South Korea (President) 2012

Presidential elections were held in South Korea (Republic of Korea) on December 19, 2012. The President is directly elected to a non-renewable five-year term through a FPTP system. In the South Korean system, the President – as head of state and chief executive – holds the key powers. As a result, the presidential election is often the closely watched election in South Korea.

South Korea’s contemporary politics are heavily influenced by two factors rooted in the country’s recent political history: military rule and regionalism. Between 1962 and 1992, South Korea was ruled by the military, and alternated between authoritarian periods and semi-democratic openings. Between 1962 and 1979, under the presidency of Park Chung-hee, South Korea experienced a period of rapid economic growth which transformed the poor country into an advanced industrialized economy. In this period, South Korea’s economic structure began being marked by the chaebol structures – large industrial conglomerates which ran the country’s economy through a close alliance with the state. The rapid economic development of the country thanks to Korean state capitalism remains Park’s main achievement, but he remains a very controversial figure in Korea because of his authoritarianism. Economic development, indeed, went hand-in-hand with draconian repression of the opposition (students, intellectuals and unionized labour) and an authoritarian political system rigged in favour of Park’s party and the military. At the same time, Park’s regime laid the foundations of regionalism in South Korean politics, which is one of the most surprising aspects of politics in a fairly homogeneous country. Park, a native of Gyeongsang province (Daegu and Busan), led policies which heavily favoured his native province over Jeolla, the native province of his top political rival Kim Dae-jung and historically sidelined by political elites. A wave of opposition and the risk of losing Washington’s crucial political support led Park’s secret services, the KCIA, to turn against him and assassinate him.

Out of the chaos which followed Park’s death, another military officer from Gyeongsang, Chun Doo-hwan, seized power. Chun quickly asserted his power by setting up his own dictatorial regime, arresting opponents and bloodily putting down a revolt in Gwangju (Jeolla). With the backing of US President Ronald Reagan, the country’s economy continued to grow at a rapid pace during the 1980s, but opposition movements gained strength, to which Chun responded by an eclectic policy of political reforms mixed in with good ole repression. In 1987, Chun and his handpicked successor – another military officer from Gyeongsang, Roh Tae-woo, were forced to agree to the direct election of the President in 1987. That year, Roh, the candidate of Chun’s incumbent right-wing Democratic Justice Party, was elected president over an opposition divided between Busan native Kim Young San and Jeolla native Kim Dae-jung. Roh’s administration slowly democratized the system, but with the unfortunate backdrop of corruption, regional discrimination, economic decline and associated labour unrest. Prior to the 1992 election, Kim Young Sam had merged his party with Roh’s party, and had in the process managed to take control of the party to run against Kim Dae-jung in the 1992 election, which was disturbed the emergence of a populist centrist force led by Hyundai patriarch Chung Ju-yung. Kim Young Sam defeated the other Kim in the 1992 election, with the results revealing – once again – a deep regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang.

Kim Young Sam’s presidency, disturbed at the end by the Asian financial crisis of 1997, marked the end of military rule in the country. Kim Young Sam proved to be the Trojan Horse who took control of the military-led Korean right to destroy it from within, which he did through the arrest and conviction of both of his predecessors in an ambitious and ultimately successful anti-corruption campaign. However, the economic crisis in Korea in 1997 hurt his party – now styled the Grand National Party (GNP) – in the 1997 elections which were narrowly won by Kim Dae-jung.

Kim Dae-jung, who became the first “liberal” president of the country – the opposition to the Korean right/military has largely been styled as liberal (which means slightly different things in Korea) – had a succesful presidency marked by economic growth, economic reforms aimed at breaking the chaebols power and a new policy of détente with North Korea (the Sunshine Policy). In 2002, he was succeeded by Roh Moo-hyun, whose presidency might be one of the most controversial in South Korea’s post-military history. The GNP led a futile charge for his impeachment in 2004 while backfired on them, while his economic policies in a period of less impressive economic numbers and growth attracted criticism. He also faced allegations of corruption (which led to his party’s collapse and later his own suicide in 2009) and incompetence.

Roh was succeeded by another controversial figure, Lee Myung-bak, the GNP candidate who won the 2007 election by a landslide over a discredited and unpopular liberal government. Already in hot water before his election for involvement in a scam by an investment house, Lee has been a polarizing figure. His opponents decry his authoritarian style, his economic policies which they claim are too favourable to big business and the chaebols, as well as a controversial free trade agreement with the United States. Lee has also led a more stridently pro-American foreign policy, and has shifted gears in relations with the North by adopting a more confrontational posture than the controversial Sunshine Policy of past liberal government. Lee had also struggled with a divided right – in 2007, he faced a dissident candidacy by former two-time GNP presidential candidate Lee Hoi-chang who founded his own party, the Liberty Forward Party (LFP) – but also a divided party. Lee’s loyalists have battled with members closer to Park Geun-hye, the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-hee, herself defeated by Lee in the 2007 GNP primaries.

In legislative elections held in April, the GNP – renamed and rebranded as the Saenuri Party and led by Park Geun-hye – managed a surprising victory over the liberal opposition, now known as the Democratic United Party (DUP). The Saenuri Party, which under Park’s leadership distanced itself from the unpopular President, won 152 seats to the DUP’s 127 seats.

As noted then, the legislative election foreshadowed the presidential election. Park Geun-hye, who had lost the 2007 GNP primary by a hair to Lee, had been working to gain control of Lee’s party ever since then and positioning herself for the presidency since 2008. In 2011, she gained control of the GNP and promptly rebranded it (quite successfully) as the Saenuri Party. She then proceeded to move the party towards the centre and distancing herself from the Blue House (the President’s residence) – notably on economic issues where the Korean right has naturally leaned towards a pro-business and pro-chaebol stance. Her presidential ambitions and political shift away from Lee and towards the centre have incensed some within her party, but after her party’s surprising victory in the April legislative elections, most of her internal opposition was silenced and humbled. She handily won the Saenuri primaries, with about 84% support.

Park’s somewhat unique personal history as the daughter of a dictator who served as First Lady under her father’s administration (between 1974 and 1979) following her mother’s assassination has been somewhat of an issue throughout her political career, but her family ties have not been untenable baggage. The liberal left, which opposed her father’s administration, has branded her as the daughter of a dictator. However, her father’s legacy is a divisive subject in Korea. The liberal left (and younger voters) widely loathes him and considers him a dictator who committed major human rights abuses, but the right (and older voters) is slightly more positive on his legacy, reminiscing the strong economic growth under his administration. Park recently apologized for atrocities and human rights violations under her father’s administration, but at no point in her career has she clearly disowned him and his legacy. During the primary campaign, she declined to state whether she considered the May 16, 1961 coup a coup or a necessary revolution to save the country. All in all, being the “daughter of a dictator” did not seriously hinder Park’s presidential ambitions – most Koreans do not consider her to be the “daughter of a dictator” or do not hold her father’s controversial presidency against her.

The presidential race was set on fire, late last year, by the potential independent candidacy of Ahn Cheol-soo, a 50-year old software engineer whose self-made businessman image and his outsider, nonpartisan political stance appealed to many voters – especially liberals and younger voters. Ahn had acted as a kingmaker in the October 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election, which was won by Park Won-soon, an independent backed by Ahn. Park defeated the GNP candidate in a major blow to the Blue House (Lee had been mayor of Seoul prior to becoming President).

The DUP candidate was Moon Jae-in, a lawyer and a chief of staff under the late President Roh’s administration. Roh left office with high disapproval ratings, dogged by accusations of corruption which ultimately led to his own suicide. Even within the DUP, Roh’s legacy remains a divisive issue. Moon struggled to emerge from Roh’s damaging shadow.

Park was the frontrunner in the campaign since 2008. The division of the opposition vote between the independent Ahn and the DUP’s Moon led to significant pressure for one of them to drop out in favour of the other. In late November, Ahn, who had announced his candidacy in September, announced that he was dropping out and endorsed Moon.

As in April, domestic issues rather than foreign policy were key issues in this election. As mentioned above, Lee’s policies have been decried by opponents as being too pro-business. He has been unable to live up to his “747″ economic promise (7% growth, per capita income of $40,000, 7th economy in the world). Instead, hit a bit by the economic crisis, the country has had slower growth (3.5%) and rising inflation (3%) and unemployment (4%). Voters are concerned by welfare programs and social services, which have forced both parties to tack a bit to the left.

Both candidates campaigned chiefly on the idea of “economic democratization”, that is breaking up the power and influence of the chaebols, South Korea’s industrial conglomerates which emerged during Park Chung-hee’s administration. Some sectors of the Korean right, which has traditionally been on good terms with the chaebols were alarmed by Park’s rhetoric during the legislative and presidential campaign, but her strategy proved successful in April and her campaign signaled that they would not turn back. Both candidates also spoke of expanding and strengthening the welfare state, to help those left behind by the past eras of development-at-all-costs.

Turnout was very high, at 75.8%. It was only a bit over 62% in the 2007 presidential election.

Park Geun-hye (Saenuri) 51.55%
Moon Jae-in (DUP) 48.02%
Kang Ji-won (Ind) 0.17%
Kim Soon-ja (Ind) 0.15%
Kim So-yeon (Ind) 0.05%
Park Jong-sun (Ind) 0.04%

The early favourite and the frontrunner, Park, won, becoming South Korea’s first woman President. Park’s victory is not all that much of a surprise, considering her frontrunner status since 2008 and most importantly throughout the actual campaign. Since taking the leadership of the South Korean right, she successfully managed to reincarnate her party, distance it from an unpopular outgoing administration and successfully steal the left’s advantage on hot-button issues such as economic inequality.

The high turnout level should have benefited Moon, and it could explain why he managed to come as close as he did. Moon and the DUP’s strongest base are young voters, who – as in any country – often drag their feet to the polls and need to be motivated by a successful campaign to actually turn out. However, the DUP and the liberals face a demographic problem. South Korea has a rapidly aging population, and older voters favoured Park. Older voters are more likely to have positive or nostalgic feelings about her father’s administration, they are a high-turnout demographic and they now make up an increasingly large segment of the electorate –  for the first time, more voters were above 50 than under 40.

The result is another blow to the DUP, which had already been rattled by its defeat in April. Moon did well, but he was unable to take all of Ahn’s potential support and recover adequately from Ahn’s challenge. Furthermore, elections fought on economic inequality have traditionally favoured the liberal left. Now, the DUP finds out that its traditional edge on that issue is gone.

Results of the 2012 South Korean presidential election by municipality/urban district (source: Wikipedia)

The election results revealed the deep influence of regionalism and regional polarization in modern South Korean politics. Regionalism and regional polarization has been an enduring element of South Korean politics since the 1970s. On the one hand, Moon won 92% in Gwangju, 86.3% in North Jeolla and 89.3% in South Jeolla. On the other hand, Park won 80% in Daegu, 80.8% in North Gyeongsang and 63% in South Gyeongsang. Moon also won Seoul, with a narrow majority (51.4%) while Park won the populous Gyeonggi province (surrounding Seoul) with 50.4%. She prevailed with 62% in Gangwon in northeastern Korea, won about 56% in North and South Chungcheong province, and took over 59% in Busan and Ulsan (two major cities in Gyeongsang region). The race was close in the urban areas of Incheon, Daejeon and Sejong (but Park won a narrow plurality in all of them).

The regional divide between Jeolla and Gyeongsang (particularly North Gyeongsang) thus endures. It is not a particularly emphatic favourite son vote even though Park herself was born in Daegu and her father was from North Gyeongsang; because Moon is from South Gyeongsang and represented Busan in the legislature. As explained above, the regional divide owes to a long-standing historical enmity between Jeolla and Gyeongsang which goes back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57-668 AD) when the kingdoms of Baekje (Jeolla) and Silla (Gyeongsang) fought for control of the southern Korean peninsula. The regional polarization was deepened following World War II, when South Korea’s dominant political elites (notably Park’s father) hailed from Gyeongsang and implemented economic and social policies which favoured Gyeongsang over Jeolla, which remained an underdeveloped poor backwater region with strong opposition sentiments (Kim Dae-jung was from Jeolla). The Gwangju Democratization Movement in the late 1980s, violently crushed by Chun Doo-hwan, crystallized this regional polarization.

The map to the right, shamelessly stolen from Wikipedia, highlights this deep regional polarization. Moon was also victorious in Seoul (with the exception of some affluent districts and suburbs of the city, most notably the now internationally-famous Gangnam district in Seoul). As a urban area with a strong industrial base (unions and the working-class usually lean towards the DUP or other left-wing parties) and a young population, Seoul has traditionally been a base of opposition to the authoritarian regimes and remains generally liberal-leaning.

Park will take office in February 2013. On terms of domestic policy, her campaign’s rhetoric and style differed fairly significantly from Lee’s policies, but it remains to be seen whether she will tack back to the right or if she will truly confront the chaebols and the cosy arrangements between conglomerate affiliates. In terms of foreign policy, she will pursue Lee’s pro-American policies and free trade agreements (notably with the US) while having few warm feelings for either China or Japan. She could adopt less confrontational policies in relations with North Korea, which have been frozen since Lee stated that he refused to be blackmailed by Pyongyang. She will certainly not return to the cozy détente “Sunshine Policy” pursued by the two past liberal Presidents (Kim Dae-jung and Roh) which Moon apparently wanted to return to, but she has vaguely promised to find a balance between Lee’s hard-line and the liberals’ dovish gestures.

Posted on December 31, 2012, in South Korea, Uncategorized. Bookmark the permalink. Leave a comment.

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