rights in North Korea, as their lobbyist is a case in point. South Korea’s voters themselves, no one else, brought about this un-heard of phenomenon of a prosperous democratic polity suddenly degenerating into a totalitarian society.  But the responsibility of those who should have known better than ordinary people, the opinion leaders and experts, who have the power to influence public reaction cannot be taken lightly. They should have known that any claim to a monopoly of moral rectitude on the part of a power group is none other than their claim to monopolize the right to perpetrate evil.   In this sense, the tragic case of Korea’s sudden degeneration into a populist totalitarian society and likely fall into a historically familiar pattern of subservience and subordination to the imperialistic Chinese hegemony has to be noted with a pang of conscience by all would-be intellectuals/dreamers.


In spite of these highly disconcerting developments in Korea in recent years, the friendship between ordinary Koreans and Americans and the ideal on which the US-ROK alliance is based remain unchanged. America and the rest of the free world must realize, however, that the current Korean government is no spiritual heir to predecessors with their commitment to freedom and democracy. Korean citizens, belatedly waking up to the disguised threat to their freedom and security posed by their own government, need to be assured that the United States and others in the free world see the Moon regime for what it is, if these besieged people are to have the courage to break out of their torpor and forestall a total collapse of freedom and a likely fall into the traps set by North Korea and China. If a free and prosperous country in this pivotal corner of the global community is allowed to turn quasi- communist and totalitarian, the danger faced by the rest of the world could not but be redoubled.     



About the Author(s)

Inho Lee,   Professor Emeritus of Seoul National University

Inho Lee is a Russia specialist who taught history  at Korea University and Seoul National University before becoming the first woman ambassador Korea sent out. After serving her country first in Finland under President Kim Young-sam and then in the Russian Federation under President Kim Dae-jung, she headed the Korea Foundation. Most recently, she worked as the chairperson of the Board of Directors of Korea’s central media, the Korea Broadcasting System (KBS) under President Park Geun-hye.

Educated at Seoul National University, Wellesley College, and Radcliffe College, Inho Lee holds a Ph.D in history from Harvard University and received a distinguished Alumna Award from Wellesley College and an honorary professorship from Russia’s Diplomatic Academy. She is a frequent contributor of columns to newspapers and social media in Korea.



Thu, 09/23/2021 - 7:56am

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Kind of surprised this was published due to generalities and simply the length - this was a slugfest to finish. The same message could have been conveyed in 1/3 the length, and it also made me wonder who is the audience for this article?

As a Foreign Area Officer who just finished 6 years in Seoul with both USFK and the Embassy, this has so many generalizations, regurgitations of the conservative party as a victim, and actually very little support included in the article.  The most striking to me as that the BB Bell comments are 100% cherry picked; he has said he does not like OPCON, but what he actually said in the VOA letter was that if OPCON is transferred AND the ROK was to go down the road of attaining its own nuclear weapons, the Alliance would likely come to an end and the ROK would be left standing alone with the DPRK backed by both China and Russia. Let's face it - the US would pull the nuclear umbrella at that point. We've been down this road in NE Asia before. Also, the conditions of OPCON during BB's time in 2006-2008 are very different from the current 2021 proposals.

Additionally, she's criticizing Moon, but giving the past two presidents a complete free ride as victims even though they openly peddled influence and used those other NIS personnel who also went to jail to influence a domestic election and embezzle. She's also critical that Moon investigated bad happenings from the previous two presidents...weird, they did bad things, but accountability is seen as victimization.

As you mentioned, there is also a normal democratic political process.  When a party messes up and gets caught red-handed, as Park did which then led to Lee (previous president) and a ROK NSA/NIS Chiefs being found doing bad things, the party got punished. If the next party swings too far the other way and angers the population, then things should swing back at the next election. Unless of course the election is rigged...oh wait, that was the two presidents she claims are victims of Moon.

What she has right...DPRK - there is a definite push by the ROK to make friends, but the DPRK is that uncle who only comes to see you when he needs money or a meal. He acts nice, but takes the freebies and runs - there is no real intent to give up nukes or reunite unless under DPRK terms. The Sep 2018 CMA definitely has allowed the DPRK to expand conventional capabilities while limited ROK movements, training, and readiness. Northwest Island units need to do live fires or they have to come back to the mainland...capabilities degrade without practice and increased costs.

As someone uninformed, how much is this conspiracy theory hyperbole and how much of this recent history just normal within south korean historical context? Sure, going after human rights activists trying to send balloons to North Korea looks frustrating, and suicides are hushed up around the world, but at the same time I think its noble to try to venerate democratic historical movements against brutal crushing dictatorships. Isn't this just part of political processes everywhere, even in democracies?