Over at Korea Expose – which if you’re not reading, you really should be – Ben Jackson has posted a wonderful analysis of the reactions to the Constitutional Court’s dissolution of the United Progressive Party (UPP) and what it means for Korean democracy.
I agree with the bulk of what Ben has to say. Judging simply from what I’ve read, I think the Constitutional Court’s decision was a bad one – if you’re going to disband a political party, an act not completely unheard of even in mature democracies, you’ve got to do so based on a criteria much more severe than anything I’ve seen yet in regards to this case. And while I might sympathize – for reasons such as this – with those uncomfortable with letting possibly pro-North Korean lawmakers sit in the National Assembly where they could cause trouble, even the Israelis allow openly anti-Zionist Arab parties to sit in the Knesset, and frankly, as Ben pointed out, there are probably bigger threats to Korea’s democratic order than a tiny minority party that is held in contempt by large swaths of the Korean public, including not a few progressives. In addition, the international optics of the decision are not good, and Amnesty International is already expressing concern. Some view the decision to drag the party before the court as political retribution for UPP party chief Lee Jung-hee’s trashing of President Park Geun-hye during the 2012 presidential debates, although frankly, Lee’s rhetoric may have actually helped Park more than it hurt.
Having said that, it is remarkable that the court not only decided to disband the UPP, but it did so in a 8-to-1 decision. Centrist justice Kang Il-won and even progressively minded justice Lee Jung-mi voted in favor of dissolving the party, which makes you wonder what exactly they heard during proceedings that was so bad that they gave an entire party the political death sentence. Moreover, opinion polls (printed in conservative papers, granted) suggest over 60% of the public supports the court’s decision.
As I said in the comment section of Korea Expose, it’s impossible to talk about the court’s decision without talking about former UPP lawmaker Lee Seok-ki, who is currently doing a nine-year stint for incitement to rebel. What Lee did, and more to the point, how the UPP handled what Lee did, was almost comically bad, as I wrote back in 2013:
It seems everybody can agree that the UPP’s response to this crisis has been, in a word, abysmal. The Chosun, of course, notes that the UPP went from “there was no meeting” to “there was a meeting, but nothing about guns and blowing stuff up was said” to “there was a meeting and ‘guns’ and ‘blowing stuff up’ might have been mentioned, but the NIS is manufacturing the context” to “we were only joking.” You know you’ve truly screwed the pooch, however, when you’ve got UPP members going to the Hankyoreh to bitch about how the party leadership has thrown the party in crisis by a) refusing to apologize for Lee’s bizarre comments and behavior and b) lying to the public despite internal agreements to come clean right at the beginning.
Although justices Kang and Lee didn’t say anything in particular, the Segye Ilbo, citing lawyers and academics, suggests that the records from Lee’s investigation swayed the two into deciding with the majority. And indeed, the decision text mentions controversial comments made by Lee, including those regarding his refusal to sing the national anthem. (UPDATE: You can read the court’s decision in English here, and in Korean here).
The Chosun Ilbo sheds even more light on this. Although during proceedings, the UPP argued that you couldn’t connect the activities of some party members – i.e., Lee and comrades – to the party as a whole, the court decided that the decision by the party to defend Lee when the party was coming under fire for his actions meant Lee’s sins were the party’s sins. OK, I might not have gone in that direction, but the Chosun notes that there’s more, and it’s sort of ironic both for Lee and the party. During the criminal trial, Lee and his seven co-conspirators argued that the so-called Revolutionary Organization (RO) was not a secret organization, but rather a party event held to figure out a direction for the party’s anti-war activities. Suwon District Court, however, rejected this and judged the RO to be a secret organization that was plotting an insurrection. In the appeal, however, Seoul High Court found insufficient evidence that the RO existed and acquitted him plotting an insurrection (the court upheld the conviction for inciting rebellion, however). More to the point, the court accepted some of Lee’s arguments, namely, that his comments were made during a party meeting. So while the decision was good for Lee personally – he got three years shaved off his original 12-year sentence – it was bad for the party, which now looked like it was hosting events where people talked about blowing up vital infrastructure in the event of a North Korean invasion. Not pretty.
Moreover, the party and its predecessors have had serious internal issues in the past at least partly linked to its leadership’s attitudes toward North Korea (and its protection of members implicated in North Korea-related crimes), most notably in 2007 and 2012.
Still, while I’m much less despondent than co-blogger Anonymous_Joe or Ben, I do find myself agreeing with the lone dissenting voice on the court, who argued that it was wrong to punish the entire party for the actions of a few members and that Korea has laws – including the National Security Law – which could effectively remove seditious individuals from the policy making process. Moreover, if it’s potentially traitorous lawmakers you’re worried about, he argued, the National Assembly has its own measures to deal with them. Disbanding a party should be a last resort, and one ideally left to the voters at election time.
Sounds reasonable to me.
Anyway, a major theme in the conservative press is that Korea’s progressive movement needs to reinvent itself by cutting ties with pro-North Korean types – see today’s editorials in the Dong-A Ilbo and JoongAng Ilbo (the Chosun Ilbo, on the other hand, is still having too much fun beating up on the UPP). And sure enough, you can find progressive figures saying just that. Still, if the conservative press’s lectures come off nearly as annoying to progressives as progressive commentators’ lectures to conservatives sound every time we get spanked at the polls, I imagine the advice will fall on deaf ears. Instead, progressives are still wondering how the hell the Constitutional Court made its decision, and if today’s Hankyoreh editorial is anything to go by, what you’re going to hear are louder calls for reforming the Constitutional Court, where seven out of nine of the justices are selected by the Chief Justice of the Supreme Court and the ruling party and all are former high-ranking court officers or prosecutors, both of which are viewed as bastions of conservatism. The Hani suggests adopting the practice of the German constitutional court, the model for Korea’s (not extending to the architecture, sadly), where justices need to be approved by a parliamentary two-thirds vote.