My ‘Foreign Affairs’ Piece on the Korean Election – Longer, Fuller Version

Election pics 008

This pic is from the TV election coverage on the Korean version of CNN. That would be the two main candidates (the liberal Moon Jae-In on the left, and conservative Park Geun-Hye, who won, on the right) as dancing electronic cartoon avatars. Yes, they do look like boogying Nintendo Miis, and yes, they are the most bizarre, hysterical election graphics I have ever seen. Who says political science is boring?

So Foreign Affairs solicited me for a ‘snapshot’ essay on the Korean election. Here is the link, but I also thought it might be useful to post my first draft which is fuller:

“South Korea’s next presidential election will occur on December 19. The main candidates are Park Geun-Hye of the conservative New Frontier (Sae Nuri) party and Moon Jae-In of the liberal Democratic United Party (DUP). A third, unaffiliated liberal candidate, Ahn Chul-Soo, dropped out in late November. Ahn had no clear party identification, which was part of his attraction, although he was broadly center-left. A former hi-tech entrepreneur and professor, he was popular with the young who feel alienated by the closed, oligarchic character of Korean politics and for much of the year, he outpolled Moon. Because he and Moon were splitting the anti-Park liberal vote, they tried to merge their campaigns. But Ahn’s hasty, somewhat bitter withdrawal speech implied that old-style, backroom politics by the DUP had pushed him out. Post-withdrawal polls showed Park picked up around one-fifth of Ahn voters, a very strong showing.

As a result, most polls suggest a narrow Park victory, in what is now a classic, right-left two-party face-off. (Korea usually has major third party presidential candidates, so this is unusual.) Park polls in the high 40s%, while Moon polls in the low 40s%. (There are also five minor third party candidates.) Nevertheless the election will be close. The two front-runners will debate three times on TV this month, giving Moon a reasonable opportunity to catch up. Also, a more full-throated Ahn endorsement, including actively campaigning for Moon, could bring back disappointed Ahn voters. Indeed, given how unpopular is the current conservative president, Lee Myung-Bak – around a 20% approval rating – this election should go to the left. Hence, most analysts still find the race too close to call.


This is South Korea’s sixth genuinely free and fair election for the presidency. Democracy began in 1987, when military rule ended, and presidents serve one five-year term. Political scientists frequently note that democracy is not necessarily achieved by just one or two elections. The institutionalization of elections and democratic practices takes time as routines settle into place over years. Thankfully, South Korea now indisputably passes that test. Further, it remains a good example of a functioning democracy in a region where elections are frequently manipulated by powerful behind-the-scenes elites. And obviously, South Korea’s continuing electoral success is a rebuke to North Korea’s dictatorship and its vacuous claims that the South is a ‘Yankee colony.’

Formally, the Republic of Korea is what political science calls a ‘semi-presidential’ system, but in practice the presidency is an extraordinary powerful office. Korea has a directly elected president, as well as an elected parliament – the National Assembly – which must approve the cabinet, which includes a prime minister (PM). In other countries, this can cause chaos, as the president and PM dispute over the division of executive power. (France is perhaps the most famous example, where the bifurcation of the executive between a president and PM of different parties – ‘cohabitation’ – can create policy paralysis.) Korea has side-stepped this possible constitutional pit-fall; it is a very highly presidentialized semi-presidential system. The PM does not have strong constitutional authority vis-à-vis the president. He – there has only been one she – need not even come from the National Assembly.

Further augmenting the office of the president is the tremendous political centralization of the Republic, as well the concentration of authority at the national level within the presidency. Korea, like France or Japan, is most definitely not a federal system. Its provincial governors and mayors are constitutionally weak and heavily dependent on national transfers. The kind of regionalism common in the US or Germany is rare. Similarly, at the national level, the National Assembly is a disturbingly weak check-and-balance on the executive. Its procedures for policy-making are still fluid and disputed after twenty-odd years, allowing the president to ‘railroad’ – a favorite verb of the Korean liberal press – contentious legislation through despite opposition walk-outs or boycotts. Worse, the Assembly’s history of violence and rioting badly damages its credibility and demoralizes voters. Inevitably then, the Korean media focuses on the presidency, and it is the Supreme Court, not the legislature, that has emerged as the primary check on the ‘five-year monarchy,’ as critics sometimes call it.

In short, this is the election to watch in Korea this year, not the earlier parliamentary one (which returned a right-leaning status quo). And among the many issues discussed is constitutional reform of some of these institutional problems. The single five-year term (designed to prevent the emergence of a dictator), coupled with chronic legislative and sub-national weakness, creates an odd situation, where the president is enormously powerful for three-and-a-half to four years, but then badly lame-ducked near the end. Another oddity is the four-year term of the National Assembly coupled to a five-year one for the president. This creates a strange cycle in which both the executive and legislative face simultaneous elections only once every twenty years (2012 being one of those years).

Like France’ recent presidential term reform, there is growing talk of moving the presidency toward the American system of a once-renewable four-year term, in order to better synchronize the election calendar and reduce the lame-duck problem. This would likely require reform of parliament as well. Only a more disciplined and professionalized National Assembly could play a proper check-and-balance role against a more mature presidency. The deeper institutionalization of South Korea’s political parties would also help this transition to executive-legislative balance. As in other Asian democracies, South Korean parties are prone to intense personalistic factionalism, money/influence-peddling scandals, and splitting, merging, and renaming themselves too frequently for the citizenry to identify with them well.


Below these constitutional issues are worsening policy questions left unaddressed by the current administration, including inequality, ‘chaebol’ conglomerate reform, the never-ending North Korean tangle, and the increasingly obvious tension between politico-military semi-dependence on the United States and rapidly growing economic reliance on Chinese importers. A sideline issue, that could in fact become socially explosive, is Park’s specific family history. Her father, Park Chung-Hee, was ‘president’ in the 1960s and 70s; in fact, he governed as a dictator. But he launched Korea onto its high growth arc that lifted it from third world underdevelopment in the 1950s to an OECD member in 1996. This is likely the source of her popularity but threatens to open old wounds should she be elected.

Inequality is probably the most current and divisive issue in the campaign. The Korean media parlance for this is ‘economic democratization.’ The perception is widespread that Korea’s economy has returned a two-tiered society – a wealthy elite of political and economic families tied together at the top (endlessly romanticized in Korean soap operas), and a wide but struggling middle class with decreasing mobility. Ironically, by the formal measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, Korea is reasonably equal. At 0.31, it is similar to Scandinavia. (By comparison, the US is 0.38, Japan is 0.33, and China is 0.44[!]).

Nevertheless, a regular series of scandals has thrown Korea’s crony corporatism into high-relief. Polling finds that large majorities of Koreans resent the mammoth chaebol that dominate Korea’s economy. Current President Lee once ran one – Hyundai Engineering and Construction – and many suspect he has aided them against struggling small- and medium-enterprises. Most disappointingly, he has also pardoned from jail-time several chaebol heads ­– including the chairs of Samsung and Hyundai Motors -convicted of fraud. (The usual specious excuse is that they are ‘critical for national development.’)

Resentment at the chaebol is not new in Korean politics, but this year is unique in that even the New Frontier party appears to support chaebol reform. Park has also been generally supportive of the social democratic tilt of the campaign season; ideas like maternity assistance, capping university tuition fees, and free school lunches are very popular. This is atypical of Korea’s conservatives, who generally do not criticize the oligopolization of the Korean economy. But Korea is also facing genuinely severe social and demographic problems. Koreans marry late and divorce more frequently. Its birth-rate is one of the lowest in the world, while its suicide and household debt rates are among the highest. Koreans work and study far too long for mental and marital stability, while almost non-existent daycare and stubbornly Confucian values on women are colliding with an educated female population increasingly unwilling to simply surrender their careers for children. Indeed, it is amazing Korea does not have an explosive leftist-populist ‘Occupy’-style movement, for it desperately needs to shift away from forced-marched economic developmentalism to something more family- and women-friendly.


As in most democracies, ultimately these domestic issues will drive the outcome. Foreign observers might imagine North Korea would be the dominant issue, and certainly the global media will focus on the election’s impact on North Korea and Northeast Asia. Park herself wrote of her vision for foreign policy toward North Korea in Foreign Affairs last year. And given the sheer awfulness and erraticness of North Korea, it inevitably plays a greater role than the minimal interest of western electorates in foreign affairs. Still it is far less than outsiders might imagine.

One reason for this is the broad and deepening popular consensus for engagement with North Korea. President’s Lee’s predecessors pursued the ‘Sunshine Policy,’ which Lee, ideologically and personally close to George W. Bush, stopped. Conditions, mostly related to nuclearization and missiles, were placed on aid. North Korea, predictably, reacted furiously, trying to bully Seoul back into unconditional transfers by sinking a South Korean destroyer and shelling a small island-town in 2010. Outside observers tended to strongly support the Lee administration in this course, particularly America’s influential foreign policy think-tanks. Most thought the Sunshine Policy, while perhaps worth a try in 1990s, had failed by the mid-2000s. That North Korea responded so violently only confirmed its place on the ‘axis of evil’ and the importance of the US alliance. Secretary of State Clinton, for the first time in alliance history, openly spoke of American ‘extended deterrence’ over South Korea.

But at home, the response has been quite negative. Where foreigners, especially analysts, are almost monolithically hawkish on North Korea, most Koreans are not. Since the 1990s, the South Korean population has become more and more dovish, and the dramatic U-turn of the Lee administration on North Korea is one of the big reasons for his plunging approval rating. In the wake of the destroyer sinking, conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Americans or Lee administration had sunk it to stir anti-North Korean sentiment. And after the island shelling, the public generally blamed Lee for provoking North Korea. Moon himself was a part of the liberal Roh Moo-Hyun administration that came close to altering the Yellow Sea border that includes that shelled island.

This dovishness is reflected most clearly in the tone of the Park campaign. She is promising engagement and ‘trust-building,’ including a resumption of Lee-suspended aid (what, if any, conditionality there will be is unclear), and has suggested a summit meeting with the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. This is a bit of gamble; her conservative, elderly base, and the conservative media, are still quite anti-communist. But they have nowhere to go. Moon has openly said he plans to revive the Sunshine Policy, which might work better this time if the new Kim is the reformer of rumor. In any case, that both candidates are running as doves strongly suggests a generational turn toward acceptance of the semi-permanence of the Korean division, and a popular unwillingness to risk Southern affluence on Northern ‘regime change’ or confrontation.

Finally, lurking in the background is the long-term strategic problem of South Korea’s geopolitical bind between the US and China. Korea is an encircled middle power, traditionally in thrall to one of its neighbors. Hence the US alliance has a strong sovereignty-reinforcement value. Simultaneously, China is rising next door. Although Korea was a vassal-tributary of China for nearly a millennium, China never terrorized Korea as Japan did. Cultural similarities are obvious, and sheer proximity means Korea and China will engage on many issues, most importantly the fate of North Korea. China, as the world’s second largest economy, is now Korea’s largest export destination.

As China’s relative rise and America’s (and Japan’s) relative decline continue, Korea will increasingly need to navigate geopolitical waters the US alliance shielded it from for decades. For all the talk of the ‘pivot to Asia’ in the US, the idea is not widely discussed in Korea, and Koreans are not interested in containing China. Most Koreans continue to find Japan a greater threat than China, and China’s lifeline to North Korea and absorption of Korean exports mean good relations with it are now arguably as important as with the US. Electorally, this slow shift favors the left. Park represents a more traditional pro-American South Korean foreign policy, while Moon appeals to a more ‘Asian’ sensibility where South Korea would operate more independently, cutting regional deals with China, North Korea, and others as needed. As with the domestic issues discussed above, the long-term trends here should favor the left – hence Park’s effectively centrist, rather than conservative, campaign. Even if she wins (my prediction), a tough rightward turn, as in 2008, is unlikely.”

And here is a pic of a Korean polling station (photos inside were not permitted):

Election pics 006

12 thoughts on “My ‘Foreign Affairs’ Piece on the Korean Election – Longer, Fuller Version

  1. Pingback: My Comments to al Jazeera on Park GH’s Inauguration as SK Prez | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  2. Pingback: Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  3. Pingback: Could the Youth Protests of the EU, Middle East, Turkey, and Brazil Spread to Asia’s Corrupt Democracies? » Duck of Minerva

  4. Pingback: My ‘Diplomat’ Essay on whether these Youth Protests will Spread to Asia’s Democracies | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  5. Pingback: South Korea: One year in, assessing Park Geun-Hye’s presidency

  6. Pingback: My last Lowy February Essay – Review of Park Geun-Hye’s first Year as Korean President | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

  7. Pingback: Park Geun-Hye’s Presidency is Turning into Status-Quo Maintenance | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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