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An Overview of South Korean politics

Mohsin Dingankar is Intern at the Institute for Defence Studies and Analyses, New Delhi.
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  • July 01, 2010

    South Korean politics might elicit images of major scuffles and melee fighting between parliamentarians, and of security guards storming the National Assembly. However, it possesses a much more intriguing and unpredictable fabric than mere collar grabbing. Considering the size and population of the country, one would not expect it to possess the political dynamic that it does. A large number of cleavages define South Korean politics; the most prominent currently are regionalism and a generational divide. Regionalism has persisted in South Korea since democratization in 1987, the roots of which were laid much earlier in the 70’s under the military dictatorship of Park Chung-hee (Hochul, 20031). The generational divide surfaced in 2002 during the Presidential election of Roh Moo-hyun only to die down during the 2007 Presidential election of Lee Myung-bak, but only to resurface in the June 2010 mayoral and gubernatorial elections.

    The South Korean political system can be classified into two camps: that of Conservatives and Progressives. Currently, these two camps are represented by the GNP (Grand National Party or Hannara-dang) and the DP (Democratic Party or Minjoo-dang) both of which have faced scores of names changes and mergers over the years. While conservatives are pro-USA and staunchly anti-North Korean, the progressives can be loosely categorized as being anti-USA and if not pro-North, at the very least, benevolent towards North Korea which they see as an ailing but kindred nation and the US as a disruptive interloper. What most characterized these two parties and ensured their survival over the years was not ideology but iconic leaders like Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung – the heroes of Korean democratization, but who are alleged to have ruled these parties like their personal fiefdoms, cultivating cleavages and alliances with other players to ensure their political survival. Kim Young-sam belonged to the much more industrialized western Youngnam region (consisting of the provinces of Gyeongsangbuk-do or North Gyeongsang, Gyeongsangnam-do or South Gyeongsang, and the cities of Busan, Ulsan and Daegu), while Kim Dae-jung belonged to the mostly agrarian and relatively poorer eastern region of Honam (consisting of Jeollabuk-do or North Jeolla, Jeollanam-do or South Jeolla, the Jeju islands and the city of Gwangju).


    There are many theories as to the origin of regionalism and some of these factors are listed here. Regionalism gained ground in the 70’s because of pork barrel policies pursued by Park Chung-hee (Hochul, 2003) in favour of his home region of Youngnam and the endless persecution of Kim Dae-jung. The sense of alienation of Honam voters worsened after the Gwangju massacre against democratization protesters in 1978. This massacre was orchestrated by Chun Doo-hwan, Park Chung-hee’s military successor, and the American role in allowing Chun Doo-hwan to use troops under joint command also led to an anti-American attitude amongst the people of this region.

    Some of the other reasons for regionalism are Confucianism (Diamond & Kim, 20002) or rather the Korean variant of it; the rivalry between the ancient Silla and Paekche kingdoms corresponding to Youngnam and Honam of historical Korea (Kim Byung-Kook, 20003); the aforementioned personality based politics (Diamond & Kim, 2000; Stockton & Heo, 20044); regional sentiment (jiyeok gamjeong) (Kim Wang-Bae, 20035; Park Sang-Chul6); intra-regional disparity (jiyeok geukcha), the absence of local government until the mid-1990’s (Kim Wang-Bae, 2003) and the restoration of local self governance system (jibang jachi) (Park Sang-Chul) et al. The hatred of the Korean people toward regionalism can be grasped by the fact that regional sentiment has been called a “ruinous national disease" (mangguk byeong) (Kim Wang-Bae, 2003). There is a saying in the Korean media that the Korean peninsula is not divided along North-South lines but along East-West lines (along Honam and Youngnam respectively).

    Generational Divide

    The generational divide amongst the Korean populace started during the 2002 Presidential election of the progressive Roh Moo-hyun, who was seen as an outside contender for the country’s top post. Roh garnered the support of the so called ‘386’ generation i.e., people in their 30’s, who went to college in the 80’s (the time of the strongest pro-democratization protests) and were born in the 60’s. Roh won this election against the hard-line conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang on a tide of popular support, but his five year term in office had a calamitous effect on the DP in the 2007 election. Roh was faced at the outset with minority strength for his party in the Korean National Assembly (the Gukhoe), a condition termed yoso yadae in Korean. Many of his reforms were frustrated by the opposition party and Roh took to calling for referendums to validate his mandate. While Roh was a staunch anti-American politician, he sent peacekeepers to the war effort in Iraq and also started negotiations for a highly controversial free trade agreement with the USA. Roh barely survived an impeachment procedure against him for a violation of election protocol, after it was struck down by Korea’s Constitutional court. This same court also struck down Roh’s plans to shift the capital of the country to a newly formed Sejong City in South Chungcheong province from Seoul – the traditional Chosun capital for centuries. The generational divide failed to gain salience as an issue in the 2007 election when former Hyundai executive and Seoul strongman Lee Myung-bak ran against a weak DP candidate (Presidents are limited to only one term in South Korea). The Capital Region voters (consisting of the cities of Seoul, Incheon and the province of Gyeonggi, of which Seoul is an enclave), fearful of the effect the shifting of the capital would have on their economy, backed Lee. Chungcheong – long called the ‘Kingmaker’ in Korean politics for its historical role of being the swing state in between two candidates from Honam and Youngnam, voted against the DP for what it saw was a betrayal of the promise to shift the capital. Paradoxically, in what characterizes Korean politics before elections, Lee pledged his support to the change of the capital in Chungcheong while also canvassing voters from Seoul because of his fierce and well known stance against such a move.

    Reason for the resurgence of the generational divide

    The most important is the sinking of the Cheonan on March 26, 2010. Once the findings of the international commission investigating the incident were made public, President Lee engaged in a rhetorical war with the North Koreans, raising fear amongst the South Korean public about the occurrence of an actual war. Even though various polls showed that the South Korean youth believed the probability of war to be low, tensions in the peninsula remained high. On June 2, local elections for the mayoral and gubernatorial positions in the country were held. These elections can be seen as a precursor to the more important Presidential elections of 2012. It was expected that the GNP would sweep the elections, at least in their stronghold areas, because of the war fright and the need to have a strong anti-North Korean regime at the centre that would be bolstered by local victories. The results however, ran contradictory to most poll predictions. The DP won in its bastions, but also made inroads into traditional GNP areas like South Gyeongsang and Gangwon province (bordering North Korea to the North-east) by fielding strong former Roh administration candidates and also because of the death anniversary of President Roh who committed suicide last year in the midst of corruption charges levelled against him. Even in Lee Myung-bak’s vote-bank of Seoul, the DP candidate came excruciatingly close only to lose by a small margin to the GNP candidate.

    The other important factor was the Twitter factor: large numbers of the youth were mobilized via Twitter and it is a known fact that when voter turnout is high, it is bad news for an incumbent as voters turn up to vote to prove a point against the ruling party. This election result was seen as a strong riposte to the bellicose tactics of President Lee Myung-bak and his party.

    Where is South Korean politics headed to in the future?

    The next most important point of reference would be the Presidential elections of 2012. Although Lee Myung-bak would not be able to contest that election, a front-runner for the GNP nomination is Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee. She is expected to win her home region of Youngnam, but is also expected to win a majority share of the votes in Chungcheong because of her support for the revised Sejong City plan. What this open support does to her chances in Seoul is left to be seen. The calibre of the candidate fielded by the DP is also of utmost importance. Han Myeong-sook (who lost narrowly in the Seoul mayoral elections) could be a strong candidate despite her loss because of her experience as Prime Minister under Roh Moo-hyun. Another front-runner was Rhyu Shi-min but his comprehensive loss in Gyeonggi has put another Roh official, Kim Doo-kwan (also called little Roh), as a major frontrunner because of his victory in the GNP stronghold of South Gyeongsang. However, losses in elections do not necessarily put a politician out of contention for future office as was seen in the case of President Roh who had lost the mayoral election of Busan early in his political career. The positions of either party candidate with regards to economic policies, North Korea, Sejong City, the Four Rivers project, OPCON (Operational Control of the US over Korean forces), and the KORUS FTA will be contributors to their support and probability of victory.

    What is happening to the ideological divide?

    Empirical analysis of South Korean voters does not see much difference between progressive and conservative voters (Chae and Kim, 20087): the only major differences being in perceptions of North Korea and the US, and even in these cases the progressive perception is much more nuanced and centrist. As a result, the distinction between the two major parties on all issues except North Korea and the USA is slowly becoming blurred.

    What will happen to the regional divide?

    Scholars have predicted that voting in South Korea would be predicated on the lines of an X divide (Seong, 20088), with a strategic alliance of the Capital Region with the Youngnam region. Taking it even further, it can be easy to expect a ‘Kingmaker’ or rather dictatorial role for the Capital Region as it possesses 45 per cent of the National Assembly seats and 48 per cent of the registered voters (roughly 48 per cent of the voters in the 2007 Presidential Election belonged the Capital Region).9 In light of these statistics, it would be easy to assume that no party can now afford to alienate voters in this region because of their regional bases. It should also be easy to assume that the importance of Honam and to a certain extent Youngnam as party bases for the DP and GNP respectively would reduce considerably. Voters in the Capital Region will now punish any political party that they see as not beneficial to their economic interests. Even though Seoul and the surrounding region do not play a zero sum game with the other regions, there are still many bubbling issues that could create such a controversial scenario.

    Gone is the age when political defectors preferred to run as independents rather than switching over to opposite parties in their home regions due to the fear of being ostracized by voters. As both parties realize the importance of Seoul and the relative lack of importance of their home regions (rational choice theory would predict that parties support swing voters rather than their core voters), and start fielding strong candidates in opposition regions, this effect of regionalism will wane, something that is already being experienced.

    There have been fears in the conservative bloc that the election results showed a resurgence of the DP after the debacle in 2007 (Young-bin10). This resurgence of the youth to vote against specific issues that they deem not beneficial to themselves can be the dominant cleavage in South Korean politics; a generational divide between younger voters with an alignment toward liberal policies and an older generation with more conservative beliefs. This generational divide will also be affected by lingering beliefs of regionalism that will take a considerable amount of time to erode completely. Also, given the traditional anti-incumbent wave in South Korea, it is difficult to predict the dominant cleavages that will underscore the politics of the region. Predictions can only go so far in estimating voter behaviour in South Korea since the fading and resurgence of cleavages is abrupt and ever so frequent.

    • 1. Hochul, Sonn. "Regional Cleavage in Korean Politics and Elections." Korea Journal 43.2 (Summer 2003).
    • 2. Kim, Byung-Kook. "Chapter 3: Party Politics in South Korea’s Democracy: The Crisis of Success." Diamond, Larry and Byung-Kook Kim. Consolidating Democracy in South Korea. Lynne Rienner Publishers Inc., 2000. 199.
    • 3. Kang, David C. "Chapter 6: Regional Politics and Democratic Consolidation in Korea." Kim, Samuel S. Korea’s Democratization. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997.
    • 4. Stockton, Hans and Uk Heo. "The Changing Dynamics of Regionalism in South Korea’s Elections." Global Economic Review 33.3 (2004): 1-22.
    • 5. Kim, Wang-Bae. "Regionalism: Its Origins and Substance with Competition and Exclusion." Korea Journal 43.2 (2003).
    • 6. Park Sang-Chul, The Korean Association for Public Administration, available at (last accessed 25 June 2010)
    • 7. Chae, Haesook; Kim, Steven. “Conservatives and Progressives in South Korea.” The Washington Quarterly 31.4 (Autumn 2008): 77-95.
    • 8. Seong, Kyung-Reong. "Strategic Regionalism and Realignment of Regional Electoral Coalitions: Emergence of a Conservative Government in the 2007 Presidential Election." Korean Journal of Sociology 42.8 (2008): 1-26.
    • 9. This data is obtained from the National Election Commission (NEC), Korea and is interpreted by the author.
    • 10. Young-bin, Kwon. [Viewpoint] The GNP needs to reform and unite, Joong-Ang Daily. 10 June 2010. Last accessed 25 June 2010 .