Saturday, December 02, 2006

Korea: Old Left Strikes Out Against New Right

Leftist Civic Group Scuffles With New Right Group
Symposium on New History Textbook.
Seoul National University
(Photo from JoongAng Daily [YONHAP])

I've previously mentioned the formation of a Korean conservative movement that has been dubbed the "New Right."

I don't keep up with the New Right's day-to-day developments, but I did once meet one of its founders, Shin Il-Chul, who gave it moral and intellectual heft. Here's a report from my first meeting with Shin, over lunch on March 1, 2005 with Mr. Min Young Bin, founder and chief CEO of YBM Si-sa, who is a childhood friend of my wife's father:

Emeritus Professor Shin Il Chul, formerly of Korea University's Department of Philosophy, spoke passable English and impressed me more and more the longer I listened to him speak. I have too little time to go into details, but I'll share this. According to Mr. Min's autobiography, in the 1970s, Professor Shin was invited by then-dictator President Park to join the government in an important position, but Shin refused. Why? Because, as he privately told Min, "Someday, I will want to have the moral right to criticize this dictatorship, and I can't do that if I join it."
A couple of weeks later, March 15, 2005, I read an an interesting Joong Ang Daily article on the Korean "New Right" and posted a selection:

"The New Right is against the current administration, which possesses such characteristics of the 'Old Left' as being pro-North, anti-market and anti-liberty," Shin Il-chul, a philosophy professor at Korea University, said at a lecture last month. "The New Right has a vision for reform and progress under the flag of liberty."
I then commented on Shin's vision of the New Right:

From my own talk with Shin as well as from an NKHR lecture that he gave in 2001, I know that by "liberty," he means more than merely economic freedoms. At that meeting, he told me that he intends the liberal tradition's grounding in human rights. Neither the left nor the right in Korea have emphasized this, he explained, and he argued that this neglect is the main flaw in the "Sunshine Policy" of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun.

Shin thinks that engagement with the North should have been modeled on the Helsinki Accords, which emphasized human rights and cited the UN's Universal Declaration of Human Rights. If this had been an integral part of South Korea's Sunshine Policy, then economic engagement would have been conditional upon the North's commitment to human rights.

According to the Joong Ang article, Shin's emphasis upon human rights is shared by others in the New Right, and they criticize the traditional conservatism of the Grand National Party for its neglect of human rights. The entire article is available online and is worth reading.
Shin's vision of the New Right sounds to me like a good corrective to both the old Right of the Grand National Party and the old Left of parties like Uri (currently in power) and the Democratic Labor Party.

But the Left in South Korea doesn't take kindly to the New Right's critique of its orthodoxies. According to Ser Myo-ja and Kwon Keun-young, "In the halls of ivy, flying fists evoke memories of 1960 uproar," for yesterday's Joong Ang Daily:

Fists swung and desks flew through the air at an academic conference hosted by a conservative civic group to discuss the draft of its new history textbook yesterday. Left-wing activists denounced the book as an attempt to "rewrite Korea's modern history."
Speaking as a historian, I feel that I ought to point out to these left-wing activists that there's nothing inherently wrong with historical revisionism, as the left should well know since it's done its own revising of history in the freedom allowed since the democratization of Korean society in the late 1980s.

Revisionism comes naturally to the field of history as scholars engage in reasonable debate based upon new sources or reinterpretation of old sources. Wednesday's discussion seems to have started that way:
TextForum, a group affiliated with the New Right Union, made the draft [of its new history] text public Wednesday. Yesterday's symposium was to have included presentations on the history, which it said was an effort to combat "left-leaning" textbooks now in use.

The conference at a Seoul National University auditorium was peaceful during an opening presentation by Park Hyo-chong, an ethics education professor at the university and the head of TextForum.
But events then suddenly and rapidly deteriorated:
[A]s Rhee Young-hoon, an economist there, was about to begin his presentation, about 50 members of organizations who supported the 1960 popular uprising that ousted President Syngman Rhee entered the auditorium. One grabbed the economist by the throat, and the fight was on. Protesters threw desks, chairs and other objects around the room.
Grabbing a speaker by the throat as he's giving his speech is about as primitively direct a message as one can send -- and I've no doubt that these leftist brownshirts were sent (by whom, I don't know) -- for it forcefully, physically demonstrates that those speaking out against the left's views should choke on their own words.

Now, I wasn't there, so the Joong Ang report could be exaggerated, for Shin Hae-in, writing "Parties split over rightist textbook" for the Korea Herald, gives a more subdued report and focuses on more reasonable statements criticizing the New Right textbook. These statements, however, appear to have been made elsewhere than at the forum itself, and we do see that photo above, which the Korea Herald also prints, so based on the evidence -- and upon what I've seen of Korean political 'scuffles' -- I'll bet that the Joong Ang report is accurate.

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At 7:38 PM, Blogger GI Korea said...

The new right sounds really dangerous to the ruling powers in South Korea. No ties to past dictators, wanting to correct leftist historical revisionism, and most importantly taking the Norks to task on human rights violations. No wonder the Korean leftists and their Pyongyang puppet masters started a fight to shut them up.

At 1:45 PM, Blogger Horace Jeffery Hodges said...

The recent investigations of some on the left here in South Korea accused of spying for North Korea certainly lends plausibility to your suggestion of a North Korean role.

Interestingly, I haven't yet read of any arrests being made of those involved in this 'Brownshirt' action.

Jeffery Hodges

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