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The Peninsula

The Foreign Policy Outlook of South Korean Progressives: Part II

Published February 22, 2022

Despite their record of advancing the U.S.-Korea alliance, South Korea’s progressive foreign policy posture has sometimes been caricatured as “anti-American.” In conjunction with the discussion on February 23, 2022, S. Nathan Park examines why this sentiment is prevalent in Washington D.C. In part one, he discussed how the U.S. policy circle’s close relationship with Korea’s authoritarian rulers primarily around security issues in the context of the Cold War colored their engagement with new actors after democratization in 1987. Part two traces the history of South Korea’s political divide, and how it informs South Korean liberals’ basic philosophy with respect to foreign policy. This article is the second of four in the series. Find Part 3 here and Park 4 here.

Part II: The Formation and Moderation of South Korean Liberals’ Foreign Policy Thinking

In order to understand South Korean liberals’ foreign policy thinking, we must first understand the political philosophy that animates the formation of their political identity. The environment that gave rise to South Korea’s contemporary progressive politics informed that political philosophy. Importantly, the historical currents that formed Korea’s liberal politics not only advanced certain dispositions, but also moderated certain tendencies.

Within Washington, DC’s foreign policy circles, South Korean liberals are typically imagined as radical leftist student activists who are against the United States and sympathetic to North Korea. This caricature is an exaggeration. To be sure, Korea’s center-left political party was born out of democracy activism during South Korea’s dictatorship era, with its share of radicalism fueled by the brutality of the Chun Doo-hwan regime and the United States that supported it. But this simplistic characterization of South Korean liberals has served as the fodder for a distorted perspective in Washington, DC, which often reflexively labels Korea’s liberals as anti-American Pyongyang-appeasers.

Less discussed are the numerous other components of the democracy movement that collectively grew into South Korea’s progressive civil society, including academia, journalism, and public offices. Also largely unexamined are the modulating forces that have operated through and after the dictatorship era, which transformed the young student activists into a mature governing force within an electoral democracy. As the activists evolved into a liberal leadership, they came to implement a foreign policy that is focused primarily on pragmatism while pursuing center-left objectives in the long run.


Although some scholars trace the origin of modern Korea’s leftist politics to the Donghak Peasant Revolution of the late 19th century, the contemporary iteration of South Korea’s liberal politics began to emerge in the 1970s and took the present form in the 1990s. Despite authoritarian rule, a compromised form of democracy persisted with elections and party politics during the 1970s and 1980s, albeit rife with corruption and vote-rigging. South Korea’s progressive civil society grew out of the narrow space afforded by the formal institutions of democracy, creating an ecosystem of opposition leaders supported by a vibrant community of civil rights activists, labor unionists, journalists, academics, philosophers, historians, religious leaders, and artists.

For example, Kim Dae-jung, South Korea’s first liberal president, began his public life as an opposition legislator against Park Chung-hee. The other two liberal presidents, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in, were attorneys and activists who litigated and protested against the Park and Chun dictatorships’ abuse. These leaders’ activism was supported by student protesters led by figures like Im Jong-seok, Lee In-young, and Lee Hae-chan; the religious leadership of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, Father Augustino Ham Se-woong, and Pastor Moon Ik-hwan; the labor unionists that would eventually form the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions; and attorneys like Jo Yeong-rae and Park Won-soon who advanced strategic litigations. Political scientists like Choi Jang-jib and Ri Young-hee would supply the theoretical spine of the movement, while historians like Kang Man-gil and Seo Jung-seok contextualized it. Journalists like Song Geon-ho would chronicle the democracy movement; musicians like Kim Min-gi and Jeong Tae-chun would supply the anthem of the movement.

Understanding this ecosystem is critical for locating South Korea’s center-left politics. Contrary to the simplistic caricature that reduces it to a handful of student activists, the liberal politics of South Korea is borne out of a complex civil society. South Korea did not achieve democracy with a band of young radicals storming the presidential residence; it did so by having this civil society gradually prevail over the dictatorship, then continuing to liberalize the South Korean society by increasing the reach and sophistication of the progressive civil society. The fact that this civil society prevailed over political repression, as well as the overwhelming electoral disadvantage in the early stages of South Korean democracy, speaks to the civil society’s enduring and transcendental strength.

The current form of left-right division in South Korea was set in 1990, when Roh Tae-woo, the second-in-command of the outgoing dictator Chun Doo-hwan and Korea’s first democratically elected president, sought to overcome his deep unpopularity by co-opting some of the democracy activists. In the first democratic election South Korea held in December 1987, Roh won with just 36.6% of the total votes in a four-way race that featured two major democracy movement leaders, Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, as well as Park Chung-hee’s right hand man Kim Jong-pil. In a controversial move dubbed the “Three Party Merger,” Roh combined forces with Kim Young-sam and Kim Jong-pil, creating a supermajority conservative party then called the Democratic Liberal Party. The Peace Democratic Party, led Kim Dae-jung, became the sole remaining center-left party in the National Assembly. On the strength of the Three Party Merger, South Korea’s conservatives repeated the presidency when Kim Young-sam won the election to succeed Roh Tae-woo in 1992.

Despite the many splinters, mergers, and name changes of political parties since, South Korea’s basic political landscape today remains essentially the same since the Three Party Merger of 1990. South Korea’s conservatives are an amalgam of the heirs of authoritarians and center-right democracy activists; liberals, the heirs of center-left democracy activists. The conservative civil society, the counterpart to the progressive civil society, has included large corporations or chaebols (which grew in a symbiotic relationship with South Korea’s authoritarian regimes,) most of the print media, and Evangelical Christians.

Until very recently, the conservatives generally had the upper hand in electoral politics. To win the presidency, South Korea’s liberals had to rely on event-driven politics and splits in the conservative ranks. Kim Dae-jung won the presidency in 1997 by allying with a splinter conservative faction led by Kim Jong-pil, following the catastrophic 1997 Asian Financial Crisis that left the Kim Young-sam administration deeply unpopular. Roh Moo-hyun won the presidency in 2002 by allying with centrist Chung Mong-joon. Moon Jae-in won the presidency in 2017 following the impeachment and removal of Park Geun-hye, which devastated the conservatives. The pattern of South Korea’s liberals eking out wins significantly affected the manner of liberals’ governance, as their narrower political base compelled the liberals to take more moderate stances than they otherwise would have.


South Korea’s progressive political outlook prominently features history and international affairs, the forces that shaped the country. Korea’s 20th century was a series of traumatic events, beginning with Imperial Japan’s brutal colonial rule, followed by the division, an apocalyptic civil war, and dictatorships backed by the United States. The South Korean left’s historiography drew a throughline in these events and crafted a historical narrative that saw a long march toward freedom fueled by popular movements. This narrative was advanced through highly popular books of historical analysis, such as Song Geon-ho’s Understanding the History of Pre- and Post-Liberation and Ri Yeong-hee’s Logic of the Turning Age, forming the backbone of Korean liberals’ understanding of their own country.

In the left’s view of history, Korea’s modern civil society was born out of the resistance against Imperial Japan’s colonial rule. After Imperial Japan lost World War II and Korea gained independence, the onset of the Cold War divided Korea into two, with each half falling into different versions of authoritarianism backed by the Soviet Union and the United States. Koreans overcame each of these externally imposed challenges by mobilizing its civil society. Against Imperial Japan, Koreans organized a massive nationwide protest in the March 1 Movement of 1919, whose legacy was carried through the Provisional Government of the Republic of Korea that battled for Korea’s independence. After the division, (South) Koreans defeated the dictatorship of Syngman Rhee through the April 19 Revolution of 1960, and repeatedly stood against dictatorships in episodes like the 1979 Bu-Ma Protests and the 1980 Gwangju Democracy Movement until they finally achieved democracy in 1987 through the June Struggle. The 2016-17 Candlelight Protests was the continuation of these popular resistance movements that rose against the re-encroaching authoritarianism of Park Geun-hye, the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee.

This narrative has its weaknesses. For instance, it de-emphasizes North Korea’s agency in launching the Korean War. But litigating the merits of this narrative is beyond the scope of this paper. For the purpose of this discussion, it would be sufficient to say this historical narrative has found a strong purchase in South Korea. The adherence to some parts of this narrative is not entirely partisan. The preamble of the Constitution of the Republic of Korea, for example, recounts this historical narrative by connecting the nation’s legitimacy to the popular resistance against Imperial Japan: “We the people of Korea, proud of a resplendent history and traditions dating from time immemorial, upholding the cause of the Provisional Republic of Korea Government born of March First Independence Movement of 1919 . . .” Yet it is fair to say this historical narrative has resonated much more strongly among South Korea’s liberals, forming the foundation of their worldview.

This worldview, in turn, informed South Korean liberals’ foreign policy instincts. Because they understand Korean history as a century of suffering under external imposition – first by Imperial Japan, then by the Cold War hegemons who sponsored Korea’s dictators – the liberals would aspire for independence, autonomy, and self-determination. This aspiration often takes the form of nationalism, anti-colonialism and skepticism toward international entanglement, which makes South Korean liberals distinctive from most of the center-left in post-industrial societies. Roughly speaking, in most countries with high standards of living (which usually are former colonizers), the right-wing tends to subscribe more to the nationalistic ideology while the left is more internationalist. In South Korea, a former colony, this dynamic is often reversed.

South Korean liberals’ foreign policy instincts set their basic stance with respect to the major neighboring countries. (As explained further below, however, these basic stances are modulated and evolved by the time they are actualized into concrete policy initiatives.) The liberals’ approach to North Korea is where they have the clearest distinction from the conservatives. Because liberals see the division primarily as an externally-imposed injustice, they do not see North Koreans primarily as antagonists, but people to be reunified with. Liberals’ strongest criticism is reserved for Japan, Korea’s former colonizer which maintained close ties with South Korea’s conservatives even after the independence, and remains unrepentant over its imperial history involving slave labor and military sex slavery. Liberals also takes a skeptical stance toward the United States, questioning the adherence to the alliance that provided fodder for South Korea’s authoritarians and compelled South Korea to join the unpopular wars of the United States in Vietnam and Iraq.


Within the context of the English-language discourse regarding South Korean politics, the moderating influences that shape liberal foreign policy stances are almost never discussed. Indeed, glazing over this critical step is the mechanism through which South Korean liberals are painted as anti-American radicals, by creating the implication that when in power, South Korean liberals would implement policies that indulge in the most extreme version of their ideological tendencies. Such implication, however, ignores the fact that the radicals were but one component of the progressive civil society that supported the democracy movement. It also ignores the fact that, as a governing force, South Korea’s liberals operate in the reality of electoral politics, which not only shaped the liberals’ policy agenda but also the character of their leaders.

Three mechanisms operated to solidify the liberals’ foreign policy instincts into a set of real-world policy initiatives, and in the process moderated those instincts. The first mechanism is the preference of the electorate: the South Korean public has consistently favored a strong ROK-U.S. alliance and pragmatic diplomacy. The South Korean public also strongly disapproves of an armed conflict with North Korea, which may well evolve into a nuclear war. Acting within this electoral climate, South Korea’s liberals also developed and implemented the foreign policy initiatives that largely stayed within the bounds of the public preference. Moreover, South Korean liberals typically prevailed in a presidential election by riding an event-driven wave and/or relying on a split in the conservative ranks. This tendency has compelled South Korea’s liberal leaders to hew close to the public’s preferences and push to move the social consensus on foreign policy only incrementally.

The second mechanism is the personal history and character of the liberal leadership. All three of South Korea’s liberal presidents – Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in – rose to become leaders through the institutionalized electoral politics. Kim began his public life as an opposition legislator in 1961. Roh began as a civil rights attorney, then was elected to the National Assembly in 1988 and became a household name with his sharp questioning of the members of the Chun Doo-hwan dictatorship. Moon was a partner in Roh’s legal practice, joined Roh’s Blue House as a senior staff, then also won a National Assembly seat in 2012. Their political upbringing within the institutionalized electoral politics blunted whatever radical or idealistic tendencies they may have had. Kim Dae-jung, famously, admonished liberal politicians to be “equipped with both the philosophy of a scholar and the instinct of a merchant.” This, too, steered the liberals toward a slate of pragmatic foreign policy.

The third mechanism is the bureaucracy through which South Korea’s liberals would implement their foreign policy. Compared to conservatives who have held the government dating back to the dictatorship era, Korean liberals’ hold of the government has been relatively short. Holding power for the first time in 1997, the bench of foreign policy minds who could fill the key leadership positions such as the Foreign Minister, Unification Minister and National Security Advisor was shallow. And because liberals have not had much time to penetrate the ranks of working-level diplomats, the liberals’ foreign policy initiatives were often moderated by the practitioners who sometimes engaged in outright resistance.


The net result of all of the foregoing is that South Korean liberals’ foreign policy, in broad strokes, does not look all that different from the conservatives’. Both treat the U.S.-ROK alliance as a bedrock, and pursue a flexible approach with North Korea that avoids a war. Both take a pragmatic attitude toward Japan, as well as to China. This results in the real world events that seem surprising on the surface level, as discussed in the previous part of this series: “appeasing” liberals scoring decisive military victories against North Korea, while “tough” conservatives aggressively pursuing a dialogue with North Korea; the “anti-American” liberals dramatically increasing the scope of the U.S.-ROK alliance, while the “pro-Japan” conservatives making a gratuitous visit to the Dokdo Islets to drum up domestic political support.

This is not to say there is no difference between the foreign policy of South Korean liberals versus the foreign policy of South Korean conservatives. Rather, it is to say that the difference is much smaller than commonly articulated, and not consistent with the simplistic caricature of South Korean liberals as pro-North Korean and anti-American radicals. But even the small difference matters; over time, they add up to a big difference. The foreign policy pursued by Korea’s three liberal presidents put the country in a different place from where a conservative president may have taken it. The next part of the series will review the key foreign policy moments of Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in’s presidencies, and consider how the liberal worldview and historiography were actualized into real world policies by these presidents.

S. Nathan Park is an attorney based in Washington, DC practicing international litigation. Mr. Park is a non-resident fellow of the Sejong Institute and frequent contributor for media outlets such as CNN, the Washington Post, Foreign Policy, etc., regarding politics and economy of East Asia. The views expressed here are his own.

Picture from the flickr account of the Republic of Korea

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