John Lee is the Conservative Columnist at NK News and the writer behind The Korean Foreigner. Born in Brunei to immigrant parents, Lee was educated in English (a legacy of British colonialism) and then went to study in the U.S., before taking up citizenship in his ancestral Korea. As such, he says he feels like “a foreigner in my own country.” I interviewed him about the upcoming Korean elections, policy towards North Korea, Korean politics, and other topics.
Mitchell Blatt: There’s been lots of news about North Korea launching missiles and threatening to test an ICBM that could hit the U.S. South Korea is having elections, and the Trump administration seems to be suggesting that they might take a more aggressive policy towards North Korea. Secretary of State Rex Tillerson said that the time for “strategic patience” is over. Do you think that Trump and Tillerson are going in the right direction on this?
John Lee: I don’t think that either Donald Trump or Tillerson are going in any direction regarding North Korea. Just recently they said that all options are still on the table. But that’s the same thing they’ve been saying since the Clinton administration. And anytime you say, ‘All options are on the table,’ what that means is, yeah, we have options, but we haven’t picked one yet. So I think they’re just going with being ‘tough’ on North Korea as far as their rhetoric goes, but I am not convinced that their rhetoric can be backed up by any significant actions.
Blatt: Suppose there was an attempt to go in a new direction. Do you think a new direction is needed?
Lee: If by “new direction,” you mean something more kinetic, then I think that would be a horrible idea. I think deterrence has worked for the past seventy years, and I think it can continue to work. Strong deterrence militarily and economic sanctions, I believe will help contain the situation as much as possible, but something more kinetic would involve a lot of human lives being lost. I think that would be the absolute worst case sanctions.
Blatt: China is talking about trying to open up four party talks. What kind of role does China play in this, and is there any possibility for China to play a bigger role in keeping North Korea in check?
Lee: I think China’s role is more limited than people think it is. It has been proven repeatedly that the North Koreans do not listen to China all that much. China does not want the North Koreans to conduct these missile tests, but they’re conducting them anyway. Recently, because of the unofficial sanctions that the Chinese has imposed on South Korea, China has lost a lot of good will with the South Koreans, too. Four party talks might be enticing for the next progressive government, but I think they will have a hard time juggling the economic interests of China with the military alliance of the United States. The military alliance, as much as they [the progressives] disdain it, is not something that they can just ignore. It would just be irresponsible.
Blatt: One of the big sticking points there is THAAD, and most of the Minjoo Party candidates over the past year have opposed it, but now they seem to be shifting their positions. Do you think in the end, they are going to—if not support THAAD—support the status quo, which is the deployment of THAAD?
Lee: Sure. As annoying as some of their rhetoric has been, we have to remember that this is an election year, and they are trying to rile up their base as much as possible. But we’ve already had the first components of THAAD brought into South Korea, and they are currently being assembled as we speak. And so by the time the elections are over, this is going to be a done deal, and they will have no choice but to accept it. They’ll just blame it on the Park administration.
Blatt: Do the conservatives have any chance in this election?
Lee: None whatsoever.
Blatt: Does the Baerun Party have any chance to reform conservatism?
Lee: The Baerun Party has no chance whatsoever to win the presidency. They will be lucky if they can even keep their seats in the National Assembly, but even that, I don’t think is going to happen. I think the progressives are going to win quite a number of seats in the next election.
Blatt: What are some of the differences between conservatism in the U.S. and conservatism in Korea?
Lee: The conservatism in the U.S. have always been ideological. At least before Donald Trump won the election, it was always about low taxes, having a social consciousness. There were certain talking points among American conservatives that were always the go to points that candidates always talked about. Even during their governance, they always tried to pretend they were fiscally responsible, even though they weren’t.
In Korea, on the other hand, especially with the last election, the conservatives hijacked the entire progressive platform. In the last presidential election, when the conservatives were fighting each other to see who would be the conservative standard bearer, Park Geun-hye said: I’m the conservative candidate, but I also want more social welfare. I also want more government involvement in the economy.
It’s something that would have frightened the Tea Party to death. Again, that all changed after Donald Trump won the nomination and the presidency. I guess it remains to be seen how ideological American conservatism ever really was.
Blatt: Most of the Korean presidents have left office with very low popularity, many of them being involved in corruption scandals, and now of course Park is being investigated for alleged complicity in the bribery scandal that caused her impeachment. Some people have talked about reforming the constitution, saying the president has too much power. Do you think changes need to be made?
Lee: Changes do need to be made, but it will require a constitutional change, and that takes a lot of political capital, and I’m not sure that progressives want to waste that much political capital on doing something that is going to be unpopular with so many voters.
Even now, the single five year term that Korean presidents have is seen as too long, but one of the best ways to make sure that Korean presidents try to be more competent at their jobs is to give them something to actually fight for. The minute they get elected to office, they become lame ducks—because they cannot run for reelection. So in order to get them motivated to not be as unpopular as they usually end up becoming, a good idea is to give them the opportunity to run for a second term.
But Korean presidents in the past have abused reelections so often that it’s an idea that a lot of Koreans still find difficult to accept.
Blatt: That would bring to mind comparisons to the Park Chung-hee and Syngman Rhee administrations, which made constitutional changes to stay in power longer.
Blatt: You have recently written about how anti-Americanism flourished in South Korea under the last liberal administration, that of Roh Moo-hyun [manifesting itself in some cases of discrimination, harassment, and even assaults]. Would Americans in South Korea have anything to fear under a liberal presidency?
Lee: There was a significant backlash against Americans under Roh. There were a lot of assaults and harassments. I am not quite sure if it can still lead to that. The thing about Korean xenophobia is that it can be very selective. A lot of it is based on politics. You have to remember that at the time of the Roh presidency, President Roh himself had actually asked, ‘What’s wrong with being anti-American?’ That’s a sitting Korean president asking that question on live TV.
Not only did that happen, there was also a lot of media coverage at the time that was specifically anti-American. Part of it was because that was a narrative that the progressives were using, and the TV stations thought, we don’t want to get in trouble with the current administration, so let’s expound on that some more. It really all depends on how Moon Jae-in behaves if or when he becomes president. If he does what his predecessor, President Roh, did, things could get ugly. Granted, because of the success of the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Deal [known as the U.S.-Korea Free Trade deal in the U.S.], it might not be as easy for him to use anti-American rhetoric.
Blatt: Do any of the other candidates in the Minjoo Party primary stand a chance?
Lee: Moon is the man to beat. People have been talking about how Ahn Hee-jung might be the dark horse, but looking at every single statistic coming out of this, Moon is way ahead of the pack.
[Editor’s comment: A poll by Realmeter from March 17 puts Moon Jae-in ahead in the primary 52.7% to 22.5% for Ahn and 21.9% for Lee Jae-myung. All other polls from earlier in March also show Moon leading.]
Blatt: In my understanding, Lee Jae-myung is more liberal…
Lee: He is a lot more liberal, but he has also offered a lot of preposterous policies, promises that only the most foolish of voters would believe he could keep if he is elected to the presidency.
Of the candidates, as far as my personal preference goes, Ahn Hee-jung seems to be the one who appears to be the most responsible of the candidates. Unfortunately, this is an election year, and people don’t care for responsibility. They want a lot of promises. They want to hear what they want to hear, and Ahn has not played to that.
Blatt: Ahn has proposed making a coalition government and having conservatives in his government.
Lee: At a time when conservatives are as unpopular as they are now, that may have been the responsible thing to say, but not the smartest.
Blatt: Moon’s involvement as Roh’s chief of staff has been controversial for his views on North Korea. The foreign minister of the Roh administration, Song Min-soon, wrote in his memoir that Moon had asked North Korea for its opinion on a referendum up for vote in the UN on North Korea’s human rights record. [South Korea abstained from the vote.] Could this issue come out to hurt Moon?
Lee: I think it is something that conservative voters will find certainly troubling, especially the older voters. Unfortunately, I’m not sure if they have enough of a coalition to use that as a wedge to go against Moon. In the last election, what we saw was a lot of older voters came out in support of Park Geun-hye. Those are all people who are anti-communist, anti-North Korea. But because of the scandal, the older voters will certainly come out in support of whatever conservative voter they have. But unlike the last time, there is no real conservative candidate they can rally around anymore. The conservatives running for the presidency are mostly has-beens and second- or third-tier politicians.
As far as the progressive voters are concerned, and especially those who are not as anti-communist as the older conservative voters, North Korea is not a big issue for them. The biggest issue for the progressive and middle of the road voters is the economy. It’s always been the economy, and it will always be the economy.
The conservatives said they would improve things. They failed. Now is the government really able to steer the economy? That’s debatable. But this is politics, so as far as performance goes, the conservatives have not lived up to the government’s expectations.
Blatt: Some in the conservative coalition have accused liberals of being pro-North Korean. On the other hand, some liberals actually have expressed sympathy for communism. Where can the line be drawn between McCarthyism and valid criticism?
Lee: The thing about accusing progressives of being pro-communist is that there’s a kernel of truth to it. There have been some cases of individual liberal leaders, or party members, have paid lip service to the North Korean government. In fact, some of them have even visited North Korea a few times. There’s always been some kernel of truth to it [accusations that progressives are sympathetic to communism or to North Korea]. Unfortunately, it’s been overused.
The same is true of the progressives. Whereas the conservatives have called the progressives pro-communist, the progressives would throw the mirror image insult, which is calling conservatives pro-Japanese. A lot of this is labeling in order to get their bases riled up. Fortunately or unfortunately—I tend to think it is unfortunate—these insults work. They help to get people really riled up. Especially with the pro-Park protest movement that was waving the Korean flag [and opposing her impeachment], even if you considered yourself conservative and argued, ‘Yeah, I’m conservative, too, but President Park did mess up, and she does deserve to be impeached,’ then they would immediately label you as a pro-communist sympathizer.
So this hasn’t been helpful to coalition building whatsoever.
Blatt: You mention that liberals accuse conservatives of being pro-Japanese. I have lived in China for the past five years, so I can see anti-Japanese sentiment plays out in China. It can be very vivid. How much of a weight does World War II [and the colonization of Korea and also Northern China that precipitated the war] still have on Korean politics.
Lee: Massively. It’s not just World War II. Korea was annexed completely. The Japanese intended to wipe out Korean culture. This has always been something that has stuck with the Koreans. Granted, it has always been a politically convenient way of deflecting domestic problems.
One of the things about South Korea is that, at least in the past, the government has always lacked legitimacy in some way. The reason for that is the Korean people have always considered themselves to be ethnically pure, members of “the one Han race.” [“Han” translates to English as “Korean.”] The thing is, between South and North Korea, North Korea does that [racial propaganda] much better. They are still talking about how ethnically pure they are. It’s nonsense, but that’s their rhetoric.
In South Korea, on the other hand, because of our reliance on the United States, and because of the trade relations and cultural sharing that we’ve had with so many other countries, we’re not as “ethnically pure,” as far as that rhetoric goes. So because of the lack of legitimacy, or perceived lack of legitimacy, the Korean government has always tried to beef up its legitimacy by pointing toward Japan, and saying, ‘Oh, look at their textbooks. Oh, they’re calling Dokdo Island ‘Takeshima’ again.’ Because of decades of priming the people to hate Japan, this is something that is deeply ingrained in the Koreans.
Blatt: In terms of North Korea, which is also threatening Japan, do South Korea and Japan have any common interests there?
Lee: I think the common interest would be tangential, because, though South Korea and Japan are not always on the best of terms, they do have one common mutual ally: the United States. The threat the North Koreans made against the Japanese was a politically-calculated move. They knew that by saying they were targeting Japan, the United States would have no choice but to speed up the process. Counterintuitively, the North Koreans want THAAD to be installed in South Korea. It has gotten the Chinese to completely back away from South Korea and brought them back into the North Korean camp.