30.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Run-up to the 2024 Parliamentary Elections in South Korea. Part Ten: Amusing Propaganda Techniques

Amusing Propaganda Techniques

As this text is being written, South Korea’s parliamentary elections are less than a month away. In this situation, both Democrats and Conservatives are engaged in a certain struggle for votes, and this struggle is largely reduced not so much to glorifying themselves, but to slinging mud at their opponents. At the same time, direct campaigning by officials is prohibited as the use of administrative resources, and under South Korea’s defamation laws, even the dissemination of truthful defamatory information can be punishable. Therefore, in order to explain who is good and who is bad, a rather non-trivial means is used.

South Korea is a relatively religious country and therefore the head of the Protestant church, or at least the local pastor of a large parish, matters in terms of who his parishioners will vote for. That is why on January 25, 2024 the Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the constitutionality of banning pastors from using church services for election campaigns. The case reached this high court after a number of Conservative pastors had filed a lawsuit over the matter, challenging the fines imposed.

Another interesting technique is the use of movies, both fiction and documentary. And here both the left and right camps are exerting themselves, because the image of a politician “immortalized” in the movie often overshadows the image of the real politician, just as Russians, recalling anecdotes about Vasily Chapayev, describe not the real civil war commander, but the fictional character created by the writer Furmanov and then played in the famous movie by the actor Babochkin.

The Democrats got in early and released a political action movie Seoul Spring back in November 2023, covering the events of December 1979, when General Chun Doo-hwan seized power. Being a dictator in real life, he appears in the movie as the incarnation of perfidy and abomination, and in order to prevent relatives or Conservative circles from bringing a case of insulting the memory of the dead, the villain was renamed Chun Doo-gwang, and now he is a fictional character who is not susceptible to insult anyone. But the fact is that the current president Yoon Suk-yeol is often compared to dictator Chun because of his decisive character and desire to tighten the screws, so the release of such an emotionally charged movie for the election is a kick to the Conservatives.

But they paid back in their own coin, and Netflix’s popular series Killer Paradox suddenly featured a character called “Chairman Hyun”, who was absent from the original plot, but was blatantly copied from Democratic Party Chairman Lee Jae-myung. This includes his appearance (black-rimmed glasses and grey hair slicked back) and a number of other details that immediately reminded viewers of Lee. For example, the scene where Hyun eats sushi while in jail over tax evasion, embezzlement and bribery charges related to a land redevelopment project recalled both “Seongnam Gate” and the scandal in which Lee’s wife improperly used a provincial government credit card to buy sushi, beef and other expensive groceries. In addition, Hyun’s prison number 4421 corresponds to the 442.1 billion won ($331.9 million) earned by the construction company as part of “Seongnam Gate.”

In response to the Democrats’ outrage, Netflix said the speculation was “baseless” and denied any connection between the character and the DPK leader.

However, this is not the first such experience for Chairman Lee. Back in 2016, the noir action movie Asura: The City of Madness was released in the ROK”, with the main villain being a corrupt city mayor. The offences he commits there are very similar to all the offences Lee is charged with today in the cases against him, and the name of the city of Annam is a direct reference to the city of Seongnam, of which Lee was once mayor.

Documentary movies for the election were also released by both camps, and each attracted politicians of their respective stripes, with some using movie reviews as part of their campaign messages in the run-up to the election. Han Dong-hoon, interim leader of the People’s Force, watched the 100-minute documentary dedicated to Lee Seung-man, “The Birth of Korea,” released on February 1 and dedicated to Lee’s “efforts and sacrifices for the founding of South Korea.” After watching the movie, Han told reporters that Lee “made crucial and timely decisions that brought Korea to its current state.” These include, according to Han, the signing of the Korea-U.S. Mutual Defense Treaty and post-war land reforms. Han, however, cautioned against over-idealizing Lee, unlike other Conservative politicians such as, MP Park Soo-yeon, former Minister of Patriots and Veterans Affairs Park Min-shik and former “paleoconservative” leader Na Kyung-won, who have announced their bids to run in the parliamentary elections. ”I hope this movie will contribute to a fair assessment of Korean heroes,” Na Kyung-won wrote on her Facebook account on Saturday, arguing that Lee’s achievements were downplayed under the previous Moon Jae-in administration.

Park Soo-young linked the documentary to the election, saying, ”It is crucial for the right-wing conservatives to win in order to reclaim our proud national history.”

Meanwhile, liberal politicians watched the documentary “Kim Dae-jung on the Road” released on January 10 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Kim’s birth, and the movie attracted more than 120,000 viewers. Among those who watched was former President Moon Jae-in, who said after watching the movie: “As we approach the upcoming elections that will determine our future, I hope everyone will act as vigilant citizens and work together to get our currently fragile nation back on its feet.”

Lee Jae-myung and Lee Nak-yon also attended the premiere screening of the movie.

Left without such attention, Lee Jun-seok is looking for ways to compensate. The leader of the Reform Party accused the authorities of pressurizing the mass media not to cover the activities of the political structure he heads. According to him, a certain influential official contacted the management of media companies and gave them instructions to this effect. In this regard, Lee said that if he comes to power in the future, he will send anyone who tries to restrain and suppress him to jail.

The next technique of political campaigning is to look for hidden meaning where there may not have been any. This is where the Conservatives achieved notoriety. When the weather forecast of MBC TV, known supporters of the Democratic Party, showed the anchorwoman standing next to a huge blue number one and saying that the temperature in Seoul today was ONE degree and the concentration of fine dust had also dropped to the value of ONE, Han Dong-hoon criticized the TV station and indignantly said that MBC was calling for votes for Democrats. For blue is the official color of the Democratic Party, and their candidates go to the polls as number one. The People Power even filed a complaint against MBC with the Korea Communications Standards Commission, the telecommunications watchdog, accusing the broadcaster of directly supporting the Democrats.

On the other hand the “blue one” is being actively “forced as a meme” by those who sympathize with the Democrats.

Finally, both sides actively cling to their opponent’s “missteps.” And while Yoon Suk-yeol has become somewhat more careful with his words, other politicians from both camps are competing to shoot themselves in the foot.

Let’s start with the Conservatives. When politician Song Il-jung the other day said that it was necessary to take an example from Japan, which skillfully developed human resources, and mentioned in this context the ‘Chōshū Five’ (young men who secretly went to Britain to University College London for an internship in 1863), the Democrats immediately reminded the world that Itō Hirobumi, Korea’s first Resident-General, was among them, whereupon Song ‘appeared’ to be a follower of the Japanese far-right, supporting the man whom the Korean historical narrative holds responsible for Korea’s loss of independence.

Even a bigger full house was drawn by Hwang Sang-moo, the president’s senior secretary for civil and social affairs, who, criticizing the aforementioned MBC, recalled the “case of an economic newspaper reporter being stabbed in the leg twice in 1988 in front of Hyundai Apartment.”

Hwang was referring to the case of the late journalist Oh Hong Geun, who was editor of the JoongAng Economic Daily and later became President Kim Dae-jung’s press secretary. After Oh wrote a column titled “Military Culture To Be Eradicated,” agents of the Korean Defense Ministry’s Intelligence Command attached the reporter (which was confirmed during the investigation).

Hwang apparently meant that it was much more dangerous to criticize the government in the past and asked the reporters present not to mention it, but the Democratic Party of Korea and Lee Jae-myung personally accused him of “threatening the media,” saying Yoon should fire him from his post.

Although Hwang apologized and the presidential administration said on March 18 that it had never used “coercion” against members of the media, even ruling party leader Han Dong-hoon suggested that Hwang resign.

For the Democrats, it was Lee Jae-myung who distinguished himself. On March 8, as part of his campaign, he walked into a restaurant where he decided to chat with locals and introduced himself to them: ”Lee Jae Myung, ‘Number One’ on the ballot … or are you one of those second-rate people” 2찍 in Korean)? Influenced by the outrage, Lee later published a post in which he apologized for his joke, saying that ROK citizens have an inalienable right to support the parties they want, after all, they are the masters of the country.

Then, a National Assembly candidate from Seoul’s Gangbuk district named Chung Bong-joo made a very strange joke about the idea of holding sporting events in the DMZ: “you know what’s cool about the DMZ? We’ll go to the DMZ and give away prizes. We’ll give crutches to those who get their ankle blown off from stepping on a mine.” Then MPs from various parties accused Chung of mocking his own country’s army, deciding that he was referring to an incident in 2015 when several South Korean military personnel were blown up by land mines, triggering a major spike in inter-Korean tensions.

As a result, the situation reminds the author of the presidential election 2022, in which candidates were measured not by ratings, but by anti-ratings, though it will be discussed in the next article what the people’s voice looks like in the form of opinion polls and what the forecasts for victory are.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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