Don’t create fertile ground for populism Chang Duk-jin The author is a professor of sociology at Seoul National University. The world has been plagued by populism since the 2008 global financial crisis. In the background were the side effects of neoliberal globalization, such as deepening economic inequality around the globe. If former U.S. President Donald Trump is deemed a right-wing populist, U.S. Senator Bernie Sanders is a left-wing populist. The subversive ideology claiming to defend the interests of “the people” against “the elites” is in full swing in both hemispheres — the Coalition of the Radical Left (Syriza) in Greece, the Five Star Movement (M5S) in Italy, the Podemos in Spain, the National Rally (previously known as the National Front) in France, Reform UK in Britain, and the Pink Tide sweeping through Latin America, for instance. Populism often aims to get popular support. But the essence of the unique ideology lies in “defining your enemy,” not in blindly courting popularity. Simply put, it refers to the utmost conviction that you can do anything to protect the majority of the populace after defining who’s your enemy. Usually, the elites are portrayed as the “enemy,” but external threats also can take their place. Populism often disguises itself as a form of direct democracy, but only serves as a tool for populists to exploit the people for their own political gains. At first glance, right-wing populism prevails over left-wing populism, but the latter is nearly as potent. If you open a world map, you will notice that the Northern Hemisphere is dominated by right-wing populism while the Southern Hemisphere by left-wing populism — more specifically, developed economies with high income mostly seized by right-wing populism whereas low-income countries by left-wing populism. But strangely, Korea shows strong signs of left-wing populism even though it is a developed country in the North. Of course, right-wing populism is also active in Korea. But asked which of the two poses a bigger threat to our democracy, the answer is left-wing populism. Leftist populism often reflects the anti-elite, anti-capitalist, and anti-globalization trends, as well as social justice, pacifism and nationalism. Of course, rightist populism also shares the anti-elite and anti-establishment sentiment with leftist populism. But differently from the left-wing populism that champions the rights for minorities, the right-wing populism in the North shows intense hostilities toward immigrants, in particular. Whether the Yoon Suk Yeol administration represents left-wing or right-wing populism is disputable. Some pundits vehemently criticize it for being a right-wing populist government, but it can hardly be categorized as either one for now. The conservative administration’s repeated emphasis on rooting out a “deep-seated cartel of vested interests” certainly suggests a populist tendency. But as long as the government can specify the targets of its attack — against a sinister cartel of builders which brazenly skipped using steel beams in their apartment construction, for example — the administration doesn’t have to be condemned. Instead, what provoked an international criticism of the conservative government was its apparent anti-women and anti-feminist policies. The conditions for antagonistic attitudes toward migrant workers — a common denominator for advanced economies — have not been matured yet in Korea, when considering the relatively small size of their population. Despite some serious human rights issues with foreign workers, the ethnic Korean Chinese and North Korean defectors in this country, their size is not large enough to define the political identity of the government. What matters is the administration’s ability to tackle such challenges. If it can set specific policy goals and change people’s lives, it will be evaluated as reforms. But if it resorts to ambiguous rhetoric to justify its policy, it will provoke criticism for being populist. It takes a little longer to determine the real character of the government. Meanwhile, the political identity of the Moon Jae-in administration is quite clear. It was certainly a left-wing populist government — as clearly evidenced by its relentless drive to eliminate what it called “past evils,” a series of punitive taxes on the rich starting with their real estate, its surreal obsession with establishing a peace regime with North Korea, and its unprecedented incitement of nationalism and anti-Japanese sentiment so methodically spiked by the active justice minister. Many experts detected typical signs of left-wing populism in the Moon administration. Regrettably, however, the liberal administration made a wrong choice. It could be launched thanks to the massive candlelight protests in Gwanghwamun Square, which worked the miracle of mingling his Democratic Party (DP)’s traditional supporters with moderate conservatives. But after being elected president, Moon brushed off a precious opportunity to unify the nation, chose a populist path, and hid behind his hard-core followers. If he had taken a path toward national unity and sublimated the energy from the colossal protests into grand dialogue and compromise, he could have made an epochal change. But he didn’t. DP leader Lee Jae-myung shows an acutely populist inclination. As the presidential candidate of the majority party last year, he came up with a radical slogan of “Oppressing the strong, while boosting the weak.” He even pledged to introduce the universal basic income, if elected — which has never been enforced anywhere — and fund the program by imposing land possession tax on the top 10 percent income group. At first sight, the idea may look appealing, but it’s the same as realizing his personal wish with other people’s money. The problem is that levying a punitive tax on the rich is nearly impossible as they are already paying the highest level of income and property taxes. Nevertheless, the populist candidate was barely defeated by his rival Yoon by a razor-thin margin of 0.73 percentage points. Lee’s unrivaled populist temper originates from his character. But even if he disappears from political scenes, leftist populists will continue to appear, given the fertile grounds for their emergence in Korea. Populist wannabes explicitly saw a number of DP lawmakers pledging their allegiance to the leader even after a motion to endorse the prosecution’s request for his arrest warrant was passed in the National Assembly. If this is not a success story of a left-wing populist, what is? As a professor delving into our society’s contradictions, I singled out three factors — polarization of wealth, fast aging and the limits of our democracy — as major sources of our social problems since 2013. To reduce negative effects of wealth polarization and rapid aging, politics must do its fair share. But over the past 10 years, our politics has evolved into a populist monster after adroitly riding a wave of societal changes, let alone incapable of addressing the deepening bisection. Scholars on fiscal studies urged the government to devise countermeasures against a critical shortage of tax revenues from fast aging, as effectively suggested by researches in Japan over the last two decades. While explaining why his administration drew up a tight budget, President Yoon warned against the fiscal complacency of the former administration. Clearly, it is important for a government to budget rationally and transparently when taxpayers are bound to decrease. And it is not fair for the former liberal president to brag about his administration’s “better performance on security and economic issues than the current one” even after leaving humongous debts to the next administration. Nevertheless, the government must avoid explaining its policy only by criticizing the previous administration. The tax cuts under the conservative administration carries significance as they represent a reversal of the unfathomable tax hikes under the liberal administration. But its focus on blaming the past government without explaining the rationale of its own policy can be perceived as right-wing populism by the people. Even conservative media outlets are rushing to report about shortages of tax revenue from lowered taxes on the rich and large companies. If the country is trapped in the vicious cycle of a tax hike and cut without principles, it will only enrich the conditions for more left-wing populists in this country. The government must aim for systemic reform. It must correct the system because the previous administration went against market principles — not simply because it made fumbles. Whether it be leftist or rightist, a government must create objective conditions for populism not to take root in this country. The definition of the political identity of the Yoon administration will depend on it. Translation by the Korea JoongAng Daily staff.