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[Kim Myong-sik] Disturbing anti-intellectualism in politics

Most South Korean adults must probably know what the “586 Generation” means. If you are a foreigner unfamiliar with Korean politics, let me explain. It refers to the bunch of midcareer politicians who were born in the 1960s and entered college in the turbulent 1980s, so naturally who now are in their (late) 50s.

The 586 Generation, or just “586” for short, emerged as a group occupying a big turf in Korean political topography when many people who were active in pro-democracy movements against military dictatorships entered politics, running for the National Assembly or other levels of elections. At first, they were called “386” from the model number of new personal computers because they were mostly in their 30s.

Then, why the current hot debates on the collective fate of the 586 in the post-election South Korean politics? For example, Park Ji-hyun, interim co-chairwoman of the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, told a regular meeting of the party’s steering committee that whoever belongs to the 586 group should depart from the party hierarchy to take the responsibility for the defeat in the March 9 presidential election.

That surprise call had a dramatic effect because the 26-year-old leader recruited in an emergency shakeup of the fresh opposition party was literally surrounded by the 586 group in the conference room. On the day before, Park had publicly apologized in a solo press conference for “all the mistakes and absurdities” her party had made, putting blame mainly on the 586 people.

The DP, which holds a large majority of 167 seats in the unicameral 300-member National Assembly, is in serious disarray since its candidate Lee Jae-myung lost to political novice Yoon Suk-yeol in March, and the 586 men and women who form the largest single age group in the party caucus came under fierce attacks from both inside and outside. Why?

In fast-evolving Korean politics, the time of pro-democracy movements is long past but the 586 warriors would not concede their position of power although people think that they had had enough rewards for the contributions they made to the democratic development. Major scandals have exposed arrogance, egotism and even hypocrisy in the private lives of prominent members of the group.

In his inaugural speech, President Yoon singled out “anti-intellectualists” as harmful elements in society that need to be weeded out for national development. All who listened to the address on the National Assembly lawn and on TV knew whom the new chief executive had in mind because the 586 in the previous ruling force was the key target in his campaign offensive.

He argued that many countries, including South Korea, are experiencing polarization within society and deepening internal strife and discord while political processes fail to address such problems in the face of a crisis in democracy. “One of the main reasons for such failure is the troubling spread of anti-intellectualism,” said the president, who until about a year ago was the prosecutor general in the leftist government of President Moon Jae-in.

“When individuals disagree on certain issues and seek to reach a compromise, they can only do so when scientific facts and the truth work as the basis of their discussions. This is rationalism and intellectualism that is the foundation of democracy … When we choose to see only what we want to see ... when the masses bludgeon and silence those who do not agree with them and do this through brute force -- this is how anti-intellectualism gravely weakens our democracy and puts us in peril.”

President Yoon has thus declared war against anti-intellectualists, aka 586, because he knew how the people who gave him election victory evaluated the past Moon administration and who they blame for the economic and social retrogress over the past five years. Yoon’s characterization of the former power group as anti-intellectualists came from his experiences as a lawman.

As soon as he was appointed as the prosecutor general in 2019, he spurred investigation into misdeeds involving the family of Cho Kuk, the top aide to President Moon who was soon to become the justice minister. Exposures of the family’s dishonorable to illegal affairs forced Cho out of the ministerial job in a month. Further probes into other 586 scandals led to an all-out ostracism against Yoon by members of Moon’s inner circle.

Quickly loosing Moon’s favor, Yoon found himself in fast-rising popularity among people who were disappointed with the leftist government’s radical reversal of policies from the previous conservative framework and was eventually recruited by the right-wing opposition People Power Party for the presidential election.

The 386, “486” and 586 phenomenon in the 21st-century Korea showed the rise and decline of politics and its actors in the process of settling liberal democracy based on rationalism, intellect and intelligence beyond partisan orientation. As power was exchanged between parties, Korean people have chosen a balance between the right and left with strong detesting of audacity and arrogance.

As a legacy of authoritarian rules in this country spaced over four decades until the late 1980s, public esteem was given to politicians who suffered personal disadvantages in their defiance against power. Presidents Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung were the products of such social protocol, which also brought so many former pro-democracy activists to the center stage.

Lee Myung-bak, the industrialist president (2008-2013), sought to lessen the influence of the former dissidents but he rather suffered from their persistent resistance throughout his term of office. After the unfinished rule of Park Geun-hye, the 586s in the Moon Jae-in days virtually controlled the administration and party, earning the reputation of anti-intellectualism.

Coincidentally, the new president’s lambasting of anti-intellectualists was echoed by the DP’s co-chairperson Park Ji-hyun in her bold demand for their departure. The latest nationwide election of local magistrates and councilors was an occasion for the people to express their evaluation of the 586 and their peculiar political behaviors. The results of the polls need careful study.

According to “A Handbook of Literature” (1980), anti-intellectualism means “hostility to and mistrust of intellect, intellectuals, and intellectualism, commonly expressed as deprecation of education and philosophy and the dismissal of art, literature, and science.” President Yoon would accept this definition, so it is hoped that his rejection of anti-intellectualism will have positive impact not only on the political community but on the overall intellectual climate of this country.

Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald and former managing editor of The Korea Times. – Ed.

By Korea Herald (
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