Although capital and politics are closely intertwined in most contemporary democracies, it is rare for an electorate to vote into highest office the former chief executive of a major corporation. To a select group including Italy’s Berlusconi, Thaksin of Thailand and, at the local level, Mayor Bloomberg in New York we can now add South Korea’s tough-talking Lee Myung-bak—a.k.a. ‘The Bulldozer’—former head of Hyundai Construction and Mayor of Seoul, who was elected President by a landslide on 19 December 2007. This was not the first time a Hyundai executive had run for President of South Korea: the founder of the Hyundai Group, Chung Ju-young, garnered 16 per cent of the vote in 1992. Lee’s victory, however, has proved unprecedented in several respects. First, although Lee’s winning margin was the widest since democratic elections began in 1987—his 48.7 per cent of the vote far outstripped the 26.7 per cent won by his closest challenger, Chung Dong-young of the centre-left United New Democratic Party—the equally historic low turnout, at just over 62 per cent, meant that he had the support of less than a third of the overall electorate.footnote1

Second, although almost all of Lee’s predecessors have faced allegations of corruption and misconduct at some point during their presidency, he is the first to confront such charges even before entering office. A special prosecutor’s bureau, set up by the National Assembly shortly before the December election to investigate allegations of fraud and stock manipulation, initially cleared Lee of any wrongdoing. A further probe in January, just six weeks before his inauguration, also found him innocent. Nevertheless, suspicions of Lee’s past actions remain high, both among opposition parliamentarians and the general public. Given the notoriously intimate relations between politics and big business in South Korea’s development state, and Lee’s high-profile success in that system, it is possible that whole closets full of skeletons from his past have yet to be opened. Lee’s presidency could be dogged by corruption scandals for the next five years—should he remain in office for the full term.

For a further unprecedented aspect of Lee’s presidency has been the drastic collapse of his support, within a hundred days of his February 2008 inauguration. Protests flared after his first trip to Washington in April, where Lee kowtowed to Bush—promising that South Korea would resume beef imports from the us, banned after the bse scare of 2003—in order to get a Free Trade Agreement back on track. By June 2008 they had escalated into almost nightly candlelit protests in the centre of Seoul and other cities, estimated to have mobilized over a million Koreans. While truck drivers struck over rising fuel prices, demonstrators demanded an end to central planks of Lee’s programme—large-scale privatizations, rising education costs, attacks on labour rights—and called for him to go. On 19 June the President issued a televised apology from the Blue House. ‘Sitting on the mountain by myself and looking at the endless candlelight parades, I reproached myself for not serving the public properly’, he avowed. ‘Please watch me and the government make a new start. I will make candle-lit streets fill with rays of hope.’ Lee hastily backtracked on planned privatizations of water, gas and electricity, ditched a multi-billion dollar project for a canal connecting Seoul to Busan in the southeast, offered palliative subsidies to small businesses, striking truckers and low-income families, and scrambled to win further concessions from Washington on the suspect steers.

How should we contextualize this dramatic passage in Korean politics? The cry of Dokje Tado!—‘Down with the Dictatorship!’—was heard on the streets of Seoul this June, an echo of the mass protests that finally brought down the authoritarian Cold War government in the ‘Great June Uprising’ of 1987. Lee’s election victory, as standard-bearer of the conservative Grand National Party (gnp)—a formation with roots in the pre-87 military regimes—clearly represents a rightward shift, after a decade under two successive presidents of the centre-left, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. This was underlined by the 15 per cent of the vote scored by Lee Hoi-chang—a former gnp presidential candidate, who entered the race at the eleventh hour as an independent Cold War conservative. The trend was confirmed by the 9 April 2008 National Assembly elections, which resulted in a bare majority for the gnp (153 of 299 seats, a net gain of 32), and a loss of some 50 per cent of representation for both the centre-left United Democratic Party and the small trade-union backed Democratic Labour Party, which lost 80 and 5 seats respectively.

Yet beneath the surface of this left–right shift lies a more ambiguous transformation of South Korean politics. Lee Myung-bak is not merely an atavistic conservative. The right-wing constellation of forces that dominated South Korean politics in the decades preceding the 1987 democratic uprising—a combination of strident Cold War anti-communism, military-led authoritarianism, state-business corporatism and obsequious pro-Americanism—cannot hold as it once did. Despite its authoritarian roots, Lee’s gnp has moved decisively towards the political centre in recent years. At the same time, neither the administration of Kim Dae Jung nor that of Roh Moo-hyun were as ‘progressive’ (the term favoured by the Korean Left) as they may initially have appeared. In the case of Roh in particular, there was an acute contradiction between his core support base and political background on the one hand, and on the other, the neoliberal economic agenda he advanced. This discrepancy fatally undermined Roh’s administration, and made it all but impossible for his chosen successor Chung Dong-young to win the presidency, in the face of mass abstentions. Both Kim and Roh were products of the 80s democracy movement; yet this new layer entered office just as the 1997 Asian financial crisis threatened to unravel South Korea’s ‘economic miracle’. To understand the political conjuncture in which Lee Myung-bak is now struggling, it is first necessary to gain a perspective on the decade of rule by the centre-left.

Over the course of the 1970s and 80s, the dictatorships of Park Chung Hee and Chun Doo Hwan were challenged by one of the most extensive, organized and courageous cultures of political protest in the world. With university students as its vanguard, this ‘movement sphere’ (undongkwon) emerged in the early 1970s, and by the 1980s had formed what historian Namhee Lee has called a ‘counter-public sphere’ against the dominance of the military and monopoly capital.footnote2 The movement coalesced around the concept of the Minjung, or ‘popular masses’; it was careful to avoid any language taken directly from left traditions, still taboo in deeply anti-communist South Korea. Denied access to the works of Marx but taking a cue from Gramsci, many students worked undercover in factories to develop ‘organic links’ with the exploding population of blue-collar workers—the second component of the Minjung coalition—created by the highly authoritarian industrialization of the country via the state-backed conglomerates or chaebols (Hyundai, Daewoo, Samsung and the rest) in the post-war era.

A third component consisted of progressive elements of the Catholic and Protestant churches. Although predominantly conservative today, during the 1970s progressive groups on the Protestant margins taught and organized factory workers through the Urban Industrial Mission, which was deeply influenced by Paulo Freire’s Pedagogy of the Oppressed; while Catholic activists articulated a socially conscious ‘Minjung Theology’ akin to the contemporaneous Liberation Theology of Latin America.footnote3 A fourth was undoubtedly a powerful sense of regional exclusion. Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship had showered economic and political favours on his native Gyeongsang region in the southeast, at the expense of the Jeolla region of the southwest. The latter became the real hotbed of political opposition to the dictatorship, which led in turn to more discrimination from the centre. Finally, in May 1980 the city of Kwangju in South Jeolla province exploded in a popular uprising against the new military strongman, General Chun Doo Hwan, who responded with a bloodbath that killed hundreds of Kwangju’s citizens.