South Korea politicians pile in after billionaire's 'crush commies' campaign goes viral on social media

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South Korea’s conservative politicians, including presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl, are backing a billionaire’s online anti-communism campaign using a slogan harking back to the Korean war.

The word myulgong, which means “crush commies” or “annihilate communism”, has been trending on social media in the past week after Chung Yong-jin, head of the country’s retail giant Shinsegae, wrote a series of Instagram posts with the hashtag. The platform initially removed the posts but then restored them, saying they had been automatically taken down as they contained offensive words instigating violence.

Chung, undeterred, followed up with further Instagram posts including “I hate communism” and “let’s all shout myulgong together”, grabbing news headlines and attracting hundreds of “likes” and supportive comments from other users.

The use of the word myulgong was common after the three-year conflict between North and South Korea ended in 1953. The North was backed by China and the then-Soviet Union while the US backed the South. While the US and North Korea signed an armistice in July 1953, there has never been a formal peace declaration between all parties, which liberal South Korean President Moon Jae-in wants to rectify before his five-year term ends in May.

However, Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) has opposed Moon’s plan. If elected, Yoon has vowed to ditch the policy of “strategic ambiguity” – which aims to reinforce Seoul’s security alliance with the US while also maintaining friendly ties with largest trading partner China – and replace it with closer alignment to Washington. South Korea’s diplomacy must be based on universal values such as human rights, democracy and the rule of law, he has said.

His comments reflect a deepening political divide in the country over South Korea’s balancing act between the two superpowers. But opinion polls, including two published on Monday, show Yoon is now trailing behind the ruling Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-Myung by a margin of six percentage points.

On Saturday, Yoon posted a photo on Instagram of himself shopping at a convenience store, part of the Shinsegae franchise, in the residential Dongjak district of Seoul alongside the hashtags #E-Mart, #dalgyal (meaning egg), #pa (spring onion), #myulchi (anchovies), and #cong (beans). A video released by his campaign also shows an AI-generated avatar of Yoon speaking the phrase dal pa myul cong – a combination of the first syllables for the four foodstuffs in Korean.

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Questioned about the meaning of the enigmatic post, Yoon brushed aside suggestions that he was implicitly supporting Chung’s anti-communist crusade, asserting instead that he was merely buying food for his dinner.

But Kim Eui-gyeom, a lawmaker who formerly served as a spokesman for Moon, said he had solved the “enigma”.

According to him, dal pa is a derogatory term for Moon as dal means moon in Korean and pa means destroy. Myul cong alludes to myulgong, he said, as cong was a pejorative term for the Viet Cong during the Vietnam war.

“In sum, dal pa myul cong means destroy President Moon and annihilate communists,” wrote the lawmaker of the Open Democratic Party, an ally of Moon’s Democratic Party, on his official Facebook account.

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Some high-profile politicians from the PPP agreed with Kim’s interpretation of the homonym.

Na Kyung-won, former PPP head, posted pictures of herself buying myulchicong, and a chocolate bar named “Freedom Time” at an E-mart store, alongside a comment saying: “It becomes an issue only in communist countries for people to say ‘I hate communists’. Myulgong, Freedom”.

Others from the party followed suit, with spokeswoman Kim Yeon-joo posting a picture to Facebook of her shopping at another E-mart store alongside the hashtag “#dal pa myul cong”, and prosecutor-turned-politician Kim Jin-tae writing on his account: “Why don’t we launch a myulgong campaign together?”.

The Democratic Party accused the opposition of resorting to an anachronistic anti-communist campaign to bolster support for Yoon, a former prosecutor general who was once the front runner to replace Moon before a series of gaffes, growing doubts over his capabilities as an administrator and allegations about his wife manipulating career resumes hurt his chances.

“Yoon’s new campaign slogan – ‘crush commies’ – is only suitable for an era of black and white TV”, said Nam Young-hee, a spokeswoman for Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung.

Nam’s view was echoed by a lawmaker from the other side of the political divide. Lee Yong-ho, a People Power Party member, called for the conservative opposition’s embrace of the #myulgong hashtag to end.

Myulgong was a slogan that was in fashion in the 1950s and 60s after the end of the Korean war”, he said. “Now is time for the South and the North to work for reconciliation and peaceful co-existence”.

This article was first published in South China Morning Post.