Editor’s Note: David Volodzko is the former national editor of the Korea JoongAng Daily, the sister paper for The New York Times in South Korea. His writing has also appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New Republic, Bloomberg, Slate, Vice and The Diplomat. He has spent 15 years in Asia and reports on Korean affairs for the South China Morning Post. The opinions expressed in this commentary are his own. View more opinion articles on CNN.
Once the home of free-market capitalism and a hawkish view of our adversaries, the Republican Party continues to support President Donald Trump despite his protectionist trade war with China and dovish bond with Russian President Vladimir Putin. One eventually has to ask whether anything would be enough to unmoor such obedience.
Though not a perfect parallel, recent events in South Korea may shed light on this question. Like Trump, former President Park Geun-hye was elected in 2012, partly thanks to a disinformation campaign (state prosecutors said the government’s chief intelligence agency posted 1.2 million-plus Twitter messages to sway public opinion in her favor), support from rural voters in the nation’s southeast (the stronghold of the conservative party), a potent dose of rosy retrospection (make Korea great again) and an indeterminate amount of racism.
These last two are part of the legacy Park rode in on, that of her father, the dictator Park Chung-hee, who is credited with modernizing the nation’s economy and who promoted a belief in Korean racial purity that remains problematic today. Though it’s difficult to say how much a role these two factors played, there was certainly some nostalgia among her supporters for the “Miracle on the Han” and the miracle of the Han – the former being the period of growth that carried South Korea from postwar poverty to becoming the economic power it is today, and the latter being a belief in the purity and greatness of the Korean race, a belief that still has some traction but is especially noticeable in North Korea, according to B.R. Myers, a professor of international studies at Dongseo University in Busan (who has written a book on the topic titled “The Cleanest Race”).
Other possible similarities between Trump and Park include using the seat of office for personal gain (something for which Park has been found guilty but for which Trump, it must be noted, only stands accused of by critics), granting a loved one top-level access, targeting members of one’s own party who aren’t sufficiently loyal and claims by supporters that the subsequent probe into her abuse of power and bribery allegations was a witch hunt.
Still another similarity is that, for a while at least, she seemed unbeatable. Even after her botched handling of the Sewol tragedy in 2014 (in which a ferry carrying mostly high school students sank, killing 304 passengers and crew), she bounced back with a 20-point surge in her approval rating – from 34% to 54% – in late 2015, a result of her hardline stance against North Korea.
But by late November 2016, she had dropped to an abysmal 4%, according to a Gallup Korea poll. Even staunch supporters in her own party abandoned her in droves. It’s hard to imagine something similar taking place in the United States under almost any condition. So, what did it take for Korean conservatives finally to wake up to the news?
Showing up at the ballot box
Park’s downfall didn’t begin with her baroque scandal, which involved giving top secret information to her Rasputin-like confidante, her involvement in a reportedly shamanistic cult, a McCarthy-like blacklist and her receipt of more than 23 billion won ($20.66 million) in bribes.
It began months before, when Park’s conservative party lost 24 seats in the 2016 legislative elections, falling 146 seats down to 122 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly. It was a devastating loss, attributed to her party’s deselection of candidates who were seen as insufficiently loyal.
Koreans saw this as an affront to their democracy and voted accordingly, marking the start of Park’s precipitous decline in approval and robbing her of any political capital with which to weather the coming scandal.
Hitting the streets
Second, people hit the streets. On one Sunday in December 2016, up to 2.3 million protesters showed up to demand Park’s resignation amid the corruption scandal. It was the largest rally in the nation’s history. Rejecting the old narratives of racial and economic pride, Koreans turned to a different page in history: the democratization movement of the 1980s. Park’s election as South Korea’s first female President had made the nation seem more “woke” than most, and the economy was on a tear, bleeding liberal activists of their raison d’être.
But her corruption scandal gave the nostalgic left the perfect reason to replay a classic ’80s hit. Social tuning, or the process of adopting other people’s attitudes, almost certainly also played a role here. If you turned on the nightly news to see a major protest in New York, your likeliness of siding with the protesters will probably increase with their size. Given enough people, you might feel yourself facing a choice between the remaining members of your party and your fellow Americans.
South Korea is a society that emphasizes education. It has among the highest global literacy rates in science, reading and math. It also has the highest rate of tertiary education in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. This is a well-educated population with an existential reason to stay at least moderately well-informed. The 2012 campaign to spread disinformation may have tipped the scales for Park, but generally speaking, their level of education means that South Koreans are not easily taken in by false reports. It’s also worth noting that Korea is home to a different business model for online news outlets. Instead of resorting to subscriptions, donations or traffic from aggregators, outlets can partner with Naver, the so-called Google of Korea.
This means Naver pays news outlets to feature their content, theoretically allowing for sweeping changes to rapidly defend against disinformation, such as banning the use of automation software. But the business model is not without problems of its own – a Korea Bizwire report from April noted that “Naver has been accused of being complicit in spreading fake news and rigging public opinion.”
In response, Naver CEO Han Seong-sook pledged in May a complete overhaul of the site, such that the company will no longer edit or arrange news, but will leave that to news outlets themselves. This is a crucial step, because as with Facebook, its dominance (most Koreans reportedly get their news from Naver) offers great opportunities for change but comes with serious risks.
Although there are several similarities between Trump and Park, it would be foolhardy to push the comparison too far. For one thing, Trump has not been accused of taking bribes as Park has. Also, during Park’s scandal, South Korea was experiencing rising unemployment and household debt, problems Trump doesn’t have. His protectionist policies will likely bring them on, but only time will tell.
And some may argue that unity in South Korea wouldn’t have been possible were it not for the fact that it lacks significant racial diversity, but this ignores the very deep divisions in Korean society along regional, religious, economic and political lines. Yet Koreans overcame these divisions. Conservatives, in particular, chose to invest in democracy rather party politics, and Park’s party nearly broke in half.
Back in America, there are good reasons to be hopeful. The formula outlined above is a simple one – speak up, stand up, read up – and Americans are doing well. Democrats appear to be winning the race for Congress, and four of the biggest protests in US history – the 2017 Women’s March, the 2018 Women’s March, the March for Our Lives and the 2017 March for Science – have taken place since Trump assumed office. The government is also actively investigating Russia’s disinformation campaign, while social media giants such as Facebook, which aggregates the news for many in ways not unlike Naver, scramble to address the issue.
This is not an argument for complacency. Voter turnout could be higher, activism stronger and the public can always be better informed. If anything, we should stay on this road and step on the gas.
At his 500-day mark, Trump had the second highest “own party” approval rating of any President since World War II. Last month, that figure slipped from 90% to 82%, its biggest drop so far, though it has since recovered to 87%. But we can regain that momentum. We need a sustained public outcry, a willingness to read the news with a keener eye and some consideration about the shape of our media landscape. Most of all, we need to figure out where we stand together and what it is that makes us all Americans despite everything that sets us apart.
That kind of insight was on full display during South Korea’s demonstrations. Confronted with rank corruption, Koreans responded with dignity. How bad would things have to get for us to hit 4% approval with Trump, whose overall approval rating currently stands at 40%, according to Gallup. We may never see the Republican Party abandon him at such rates, no matter how bad things get. But it doesn’t have to be that way.