In Liberation Day speech, Yoon strikes an illiberal tone

Posted on : 2023-08-16 16:58 KST Modified on : 2023-08-16 16:58 KST
Yoon has become increasingly forceful in his stance of viewing those critical of his administration as opposing liberal democracy and treating them as targets for eradication
President Yoon Suk-yeol sings along to the official song of National Liberation Day at an event for the occasion on Aug. 15 at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. (presidential office pool photo)
President Yoon Suk-yeol sings along to the official song of National Liberation Day at an event for the occasion on Aug. 15 at Ewha Womans University in Seoul. (presidential office pool photo)

President Yoon Suk-yeol’s second National Liberation Day address of his term was filled with strong language, including his branding critics of the current government as “anti-state forces” and openly expressing hostility toward them.

In his speech, which lasted 15 minutes, Yoon invoked anachronistic anti-communist views by stating that “anti-state forces that blindly follow communist totalitarianism, distort public opinion, and disrupt society through manipulative propaganda” are “still rampant.” Such statements highlight the president’s regressive, far-right opinion that communism is something to be eradicated.

“In a divided nation, the confrontation between liberal democracy and communist totalitarianism is a reality. And the activities of those anti-state groups are likely to persist,” Yoon said. “We must never succumb to the forces of communist totalitarianism. We must not be deceived by those who follow and serve them.”

He went on to say that “the forces of communist totalitarianism have always disguised themselves as democracy activists, human rights advocates or progressive activists while engaging in despicable and unethical tactics and false propaganda,” and that “as the totalitarian forces disrupt and attack our societies, they take full advantage of the legal rights enshrined in free societies. That is the way they survive.”

By viewing South Korean society as divided between liberal democracy and communist totalitarianism, Yoon and his administration have effectively lumped together progressive civil society and opposition parties to label them all “anti-state” and “communist totalitarian” forces.

However, Yoon did not specify what “despicable and unethical tactics” those “anti-state” forces are cooking up.

The presidential office explained that the National Liberation Day address was an expression of the reasons Yoon entered politics in the first place, claiming that it held the key to his intentions in the future and how he plans on steering the administration going forward.

“The speech was referring to Yoon’s expanded notion of freedom, which is based on the idea that we can only move forward by breaking down all obstacles to liberal democracy,” a presidential office official said. The same official added that the remarks were made to “raise recognition that some who call themselves human rights activists disguise their true identity.”

Another official explained that the president was “referring to the practice of the political establishment creating false propaganda with nonsense and then spreading those rumors through the media and civil society.”

Yoon has become increasingly forceful in his stance of viewing those critical of his administration as opposing “liberal democracy” and treating them as targets for eradication.

His first use of the term “anti-state forces” came during a talk with the chairperson of the People Power Party’s local party bargaining committees last October. At the time, he declared that “governance with hostile anti-state forces is not possible.”

At a Korea Freedom Federation (KFF) event in June, he said that “anti-state forces with a distorted historical perspective and irresponsible views on the state have been singing about an ‘end-of-war declaration’ that would dismantle the UN Command.” These remarks sparked controversy at the time, since they seemed to target the opposition parties with which the PPP would need to cooperate on governance, as well as the previous administration, which had advocated a declaration officially ending the Korean War.

Political science scholars and veteran observers said the message shared in Yoon’s National Liberation Day was too biased and extreme in its right-wing views to be viewed as the words of a head of state with a responsibility to mitigate social conflict, achieve unity, and resolve Korea’s political division.

“President Yoon is interpreting the Republic of Korea’s spirit of liberalism and constitutional government along far-right lines,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a professor of political science at the Kyung Hee University Global Academy for Future Civilizations.

“His reference to ‘anti-state forces’ in his celebratory address can only be seen as motivated by the notion that such individuals represent a ‘group’ within society, rather than just a handful of people,” he added.

Choi Chang-ryul, a professor of political science at Yong In University, said, “National Liberation Day is normally a time when people talk about inter-Korean and Korean-Japanese relations and national unity, but [Yoon] is approaching it from a standpoint of ideology and taking sides.”

“This sort of message does not contribute to unity,” he stressed.

A veteran former official in the field of foreign affairs and national security asked, “At a time when it would scarcely be enough to achieve national unity, how can they hope to clear a path toward peace and prosperity when they’re trying to divide the public and go back to the antagonistic Cold War order of the 1950s with their talk about ‘anti-state forces blindly following communist totalitarianism’?”

Assessments in the political world were sharply divided.

In a commentary, PPP senior spokesperson Kang Min-kuk said, “It is our duty to resolutely reject those who exploit past suffering and history and those who threaten the free Republic of Korea that has been sustained through the blood and sweat of patriotic martyrs.”

In contrast, Democratic Party senior spokesperson Kwon Chil-seung said, “There was no National Liberation Day celebratory address from the president today. There was only the kind of monologue you might hear from a far-right YouTuber or a right-wing street protestor.”

By Kim Mi-na, staff reporter; Bae Ji-hyun, staff reporter; Shin Min-jung, staff reporter; Lee Je-hun, staff reporter

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