06.11.2020 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Fighting Against Privilege: the Version Given by Moon Jae-in


One of the trends in South Korean ideology since Moon Jae-in arrived is the affirmation that Korean history is not the history of the movement for democratization, but also the continuation of the history of the struggle for independence, in the context of which the noble descendants and followers of Korean patriots who battled for independence against the colonial yoke (naturally, these are representatives from the Democratic Party), oppose the collaborators and their descendants who, after Korea was liberated, settled into positions of power.

This means that any conservative immediately winds up being a dormant, pro-Japanese type, if not overtly then clandestinely justifying all the atrocities committed by the colonialists, and this is very reminiscent of how in European debate any right-wing participants are labeled as fascist, regardless of what they actually think of Hitler.

Lists of national traitors and their descendants have been regularly put together since the time Roh Moo-hyun was in power, for whom the current president acted as the Chief of Staff to the President, and they include not only people who were actively involved in collaboration, but also anyone who had at least some kind of connection to the regime. If you served in the Japanese army, that means that you must have helped crush those fighting for independence, and consequently must be a national traitor. For this reason, these lists include Park Chung-hee as one example, whose main fault – according to Moon’s entourage – is that he modernized Korea using the Japanese model. This includes the directors of most corporations, who started as clerks and managers under the Japanese and, under the reign of Syngman Rhee, received the property their Japanese bosses had for them to use.

The fact that the lists include not only the traitors themselves, but also their descendants, whom some think should be purged from the ranks of power, is a separate topic, as is the desire to cross out those on the lists from history and memory, and this even includes exhuming their graves if the convicted person was buried at the national cemetery. This author would like to talk about something else.

It has been asserted that “independence fighters have been poor for three generations, while pro-Japanese collaborators have been rich for three generations”, ensconcing themselves in all the advantageous positions. This needs to be remedied, especially since democratic activists and their offspring include not only those who fought for the country’s independence, but also those that struggled against the military dictatorship, especially representatives of Moon Jae-in’s generation from among student activists of the 1980s.

The positive side of this concept is that they have started to pay out compensation to the victims of the regime, overturn guilty verdicts delivered against them during the war, and give them awards posthumously.

But, unfortunately, the other side of the coin turns out to be more salient, with current representatives from the authorities planning to officially consolidate their privileged status. On September 23, 2020, the Democratic Party introduced a bill aimed at giving democratic activists and their children special treatment in the areas of education, employment, housing, and health care. MP Woo Won-shik and 19 other lawmakers said that they intend to “recognize those who have died, gone missing, or become disabled while participating in democratic movements”.

The bill aims to support the families of a total of 829 individuals that participated in democratic movements, starting with the 1964 protests against the normalization of Korean-Japanese relations during the reign of Park Chung-hee These 829 people were formally recognized as “democratic activists” by a committee set up in 2000 under then-President Kim Dae-jung to restore their honor. Most of them died, went missing or became disabled, however, if you believe certain media outlets, some of the current elite can also be identified here.

All these people and their family members will be provided with preferential treatment, which consists of the following:

  • during the hiring process at state-owned organizations, local authorities, the military, and some private companies, they receive “bonus points”, which are added to the scores they receive following personnel recruitment tests;
  • in the healthcare industry, they stand to gain financial support for medical bills;
  • in the area of financing for housing, they can expect long-term, low-interest mortgages and priority housing assistance services;
  • Activists’ children can also receive educational benefits in terms of enjoying special additional quotas for college admissions. This means that they do not have to slog away on preparing for exams, the way other students do, and simply submitting an application will suffice. The government will also subsidize their education in high school and at the university level.

It is believed that the families of those who fought for Korean independence, recognized as patriots in the country pursuant to a similar procedure, have comparable benefits.

After the bill was posted on the National Assembly website, it received more than 8,500 deprecating comments, an unprecedented number. People criticized it for “reverse discrimination” and “attempting to create a special noble class in society”.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, the deputy press secretary of the main opposition party – the People Power Party – criticized the project, and stated that “no fighter for independence, veteran, or supporter of democracy thought that their children and families should be given special treatment because they fought for the liberation and democratization of the country”.

The conservative The Korea Herald was outspoken: “Former democratization activists are using power to seek their own interests now that they have taken power. They emphasize that they fought to eliminate foul play, privilege and unfairness, but they are trying to institutionalize these evils”. The more moderate The Korea Times also wonders if it is because “members of the ruling party, many of whom were members of pro-democracy student activist groups, are simply seeking benefits for themselves or their friends”.

There was even criticism from some representatives of the ruling party. One member of the Democratic Party of Korea told the media, on condition of anonymity, that “we admit those former student activists sacrificed themselves through the 1970s and 1980s. But it is not right that they themselves demand benefits for their children by citing their suffering”.

The project took heat not only from the right, but also from the left. Representatives from a truly (as opposed to all sorts of populists) leftist Justice Party had previously already actively criticized legislators from the ruling party, who have entrenched their own self-serving interests after coming to power, thereby becoming the kind of people they fought against.

Woo Won-shik rejected this criticism, saying that the bill applies to those who sacrificed themselves or went missing when they were at least 20 years old, including the student activists Lee Han-yeol and Park Jong-cheol. “We cannot view the government’s effort to compensate for the financial difficulties faced by the activists who became disabled after torture, imprisonment, and protest crackdowns as excessive privilege”.

From the author’s point of view, former democratic activists deserve respect, and the government could compensate those who suffered during the struggle for democracy. But whether it is fair to expand this compensation to cover university admission scholarships, employment, financial assistance with housing, etc. is a valid question.  This kind of preferential treatment either takes away opportunities from others, or puts those who get it in the relatively disadvantageous position of being “born with a silver spoon in their mouths”.  Meanwhile, the Korean people, especially the younger generation, are very sensitive to the issue of fairness when it comes to university admissions and employment, among other things. It was a story about unfair university admissions policies that was exactly how the story of Choi Soon-sil’s downfall and the scandal that plagued Cho Kuk began.

Generally speaking, if an author ever begins to write a book that touches on the “candle revolution”, and how President Moon has proven his worth in office, it will be a very instructive story, but one whose essence boils down to the famous phrase: He who fights too long against dragons becomes a dragon himself.

Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. in History and a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.