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It seems like every East Asian country is making decisions on their national leadership in 2012. Taiwan (aka the Republic of China) went first, having their elections in January. Hong Kong got a new chief executive (their corporation-sounding name for leader) in July. Mainland China (aka the People's Republic of China) had their once-a-decade leadership transition in October. Japan is having an election on December 16. And last but not least, South Korea is having their presidential election on December 19.

This diary will focus on South Korea's presidential election. Follow me below the 태극기 and Rose of Kos...

Flag of South Korea
The 태극기 (taegeukgi), flag of the Republic of Korea

The system

South Korea has a semi-presidential system of government, where power is divided between a popularly elected president and a unicameral legislature, the National Assembly. There is a prime minister, appointed by the president and approved by the legislature, who pretty much deals with the day-by-day aspects of government. However, the president is head of state, head of government, commander in chief, etc.

The president serves for a single five-year term. The president is elected by popular vote, and whoever receives the most votes wins. Since the beginning of the democratic era in 1987, no president has ever won a majority of the vote.

The National Assembly is the legislature of South Korea, and has all the powers one expects of a parliament, including impeachment (the conviction aspect is done by an independent judiciary). It consists of 299 members, 246 from single-seat constituencies by plurality vote, and 54 from nationwide proportional representation party lists. They serve four-year terms with no term limits. The last legislative election was April of this year.

As you can tell, given the powers held by both branches, this system is vulnerable to gridlock. The National Assembly is (in)famous for physical brawls between legislators (go to Youtube for the entertainment), and having the branches held by opposite parties often reduces politics to endless criminal investigations on bribery and corruption (both of which aren't exactly absent in South Korean politics).

The current constitution is the sixth since the division of Korea in 1945, and hence South Korea is currently in the era of the Sixth Republic. Previous constitutions ended in dictatorship or were drawn up by dictators. South Korean political history is divided roughly into three sections: the authoritarian era before 1987 and the democratic era after 1987.

The parties

South Korea is a multiparty system, with parties centered on ideologies rather than personalities (for the most part, personalities form factions within parties). The three largest parties are the conservative Saenuri Party (Korean for New Frontier Party), the liberal Democratic United Party, and the progressive Unified Progressive Party.

Before I move on, I should explain what "conservative," "liberal," and "progressive" means, which carry different meanings than Western usages.

The conservatives are pro-business, especially towards the chaebol, the Korean family-owned conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy. Famous chaebol include Samsung, LG, and Hyundai. Many chaebol have at least one family member serving as an assemblymember or cabinet minister (just like they would have one as a company division vice president or director of a manufacturing plant). They favor the current export-driven economic model established in the 1960s, complete with subsidies, favorable breaks, etc. They are also staunchly anti-North Korea and anti-communist, favoring confrontational stances and harsher lines against their northern enemy. The corollary to that is that they are pro-American: they favor closer economic and cultural ties to the United States, support continued American military presence, and the Korea-US free trade agreement. Their main base is the older generations (who lived through the poverty before rapid industrialization) and the southeastern provinces.

Korean liberals, like American liberals, typically use a different label for themselves, and in South Korea, that label is "democratic." They are the flagbearers of the movement that toppled the conservative dictatorship in the 1980s and ushered in democratic reforms, hence the term. They favor more regulation of the chaebol and oppose free trade agreements (see any parallels with American liberals?). They support the smaller businesses, who often get bullied and squeezed by the much larger chaebol, and have extensive ties to the more moderate trade unions. They favor thawing relations with North Korea, characterized by the "Sunshine Policy" in the early 2000s. They are ambivalent about the American military presence, though for practical's sake never outright opposing it. Their strongholds are the younger generations (who experienced the harsher side of the authoritarian era) and the southwestern provinces.

Korean progressives are, of course, to the left of the liberals. They are typically supported by the more leftist trade unions and farmers, who often see their land gobbled up by the chaebol and government and their crops come under attack by cheap imports. They don't come straight out against capitalism (that would be stupid), but they come much closer than most people. They harbor pro-North Korean sympathies (as in they favor more unrestricted exchanges) and are usually suspected as commies (since some more radical progressives are outright pro-North Korea). They are staunchly anti-American, at least in the cases of the military and business, though that occasionally spills over into other areas when opportunities present themselves.

As you can tell, there are some concurrent themes here. Attitudes towards the chaebol go hand in hand with attitudes toward the outside world (particularly the United States). Korean nationalism (as in ethnic Korean) is correlated with softer lines towards North Korea and increased anti-Americanism. Most importantly, note that unlike many Western political systems but like many Asian and African systems, Korean nationalism (and patriotism) is linked to the political left instead of the right. This stems from the authoritarian era, when the United States was seen as the power that propped up the brutal regimes.

On social issues, the range of discussion is much more narrow compared to Western systems, though there is beginning to show some differentiation. Abortion is illegal in South Korea (except to save a woman's life), though it's an open secret that one can go to certain hospitals to get it done. Religion forms a major faultline in Korean life, especially with Christianity (around 30% of Koreans are Christian). Homosexuality is a politically (and to a large extent socially) taboo topic here, though the younger generation is generally more tolerant, but that's not saying much.

Currently, Saenuri occupies the Blue House (the presidential residence) and controls the National Assembly with a bare majority. The Democratic United Party forms the principal opposition, and the Unified Progressive Party is a distant third. There are a multitude of minor parties, including the right-wing Advancement Unification Party (formerly the Liberty Forward Party) and the left-wing Progressive Justice Party.


South Korea consists of eight provinces, an special self-governing province (Jeju), one special city (Seoul), one special self-governing city (Sejong), and six metropolitan cities. These units stem from historical regions that have lasted for hundreds of years (when Korea was still one and was a monarchy), and these ancient divisions are engrained in the Korean psyche. They have their own dialects, mannerisms, stereotypes, and cultural minutiae. Four of these units are wholly in the South, three are in the North, and one is split between the two.

Map of South Korea
  • The capital region (green) contains of three units: the capital city of Seoul (서울), the port city of Incheon (인천), and the surrounding province of Gyeonggi (경기). The second-largest metropolitan area in the world and home to almost half of the South Korean population, this (specifically Seoul) is the center of Korean politics, culture, economy, society, life, everything. Due to massive population influxes from all over Korea since the Korean War, this is a politically swingy area.
  • Gangwon (강원; purple) forms the eastern mountainous backbone of the Korean peninsula. Split in half by the Korean War, it is sufficiently close to Seoul to serve as a major domestic tourist destination, but is separated from the capital region by mountains. Its closest American equivalent is probably West Virginia without the coal and with a shoreline. It leans conservative, though not overwhelmingly so.
  • Chungcheong (충청; blue) abuts Gyeonggi from the south and consists of four units: North Chungcheong, South Chungcheong, the city of Daejeon, and the "self-governing" city of Sejong. This region, which used to have a clear identity of its own, is slowly being pulled into the capital region's orbit as Gyeonggi maxes out and spills over southward (the Seoul subway even reaches the northern extremes of South Chungcheong). This is a perennial political battleground, which leads to the story of Sejong city (named after the Korean king that invented hangeul, the Korean alphabet). Sejong is supposed to be the new capital of South Korea (located there due to legitimate concerns of Seoul being 25 miles away from the inter-Korean border and by presidents who wanted Chungcheong's votes) but has been an on-and-off project as politicians fight over funding and their own parochial concerns.
  • Gyeongsang (경상; red) in the southeast forms the industrial (and rust) belt. It consists of North Gyeongsang, South Gyeongsang (see a pattern here?), and the cities of Daegu, Ulsan, and Busan. As many of South Korea's dictators and conservative leaders hailed from this region, this area got most of the perks of industrialization and economic development. Busan is a major port city, and Ulsan has the highest GDP per capita in the country. This area is staunchly conservative, however Busan (and South Gyeongsang, which surrounds it) has been trending leftward lately.
  • Jeolla (전라; yellow) in the southwest is the agricultural base of Korea. This region consists of (wait for it) North Jeolla, South Jeolla, and the city of Gwangju. Due to this region being the home base for opposition leader (later president and Nobel Peace Prize winner) Kim Dae-jung and historical reasons (see below), conservative dictators neglected this region, leaving it mostly rural and poor. Jeolla spawned many democratic movements, most famously the Gwangju Democratization Movement in 1980, a mass uprising in Gwangju against authoritarian rule that was brutally crushed by the South Korean army with implicit American authorization. This incident is a rallying point for liberal and progressive parties and politicians, and the still-raw memories have turned Jeolla into an extremely liberal stronghold, giving upwards to 90% of the vote to liberal and progressive parties.
  • Jeju (제주; gray) is an island in the south. It's historically grouped with Jeolla, but has its own distinct identity, and its dialect is sometimes considered a separate language from Korean. Being the southernmost point in Korea, it serves as a popular summer destination for Koreans. Its politics are swingy, though it has a bit of the Jeolla lefty tint.

Regionalism is huge here, though it has been lessening lately. For example, the most powerful bloc in the liberal Democratic United Party hails from Busan, otherwise a fairly conservative city. In most cases however, one can often tell someone's political leanings simply by where they came from, especially if they came from Gyeongsang or Jeolla.

Regionalism is extremely fierce particularly between Gyeongsang and Jeolla. Due to historical reasons stretching back over a thousand years (beyond the scope of this diary), there is a longstanding enmity between the two. Roads between the two regions are lightly used, and the few high-speed rail passengers going between the two regions are forced to switch trains in Chungcheong.

Current state of affairs

The current president is Lee Myung-bak (이명박) of the Saenuri Party.

Lee Myung-bak
A former Hyundai executive and former mayor of Seoul who made his mark in green public works, Lee was elected to the presidency in 2007. Remarkably conservative even for Korean standards, he generally pursued pro-development and anti-labor policies. A devout Christian, he dabbled in socially conservative policies, importing some aspects of American-style Christian fundamentalism such as creationism in the public curriculum. His faction within his party has effectively collapsed and he is mostly a lame duck at this point. Even his party runs on a different tune and frequency than him, providing only enough cover to save themselves and to keep power.

His presidency, which began during the recession, didn't see economic disaster, but it seemed to chug along in spite of him rather than because of him. Instead, his presidency saw scandal after scandal. His older brother Lee Sang-deuk, a conservative politician, was arrested for corruption a few months ago, forcing the president to make a national apology for the embarrassment. He made much of his mark in foreign policy, hardening the line against North Korea and forging close ties with the United States.

Due to his political weaknesses, the conservative Grand National Party (which, while having an iron grip on the legislature, was bogged down in infighting and image problems) was projected to lose control of the National Assembly to the liberals. In February, they did a complete makeover, changing their name to the current Saenuri Party, overhauling their structure, even changing their party colors from blue to red. The liberal opposition Democratic Party did likewise, merging with a small party to become the Democratic United Party and changing their color from green to yellow. So did the Democratic Labor Party, which merged with some other progressive groups to become the Unified Progressive Party and changing their party color from red to purple. In Korea, political parties change brands like people change clothes.

With the rebrandings done, they went into the April legislative elections. Saenuri was supposed to lose control of the chamber to the liberals given the problems that rocked the conservatives for the past term and the momentum behind the liberals, but they managed to eke out a bare majority with 157 seats out of 299, even though the liberals and progressives formed a loose coalition and supported each others' candidates.

The presidential race

There are currently two major candidates in the race, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party.

Park Geun-hye. (AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon)Moon Jae-in
Park Geun-hye (left), Moon Jae-in (right)
Park Geun-hye (박근혜) is running for the presidency a second time, having been defeated in her first bid during the 2008 Grand National Party primary by Lee Myung-bak. Over the past decade or so, she has served as a sort of Korea's Karl Rove, pulling off electoral feats for the Grand National and Saenuri parties when everyone expects the opposite outcome and earning the nickname "Queen of Elections." She is trying to run as the standard conservative candidate: pro-U.S., hard line with North Korea, supporting business, among other lines, while also casting herself as change: potentially the first female president of South Korea. She also happens to be the daughter of former president (and dictator) Park Chung-hee, and served as South Korea's first lady after his wife (and her mother) was assassinated in 1974.

It is this past that both buoys her and drags her down. The elder Park, who came to power in a coup d'etat in 1961, was the president who launched South Korea's economic transformation, turning it from literally the world's poorest country to the world's 15th largest economy by GDP. The foundation of the South Korea's economy (the chaebol, government's relationship with business, etc.) was started by him. He also brutally suppressed any dissent, accusing any naysayer of communism and North Korean espionage, and employed mass arrests, torture, disappearances, and execution. When he nearly lost reelection in 1971, he rewrote the Constitution to ensure his authoritarian power, and his presidency only ended when he was assassinated by his security chief in 1979.

Now, the daughter Park faces this conflicting legacy. Many credit her father (and hence support her) for pulling them out of poverty and economic despair. Others blame her father (and hence her) for the deaths and broken lives the dictatorial regime inflicted on them. Things came to such a head that Park Geun-hye publicly apologized in September for her father's abuses of power, a shocking move since it was seen as an repudiation of her father in a country where Confucian vales of filial piety hold significant sway. Therein lies the awkwardness: she has to walk the fine line between apologizing for what happened without criticizing her father, and she doesn't do that very well.

Moon Jae-in (문재인) is likewise helped and hampered by his past. Jailed multiple times for his student activism during the days of Park Chung-hee, he eventually became a lawyer (while in prison) and joined the Busan-based law firm of one Roh Moo-hyun ("Roh" is pronounced "Noh" in Korean). They made their mark defending human rights and democracy activists during the dictatorship in the 1980s (a dangerous task), and Roh jumped into politics while Moon continued to helm the firm. When Roh was elected South Korean president in 2002, Moon became his chief of staff.

Roh's presidency, which was from 2003 to 2008, was a rocky one. Initially popular (he had his own fan club), he set out to continue the policies of his liberal predecessor, the democracy activist Kim Dae-jung. As his progress stalled and the public began turning on him, the conservative opposition pulled out all the stops to make his life miserable, including impeaching him (he was later reinstated). He alienated his allies, who while supporting him publicly became disenchanted. Roh vacillated between stances and from one policy to another, leaving projects in various states of completion. For the most part, he tried to implement more liberal policies, but he was mostly unsuccessful. His party, the Uri Party (predecessor to today's Democratic United Party), cratered in the polls, lost even its electoral strongholds, and collapsed. In the 2007 elections, the liberal candidate pulled in a miserable 26%.

Roh's unpopularity didn't fade for a while after he left office. Prosecutors bombarded him and his family with investigations for bribery. The investigations and public condemnation didn't let up until he committed suicide in May 2009. Public opinion then turned against the conservative government, and Roh's legacy and policies were resurrected and reinstated as party orthodoxy. His Busan-based liberal bloc is now the dominant faction in the Democratic United Party, and his people control the party apparatus.

Moon is the heir to Roh's legacy. Perceptions of Roh's presidency all rub off and are projected on Moon. Conservative opponents detest him, while liberal and progressive allies, though supporting Moon for the most part, remember when Roh threw them under the bus. Like liberals in America, liberals in Korea, especially the younger generation, aren't all rallying wholeheartedly around their candidate. Which leads us to...

The third wheel

Ahn Cheol-soo
For over a year, Korean politics was captivated by millionaire businessman and professor Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수). Born in Busan and a doctor by trade, he made his fortune in AhnLab, an antivirus software company. He eventually went to business school and became a dean at Seoul National University (the most prestigious university in South Korea). His politics were liberal populist, echoing that of Roh Moo-hyun but rejecting partisan labels. He burst onto the political scene when he was floated as an independent candidate in the 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election. Polls indicated he would win by a landslide. However, he threw his weight behind liberal independent candidate Park Won-soon, an otherwise obscure candidate who initially polled at 5%. Park won the election with over 53% of the vote, establishing Ahn in the role of liberal kingmaker.

Ahn vacillated on running for president for over a year as calls grew louder for him to join the field, and he eventually jumped into the race in September. It became clear that either Ahn or Moon had to drop out or they would split the liberal/progressive vote, handing the election to the conservative Park Geun-hye. After negotiations between the two teams stalled and the two camps publicly jabbed at each other (and made up later), Ahn abruptly dropped out in late November and threw his support behind Moon.

However, the merger of the two candidacies wasn't clean. Ahn, who had a huge following due to his rejection of current politics, looked like he was nudged out by a veteran of the same politics he spurned. Ahn also gave a somewhat tepid-sounding endorsement in the early days after he dropped out, and the conservatives pounced on that perceived waffling. Ahn eventually came out and publicly campaigned with Moon.

The race

Current polling shows Park slightly ahead of Moon. While most of Ahn's supporters have migrated to Moon, enough have peeled away for Park that she had the early lead. However, Moon is rapidly closing the gap, and with the election less than a week away, any factor has a chance of tipping the race towards one side or another.

These factors include:

  • The economy. This race has mostly focused on the economy, especially on the concept of "economic democratization." Under Lee Myung-bak, government policies have favored the chaebol and larger businesses while other areas have been neglected. Moon favors tightening government regulations over the chaebol, while Park favors the status quo. Because South Korea has one of the smallest social safety nets of any developed country, calls for increasing social welfare spending is immensely well-received by the public and "bolstering the welfare state" (their term, not mine) is a theme championed by all major candidates, including the conservative Park. Yes, even the conservatives are calling for a bigger welfare state. Imagine that.
  • North Korea. The erratic northern neighbor is always in the political background. Their recent rocket launch yesterday only serves as a reminder about South Korea's geopolitical circumstances and how they live on the last real battleground of the Cold War. Both major candidates favor increasing interaction with the North, but differ on methods and extent.
  • Historical legacy. Both candidates carry baggage regarding their past associations. Both candidates are polarizing in their own way, and they attract or alienate different constituencies by virtue of their existence.
  • Minor candidates. For some reason, the Unified Progressive Party decided to put forth its own candidate, Lee Jung-hee. She has no chance of winning, but may siphon enough votes to deny Moon the presidency. Remember, the election is a first-past-the-post race.

The election is at best a nailbiter at this point. Perhaps after the election, people can piece together what happened, what went right, what went wrong. But now, it's the conservative Queen of Elections versus a liberal lion with a kingmaker behind him, and their skills and organization will be put to the test on December 19.


Note: This diary mainly uses the Revised Romanization system of Korean transliteration used by the South Korean government and by almost all contemporary publications. Hence, places here may be more familiar to some readers by other romanizations (Busan as Pusan, Daegu as Taegu, Incheon as Inchon, etc.) Personal names are kept in the most popular romanization according to personal preference or as used by the media.

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