Digital Populism in South Korea? Internet Culture and the Trouble with Direct Participation
The penetration of the Internet in Korean society is usually seen as a positive development, perhaps even a model for other countries; more efﬁcient bureaucracy, more political ﬁgures making use of political blogs, and greater opportunities for citizen participation seem to connect government and citizens in a mutually beneﬁ cial way. Nevertheless the past six months have witnessed events resulting from an impersonal and seemingly uncontrolled Internet-based social mobilization that casts the shadow of the effects of unmediated online activity on social and political life: a vehement series of protests against the signing of the U.S.-ROK Free Trade Agreement in April, which led to the resignation of several senior ofﬁ cials and ministers in the new Lee Myung-bak administration and a number of deaths of Korean celebrities as a result of smear campaigns mounted and spread across the Web. Although the latter episodes do not fall within the realm of politics, such suicides nevertheless raise the issue of whether a state should somehow regulate the free ﬂ ow of information.
Discussions of the role of the Internet in politics (and society) have dominated the Korean media during the past few months. Surprisingly, the debate has yet to reach academia. In fact, the link between Internet activity and populism, as this type of behavior has been referred to in popular parlance (without proper reference to the academic use of the term) is underexplored both theoretically and empirically. To be sure, both populism and Internet-based sociopolitical action have been the objects of academic study. There is a considerable body of literature on populism, its ideological underpinning, and its empirical manifestations with regard to both West and Central Europe and Latin America. Research on Internet technology has focused on the information divide between the rich and the poor and the educated and the less educated, and also on the positive or negative effects of technology on politics, namely e-government, electoral campaigns, or Internet discussions.
We know surprisingly little, however, about how populist movements and leaders make use of the Internet for political ends. The issue itself is far from new, as occasional debates among netizens in East Asia over national sentiments (the dispute over the Dokdo Islands between South Korea and Japan, for example) dominate the Web. Online discussion boards are often instruments for sparking street demonstrations or even shaping electoral campaigns. This paper constitutes an explorative attempt to make sense of the type of behavior—primarily the candlelight vigils in the spring in 2008—that took place in South Korea; it is undertaken in order to understand the role that the Internet and Internet culture play in politics. By doing so, this paper also seeks to conceptualize “digital populism” as a new type of political behavior marked by the political use of the Internet as both a form of political participation and an instrument of mobilization.
There seems to be a paradox in the highly technological societies of East Asia, and in Korea in particular. On the one hand the decline of the mass party and its role in linking elites with citizens and a decreasing electoral turnout have led some to point to a lack of participation and interest of ordinary people in politics. On the other hand, with the rapid development of information technology, citizens are getting more involved in political discussions. The candlelight vigils in South Korea in the spring of 2008 well illustrate the mobilizing power of online blogs, chats, and discussion boards that sparked street demonstrations against the government policy of approval of a free-trade agreement (FTA) with the United States. The candlelight vigils led to administrative shufﬂ es (three ministers replaced) and the appointment of new presidential senior advisers (seven senior presidential secretaries out of eight were replaced). Given that most of the original appointments were fewer than three months old, this was no minor event in Korean politics. Direct participation is having an effect on representative democracy.