On April 15, the citizens of one of the United States’ closest allies went to the polls for an election with profound implications for the region and the world. The Republic of Korea (ROK; South Korea) was faced with a choice this spring: continue to be open to the West (Europe and the United States) and the “east” (Japan and other free societies in Asia), or follow the lead of current president Moon Jae-in into the arms of the Democratic People’s Republic of Korea and, worse, the People’s Republic of China.
We think this was Korea’s Bismarck moment, when South Koreans were asked to decide, not just who their leader will be, but who they really are as a people. Are they Prussian, warlike, and backward-looking, as Otto von Bismarck envisioned the German-speaking peoples in the 19th century? Or are they civilized, open, peaceful, innovative, and free, as Konrad Adenauer and other pro-Western Germans thought of themselves once freed of the Prussian grip on Deutschland after World War II?
We hoped that South Koreans would reject the Bismarckian model and instead embrace the Adenauerian trend of engagement and human dignity. Our hopes proved unfounded. South Korean voters overwhelmingly handed another term in office to President Moon, perpetuating the kind of pro-China policies that have proven to be so deadly for regional geopolitics.
Who is Moon Jae-in?
Some readers might be surprised to learn that the situation in South Korea has worsened. But consider the true nature of President Moon Jae-in and his administration.
Under public scrutiny, for example, it was revealed last year that Moon’s Minister of Justice, Cho Kuk—known theretofore for his vocal criticism of political corruption—was himself corrupt. Like many American politicians who claim clean hands while palming cash under the table, Cho, champion of good government, got embroiled in countless scandals, including conspiring with his wife to falsify the academic record of their daughter so she could get into prestigious universities.
Cho’s hypocrisy became so notorious that the term Choronambur was coined in his honor. Choronambur means “It’s called a romance if Cho does it, but adultery if anyone else does it.”
Even as it became clear that the prosecutor’s office would be highly likely to prosecute Cho, Moon appointed him minister of justice. One month after the appointment, Cho’s wife was found guilty and imprisoned, and Cho resigned, it being a customary practice in Korea to imprison only one spouse when both are found guilty of a crime.
What concerns us even more than Moon’s domestic fiascoes, however, is his dangerous approach to regional politics. Moon threatened the security of all of Northeast Asia when last year he petulantly threatened to withdraw South Korea from the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA) with Japan and the United States. At the eleventh hour, Moon changed his stance and the GSOMIA arrangement was kept in place.
Appearances can be deceiving
American conservatives might be inclined to applaud Moon for helping to break apart the base system in Asia, but Moon’s GSOMIA fit had nothing to do with principle. Nor did it have anything to do with the United States. Moon’s real target was cooperation of any kind with Japan.
Anti-Japanism has become a seemingly inexhaustible political goldmine among the South Korean left. Moon’s antics, of course, angered and frustrated Japan, which was exposed to considerable risk due to Moon’s gamesmanship. Moon also alienated the U.S., hampering a possible reordering of the alliance and throwing into confusion the relationship among the three Northeast Asian powerhouses. There are ways to draw down alliances, but temper tantrums are not among them.
American conservatives may also wish to rethink the image they may have of Moon as a maverick seeking greater freedom for the people of South Korea. In fact, Moon is a Chinese partisan. His pro-Beijing stance was once again visible with the outbreak of the Wuhan virus, which the PRC covered up while thousands of Chinese people died.
Despite repeated warnings by the Korean Medical Association that the Wuhan virus could wreak havoc in South Korea, Moon refused to block the entry of Chinese nationals. When the virus outbreak inevitably reached the ROK and the death toll began to mount, the Moon regime shocked the public by shielding China and instead blaming South Koreans for getting sick. The horrifying epidemic in Korea was not caused by the Chinese, Moon’s government scolded, but rather by South Koreans who had entered China and returned. Moon’s administration also blamed South Koreans who belonged to religious groups.
Like many on the American left, Moon blamed everyone for the pandemic except the communist dictatorship in Beijing. Now that that same dictatorship is, conversely, blocking South Koreans from entering the PRC, the Moon regime is simply refusing to talk about the issue.
L’Affaire Park Geun-hye
Most troubling of all is the way Moon’s predecessor, President Park Geun-hye, was removed from power, thereby clearing the way for Moon’s dark-horse candidacy and eventual rise to the Blue House (the South Korean executive mansion in Seoul).
Park was impeached and deposed in 2017 on bizarre rumors that one of her associates, Choi Soon-sil, was a Rasputin figure using a form of shamanism to control Park and wrangle political control and financial gain for herself. However, the entire investigation and impeachment process was a gross violation of constitutional law and basic civil rights. Despite massive opposition by Korean conservatives and concerned citizens of all political persuasions, Park was thrown out of office and into prison, where she still languishes, over unproven allegations and unsubstantiated political and personal rumors.
Park’s 32-year prison sentence stands in stark contrast to other former South Korean presidents who were sentenced to capital punishment or life imprisonment but were released within one year. It is hard to escape the conclusion that political convenience, and not impartial justice, was served in Park’s case. Moon, who has the power to immediately release Park, has refused to commute her sentence.
The main reason for this is that Park is a stanch supporter of the U.S.-Japan-RoK tripartite coalition. Moon wants South Korea to leave the free nations of the world and assume a place among the emerging order of Chinese-led totalitarian states.
One of us, Lew, helped form the New Party in support of Park. A government’s treatment of its own people is an indication of its intentions to the rest of the world. Moon’s infringement on Park’s human rights is a miniature of his disregard for the rights of neighboring countries and the breach of regional security. What happened to Park should concern us all. Koreans cannot allow Moon to lead them, as Bismarck did the Germans, into a long nightmare of oppression, fear, war, and the dominance of society by an authoritarian state.
A new, old history of Korea
Since the end of World War II, the Korean peninsula, which was formerly incorporated into the Japanese Empire, has been divided into its northern and southern halves. This tragic bifurcation mirrored the emerging standoff, soon to harden into the Cold War, between the liberal-democratic Americans and the communist-dictatorial Soviets. Any map of East Asia today reveals the lasting marks of that division. Korea is split along roughly the 38th parallel, with a harsh imitation of pitiless Sparta to the north and a capitalist, free-trading, technologically advanced, materially comfortable, free society to the south—historically rather like Athens.
But deeper Korean history reveals divisions along very different axes. Indeed, early Korean history finds the peninsula divided among mainly three, and sometimes four, different kingdoms: Silla, Paekche, Koguryo, and a smaller Gaya confederacy that eventually allied with Silla. Koguryo was a gigantic state, comprising much of latter-day Manchuria and North Korea. But the key players, especially after the middle of the seventh century, were Silla and Paekche.
Silla is the Prussia of Korea. It allied with continental forces, namely the Chinese Tang dynasty, and defeated the weakened Koguryo as well as the maritime power of Paekche, the “Phoenicia of Asia,” which had carried on a vibrant trade and cultural exchange with the Yamato kingdoms of Japan and with other territories and islands beyond.
The Japan connection
The deeper historical and cultural division of the peninsula, in other words, is not north and south, but east and west. Western Korea, under Paekche, had naturally friendly and mutually beneficial relations with the fledgling states of Japan, Korea’s closest overseas neighbor. Much of Japan’s cultural heritage, including Buddhism, came via Paekche. There was even a cross-strait ruling paradigm in place in early East Asian history, whereby the ruling families of Yamato and Paekche were united and the two polities were intimately allied.
Today, commerce with Japan is derided by the authoritarians in Seoul, such as Moon Jae-in, and also by their allies in Pyongyang and Beijing. Good relations with Japan are what the peninsular, insular Spartans fear the most. Park Geun-hye’s masterful diplomatic stroke in December 2015, which finally settled longstanding historical issues between Japan and South Korea, paved the way for a bright cross-strait future—a revival, perhaps, of the glory of the Paekche-Yamato relationship and the prosperity and peace that that relationship brought to the Korean peninsula and the Japanese archipelago. But it was this very act that Korean authoritarians could not forgive. Park was illegally run out of office not long after the accord with Japan was signed.
This brings to the surface another affinity between Moon and Bismarck. In order to shore up his authoritarian rule, Bismarck relied on educating German speakers into a mythical ethnic unity, a pan-German-ness stretching deep into antiquity, which on closer examination turned out to be a tissue of lies. Stoking hatred of both the Anglo-Saxon and Gallic West, as well as of the Russian and Polish East, was the modus operandi whereby the Bismarckian Prussians propagandized tens of millions into a false stance vis-à-vis their neighbors.
In South Korea, too, history has unfortunately been twisted to serve the divide-and-conquer agenda of the authoritarians. As Seoul National University Professor Lee Young-hoon and other careful scholars in South Korea have recently documented in their groundbreaking book Anti-Japan Tribalism, much of what schoolchildren learn about Japan in history classes in South Korea is fake news.
Outrageous tales of kidnapping, mass murder, wholesale theft, enslavement, and induced famine, are the stuff of “history” lessons in the South. Yet most of it is a fairy tale. Authoritarians of a Silla-like bent, who emulate the Chinese way of using “history” to control the masses and stir up hatred of the “barbarians,” have filled South Koreans’ heads with pure propaganda.
Koreans are rejecting the China model
The real history of Korea and Japan is that progressives in both places sought to reform and open their societies in the late 19th century, while continental reactionaries—the Tang dynasty all over again, but this time in the form of the decrepit Qing—tried to keep Korea dependent on the profoundly un-Korean, un-free ways of the land on the other side of the Yalu River.
South Koreans this April thus faced a big choice. Although disappointed by Moon’s election victory, we still believe that South Koreans are most themselves when they follow the Paekche route, open to the world, a maritime and cultured society based on fair and free trade and the generous exchange of languages and ideas.
Whatever happens in the new Moon era, South Koreans have no future with the Korean Bismarck, a devotee of North Korean dictator Kim Jong Un (poster boy for the Silla approach—a mere tool of the Chinese) and a true enemy of democratic government and civil rights.
Hanjin Lew is spokesperson for international affairs for the Pro-Park New Party in South Korea. Jason Morgan is associate professor at Reitaku University in Kashiwa, Japan, and author, most recently, of Law and Society in Imperial Japan (Cambria, 2020).