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INTERNATIONAL > East Asia & Pacific

Are South Korea’s “progressives” truly moving toward liberalism?

  • February 14, 2021
  • , Asahi , p. 8
  • JMH Translation

By Tetsuya Hakoda, editorial writer for international affairs


Despite our two countries’ similarities, some things about South Korea are very difficult to convey with accuracy to a Japanese audience. One of them is South Korea’s “progressives.” Although progressive parties in South Korea are liberals who counterbalance conservatives, they are not same as Japanese progressive parties in the past.


In general, South Korea’s progressive parties are more conciliatory toward North Korea from a sense of ethnic unity, while holding harsher opinions about historical issues with Japan and military dictatorships. In the area of economy, there are a wide range of policies. The current administration of Moon Jae-in claims to be an advocate of progressive policies.       


What South Korea’s progressives advocate, however, may not be consistent with liberalism. 


When the Constitutional Democratic Party of Japan was launched, the meaning of being a “liberal” was debated in Japan. There was no single definitive answer to that question. The same is true in South Korea.


Still, Kojien [an authoritative Japanese-Japanese dictionary] state being a “liberal” means “to value individual liberty and character; being liberalistic.” If so, then the current South Korean government and the ruling party wouldn’t necessarily fit that description.


Toward the end of the last year, the South Korean ruling party steamrolled through parliament a bill that banned dropping leaflets critical of North Korea.


The South Korean government explained that the ban was necessary for ensuring the safety of those living near the demilitarized zone, as a group of defectors from North Korea hadn’t stopped dropping these leaflets even when Pyongyang threatened a military response.


The U.S., along with the international community, voiced concern that the ban violates freedom of expression. Seoul denied the allegation. Some even claim that the leaflets were a mere tactic to obtain sponsorship money.


Even if that were true, was the adoption of a law that stipulated punishment, with the possibility of imprisonment, appropriate?


Today, the world is under an enormous pressure from the coronavirus pandemic and restrictions on freedom. South Korea is no exception. However, after a long military dictatorship, South Koreans keenly feel the value of hard-won freedom.


It is therefore even more surprising that a nation that relishes its own history of democratization has accepted such a law without raising an eyebrow.


Six years ago, the Japanese government stopped describing South Korea as a country with which it “shares the same basic values such as freedom and democracy.” 


Cynics said at the time that the two countries were no longer able to share those values because democracy in Japan was damaged by the administration of Shinzo Abe. South Korea, it seems, also needs to reflect where it stands now.


Seoul may be frustrated with the slow progress in improving relations with Pyongyang. But even if South Koreans accept their government’s explanation for the adoption of the law, would the international community be equally understanding? Applying a double standard to universal values would take the shine off the democracy that the nation achieved through a long and hard struggle.

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