The great cultural advances made by the Republic of Korea have, ironically, helped to put its social problems in the spotlight of the world.
Take the Korean TV show, Squid game, which is currently the most popular program on Netflix in Japan, the United States and many other countries.
Its hit status should confer prestige on South Korean actors and writers. Yet the program itself portrays a dysfunctional society torn apart by class struggle. It touches on many disorders: suicide, mysogony and violence. It is both shocking and convincing.
Squid game isn’t the only story on screen exposing South Korea’s social ills. Bong Joon Ho’s 2019 film Parasite won an Oscar drawing on similar dark themes.
Despite its brutal dramas, South Korea is by no means a particularly violent country. The economic growth it enjoyed helped fund a thriving entertainment industry. His movies and TV shows are often brutal, but they feature sophisticated production values ââand display a sort of sordid glamor.
They could also be seen as a cry of pain over some of South Korea’s systemic problems: corruption, as well as soaring house prices, issues that successive presidents have vowed to address, with limited success.
President Moon Jae In is now seen as a disappointment by many of his former supporters. Disillusioned voters punished his party in regional elections earlier this year, and his record will be examined ahead of next year’s presidential vote. Mr. Moon himself is constitutionally barred from running for a second term.
Another living character is hoping to take Mr. Moon’s place at the Blue House: Lee Jae Myung. He recently won the nomination to represent Mr. Moon’s Democratic Party.
Meet ‘Mr. Leprechaun’
According to NikkeiMr. Lee is nicknamed âMr. Leprechaun.â Soft drink is a term used by South Koreans as a metaphor for someone with an aggressive and unstoppable character. He has also been called an outsider, populist and bulldozer.
The son of a street cleaner, he chose the class struggle as the central theme of his political rhetoric. Its radical left policies include a universal basic income amounting to a monthly sum of 500,000 KRW (420 USD).
On the foreign policy front, South Korea’s relationship with Japan has seriously deteriorated under President Moon, and Mr. Lee does not seem in a rush to fix things.
When he won the nomination for the Democratic Party, Mr. Lee proclaimed:
“I am going to make the Republic of Korea surpass Japan, catch up with the advanced countries and finally lead the world.”
He demands that Japan apologize for the âcomfort womenâ issue. It is a legal campaign in South Korea to coerce Japanese companies, such as Nippon Steel, to pay fines for colonial-era events, which ended in the middle of the last century. Japanese leaders, including new Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, are adamant that the case is without merit.
Since taking office, Mr. Kishida has spoken by telephone with the heads of government of the United States, China, India and Australia. He has yet to make a phone call to Seoul.
To the north
Presidential candidate Lee Jae Myung is also out of step with Japan on North Korea. As the current Japanese government continues to push for a hard line on the sanctions, Lee suggests they should be rolled back to allow more inter-Korean projects.
The North recently reopened a telephone hotline to the South. He also presented sophisticated new weapons, including missiles fired into the Sea of ââJapan.
Dictator Kim Jong Un admitted his country was facing a crisis. He recently spoke to the ruling Workers’ Party of Korea about the “unprecedented hardship” and “grim situation,” involving a poor harvest and severe containment of COVID-19.
NK News notes that at the start of his political career, some conservatives dubbed Lee Jae Myung a “follower of the North” (jongbuk). He rejected that label, even filing libel lawsuits against some accusers.
In the past, Lee has also spoken out in favor of scaling down South Korea’s defense alliance with the United States, although he hasn’t spoken out particularly on this issue lately. .
If he were to become president, he would also have to find an effective way to deal with China, which has become more of a threat than a friend by many Koreans.
South Korea, unlike China and the North, is a multi-party democracy with many political views expressed in the press. This ensures a lively campaign ahead of the presidential election next spring.
Mr. Lee’s main rival will be from the People Power Party, which is conservative. This person will be selected in the party’s primaries next month. The challenger will try to build on the wave of support for the PPP following the municipal elections earlier this year.
Another obstacle that could hamper Mr. Lee’s journey to the Blue House is a spiraling corruption scandal. An investigation is underway into massive bribes allegedly paid to heads of Seongnam City Council, south of Seoul, when Mr. Lee was mayor. The prosecutor’s office recently arrested Yoo Dong Gyu, Mr. Lee’s assistant and former acting CEO of the city development company.
If Mr. Lee is seen to have been involved, it could damage his image as a common man, struggling against entrenched privilege and corruption.
However, the case could be turned into a useful plot for future Korean drama, especially one that requires an outspoken populist as a hero or an anti-hero.
Author: Duncan Bartlett
Duncan Bartlett is a regular contributor to Japan Forward and is Editor-in-Chief of Asian Affairs and Associate Researcher at the SOAS China Institute at the University of London. He currently teaches diplomacy and international relations in the Economist Executive Education, A New Global Order course.
Find his essays on JAPAN Before on this link.