SEOUL — Liberal forces are strengthening their influence in South Korea ahead of next March’s presidential election on the back of President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party overwhelming majority in the National Assembly.
The Democratic Party holds 60% of the seats in the assembly and is increasingly using its sheer force of numbers to steamroll legislation through and increase pressure on the judiciary.
Conservative and liberal administrations have held power in alternation for roughly 10-year periods since South Korea’s shift from military to civilian rule in the late 1980s.
One reason why liberal forces hold the upper hand now is because conservatives are unable to attract young voters in urban areas and their supporters are aging. The Moon administration’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic was also a major factor in its landslide win in last year’s assembly elections.
The next political test for both sides will be mayoral elections in Seoul and Busan in April, which will help set the narrative for the presidential election, scheduled for March 9 next year.
Liberal lawmakers, who support closer engagement with Pyongyang, passed a law at the end of last year banning the flying of balloons carrying propaganda leaflets into North Korea.
This came after Kim Yo Jong, the younger sister of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, ordered the detonation of the inter-Korea liaison office in the North, citing the leafleting campaign.
The fliers contain criticism of the Kim regime and occasionally carry dollar bills. The bills are used by North Korean residents and front-line soldiers to support their living expenses, according to Thae Yong-ho, a former minister at the North Korean Embassy to Britain who became a conservative member of the assembly after defecting to the South.
Joo Ho-young of the opposition People Power Party said the world is concerned about the law banning the leafleting, stressing its unconstitutionality.
The Moon administration hopes the ban will prevent the inter-Korea relationship from falling apart. But as the law includes the possibility of imprisoning violators, concerns have been voiced about possible infringements of human rights and freedom of speech. Defectors from the North visited the U.S. because of moves to hold a hearing on the law in Congress, according to Radio Free Asia.
Liberal lawmakers are also using their strength in numbers to increase pressure on the judiciary.
The National Assembly on Feb. 4 impeached a judge at the Busan High Court for alleged meddling in trials as instructed by the administration of disgraced former President Park Geun-hye.
The judge was said to have pressured the presiding judge to change the verdict in a trial of the former Seoul bureau chief of Japan’s Sankei Shimbun newspaper over alleged defamation of Park. The Japanese journalist eventually won the case.
The impeached judge was due to resign at the end of February, but Supreme Court Chief Justice Kim Myeong-su did not permit his retirement, allegedly as part of collusion with a DP plan to use the case as a “public flogging.”
Opposition parties accused the DP of manipulating the impeachment system to threaten and tame the judicial branch.
Moon is keen to reform the prosecution system to create a legacy for himself in the final 14 months of his single five-year term.
Prosecutors are investigating the presidential office’s possible involvement in a scandal related to a decision to decommission a reactor at the Wolseong Nuclear Power Plant. To check their moves, the DP is preparing legislation to set up an expert organ — headed by a DP-recommended official — that would take over investigative authority.
Liberal forces are said to be looking to stay in power for two decades. Weakening the authority of prosecutors, who have in the past undertaken revenge politics, is a shortcut to their goal.
The spread of liberalism in South Korea’s political circles also has contributed to widening cracks in the fractious relationship with Japan.
As well as historical issues stemming from Japan’s occupation of the Korean Peninsula (1910-1945), the Moon administration’s stance on security — fundamentally different from those of previous conservative administrations — has made it difficult for the two countries to find common ground.
In a speech on March 1, Moon called for dialogue with Japan, stressing that excessive entrenchment in the past should be avoided.
While the statement appeared to be a conciliatory message, a diplomatic source said: “It is no more than a near-term strategic change. No one knows when [the Moon administration] will change its attitude.”