December 7, 2017 1:45 pm JST

South Korea's Moon still surfing wave of anger at conservatives

National mood buoys president's popularity but complicates diplomacy

HIROSHI MINEGISHI, Seoul bureau chief

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye, center, is escorted to a Seoul detention center on the morning of March 31. (Yonhap/Kyodo)

SEOUL -- About a year after Park Geun-hye's presidency was engulfed by a scandal, South Korea's left-leaning groups and labor unions are gaining influence under her liberal successor, Moon Jae-in.

A prime example of the national mood: On Nov. 14, a ceremony was held at the Park Chung-hee Memorial Library in Seoul's Sangam-dong district, marking what would have been the former president's 100th birthday. A leftist group blocked the handover of a donated statue. 

Plans to issue a commemorative stamp were also shelved, due to pushback from Moon, the country's first progressive leader in nine years.

The Park Chung-hee Memorial Library in Seoul

Park Chung-hee's military dictatorship led the country to economic growth. Kim Dae-jung, a later successor who had suffered oppression under the Park regime, partly funded the library as a symbol of reconciliation. 

"It seems politics is changing too much, and it is heartbreaking," a library staffer said with a quiet sigh.

Park's daughter, Park Geun-hye, is surely feeling the change more than most.

In a matter of months, she went from the Blue House to a jail cell, brought down by an influence-peddling scandal connected to a longtime confidante. When Park appeared for a court date in late September, the once-powerful politician appeared a lonely figure. She entered the room, bowed and sat down, holding her back. 

Former South Korean President Park Geun-hye leaves a Seoul hospital in August. © Yonhap/Kyodo

Since her arrest for abuse of power and corruption in late March, she has reportedly seen a doctor for back pain three times. 

Park appeared indifferent to the hearing as she scribbled on a piece of paper. In detention, she has reportedly immersed herself in "Daemang," a translation of a long novel by Sohachi Yamaoka about Japan's "warring states" period between the mid-15th and early 17th centuries.

In mid-October, Park's detention was extended by up to six months. Having "lost faith" in the court, she reportedly decided to boycott the trial. Local media reports say she is avoiding contact with anyone, including her state-appointed attorney.

Meanwhile, since Moon took office in May, a number of Park's top intelligence officials have also been arrested. Every day, broadcasters show footage of the disgraced ex-president in handcuffs, and of her former aides getting in and out of police vans in prison garb. 

The reason is clear: Moon's sustained popularity stems from this ongoing purge of the "evils" in South Korean society. His approval rating stands at 72% according to Gallup Korea. The public supports his push to rid the country of unfair practices seen as byproducts of conservative leadership.

Anti-Japan sentiment

In the broad sense, the conservative establishment includes anyone who went along with Japanese colonial rule. So the shifting political tide is bound to impact Japan. 

On Nov. 13, a group of students at the prestigious Ewha Womans University in Seoul put up a sign in front of a statue of the school's founder. The sign read: "Ashamed of the statue of a pro-Japan [figure]." A civic group that helped the students is planning to open a museum on the history of colonial rule near Seoul Station in March. The museum is expected to condemn South Korean nationals accused of being sympathetic to Japan.

While statues of individuals who shaped modern South Korea are being denounced, monuments commemorating the "comfort women" used by Japan's military during World War II are proliferating. A professor close to Moon said that, at this point, the comfort women issue is 70% a domestic problem. But the South Korean government turns a blind eye to civic groups responsible for the statues, while Japan condemns their behavior. 

This ongoing cycle is overshadowing Northeast Asian security in the face of the North Korean nuclear threat.

While Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe and U.S. President Donald Trump appear to have a close relationship, Japan has yet to begin talks with either the U.S. or South Korea on how to ensure the safety of Japanese nationals if a crisis erupts on the Korean Peninsula. Some speculate the U.S. is trying to avoid angering South Korea, which is wary of Japan's Self-Defense Forces and the security alliance between Washington and Tokyo. 

But if there was ever a time for South Korea and Japan to put aside their differences, this is it.

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