After some five months, the scandal over the Unified Progressive Party’s (UPP) election of representatives to the National Assembly finally seems to have wound down. With support from the UPP’s workers’ organization – the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions - withdrawn and with at least ten thousand having quit membership since July, even the most diehard proponents seem to be facing facts that the party, once an ambitious coalition of left-leaning politicians and voters, is, in the words of Hankyoreh, a daily newspaper, a “train wreck.”
Even though the initial allegations in April that certain elements (the so-called “East Gyeonggi” sect) of the UPP had rigged party votes to ensure the election of their own candidates were upsetting enough, the incidents that unfolded at the party’s Central Committee in May when it tried to address the problem were nothing short of repulsive. This included a full-scale filibuster and an assault (read: “near-lynching”) on party leadership by hordes of East Gyeonggi students. The episode alerted the general public to the fact that self-styled “progressive” (i.e. leftist) politics in South Korea could be just as bigoted and thuggish as that of the right, as well as to the continued existence of the National Liberation (NL) faction - the movement behind the East Gyeonggi sect.
The NL arose out of the bloody authoritarian ferment of the 80’s from pro-democracy student activists who rallied against what they saw as the puppeteer behind South Korea’s successive military dictatorships, i.e. American imperialism. As they took up the mantle of Korean nationalism to combat this, they were naturally attracted to North Korea as an untainted bastion, preserving “Korean-ness” against the onslaught of global capital. Some went the whole hog and wholeheartedly embraced North Korea’s state ideology of Jucheism as their core principle, favoring rigid organization and total obedience to leaders and members bound by sentimental “comradeship.”
Three decades on, despite the diversity one sees within the current Korean left, NL activists have still maintained a strong presence on all political fronts. Yet it is now painfully obvious that the recent crisis with the UPP has opened them to criticism from not just their traditional enemies on the authoritarian right but also their allies on the left. Their pro-North Korean stance notwithstanding (although many Korean leftists would disagree with these opinions entirely), the modus operandi of many Jucheists doesn’t help either; these often involve infiltrations of organizations, the replacement of their ranks with NL activists and sabotage of rival factions through spreading rumors and sometimes (as many have witnessed) outright violence.
The very issue with many NL organizations boils down to their very authoritarian, top-down management. The self-righteous, almost religious fervor with which many defend the choices of their leaders and their organizational ideals can be quite frightening to the uninitiated. One can also testify to the speed and efficacy with which how some of them bombard online forums with their opinions within a matter of hours, reward their comrades with overwhelming votes on mobile polls, and of course, storm meetings using sheer numbers and fisticuffs. As an observer noted, these actions “hark back to times when thuggery and leader-worship were as much political processes as was democratic discussion.”
It seems that the NL movement has been significantly crippled by its, to put it lightly, gaffes during the UPP controversy. In addition to many members abandoning the foundering UPP, many activists have also left local NL organizations over the past few months. For once, the Korean left and right seemed united in their attacks against “pro-North Korean elements” in the political scene (though many have urged caution with this rather liberal description). Yet leading NL publications such as Voice of the People currently seem to have no intention of admitting their group’s wrongs and amending relations with others. Drawing attention back to the quote in the paragraph above (and duly noting that it is describing practices of the political right over three decades ago), the cruel irony seems to be that the NL has become a caricature of the very authoritarian fanatics that they were so decidedly struggling against.