The American journalist H.L. Mencken once quipped that if a politician found he had cannibals among his constituents, he would promise them missionaries for dinner. As Korea gears up for April's parliamentary elections, the recently rebranded Saenuri Party is apparently doing all it can to illustrate Mencken's point. Nominally conservative, the Saenuri Party is at present doing its best to outflank the progressive Democratic Unity Party by promising an expanded menu of welfare programs and market restrictions which, while they might make Roh Moo-hyun grin in his grave, are nevertheless a reminder that politics is a principles-free sport.
Rumor has it that conservatives stand for free markets, a reliance on oneself and one's family, and a supposed distrust of government. Like most politicians, however, this Saenuri bunch (dating back to their days as the Grand National Party) has been neither coherent nor consistent in their defense of such principles, attracting well-deserved criticism from the left for pardoning criminal businessmen and from the classical liberal crowd for restricting market competition and trying to pick winners. Yet, while Saenuri politicians may be slippery, they are no fools: they know which way the political winds are blowing and have realized that their inability to articulate their core principles (assuming they have them) has landed them in hot electoral water. Which brings to mind another American humorist, Groucho Marx, who once remarked that "those are my principles, and if you don't like them...well, I have others." Just let the Saenuri politicos know what they need to say in order to get elected and they'll parrot it right back to you.
As Stephan Haggard and Jaesung Ryu pointed out in a Peterson Institute blog post from last week, however, conservatism in Korea, as compared to its American cousin, is different sort of brew. Consider that Park Chung-hee, the dictator who ruled Korea through most of the 1960s and 1970s, is labeled a conservative in these parts despite overseeing an industrial and trade policy that would make left-wing American progressives (and "national greatness conservatives") sigh in statist envy. Moreover, Korea's constitution, in stark contrast to that of the United States, hardly bespeaks skepticism about unchecked state authority.
...the [Saenuri Party's] new platform, called “promise to the people,” embraces a welfare-state and the idea of “democratizing the economy.” Progressives in South Korea have long sought to reform the country’s monopolistic chaebol structure; it may seem strange that a conservative party is advancing greater state involvement in the economy. But recall that the party’s standard-bearer is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, a firm believer in industrial policy. The country’s constitution has a surprisingly expansive role for the state, stipulating that “[t]he State may regulate and coordinate economic affairs in order to maintain the balanced growth and stability of the national economy, to ensure proper distribution of income, to prevent the domination of the market and the abuses of economic power and to democratize the economy through harmony among the economic agents” (Article 119, Section 2).
As Gavin Stevens, a character in William Faulkner's novel, Requiem for a Nun, put it, "the past is never dead. It isn't even past." Conservative politicians in Korea - like politicians as a general breed - have always had an affinity for government power, so why should we be surprised by their current contortions as they desperately seek to retain their positions?