South Korea and the Maturation of Democracy

One thing that I’m trying to accomplish with these posts isn’t simply to tell whoever reads them what I think about political principles and the news, but how I think about them. There’s obviously many different ways to approach an issue, and although ideology is one of them, others involve background and attitude. I’m an historian by inclination, so I tend to view things comparatively and through the lens of past experience. And so for an experiment of sorts, I’m gonna take a look at South Korean politics today. Now, there are some countries outside the United States where I’ve invested a reasonable amount of effort into understanding their political system and parties, so I at least can make some informed observations about what goes on there. The UK and France in particular, but I know a lot less about South Korean politics and parties, so the things I say here may prove to be dangerously off base, but that’s fine. Like I said, this is an experiment in style, and besides, we all could use a little intellectual humility every now and then.

Now, the main item of interest at the moment is obviously the fallout from the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye last December, for allowing Choi Soon-Sil, a political ally with no official position or clearances access to classified government information and even influencing government policies, a latter-day Rasputin. We’re no strangers to scandal in the States, of course, but it’s important to recognize just how deep the level of outrage was over this revelation in Korea; it sent Park’s approval ratings into the low single digits, and because South Korea has a strong tradition of civil disobedience, it also saw massive rallies calling for Park’s ouster before she was finally impeached. Now, all of this was hard to foresee on some level – I’ll just direct you guys to the appropriate Wikipedia page, because the tangled web of influence peddling seems like it’s just getting worse and worse the harder prosecutors look – but on another, I can’t say I’m the least bit surprised that something humiliating happened to Park, because there’s ample precedent. Park was preceded in office by Lee Myung-bak, of the same party and who’s faced allegations of nepotism and tax evasion, among other things. Before him, there was Roh Moo-hyun, who was investigated for bribery and who committed suicide a year after leaving office. His predecessor Kim Dae-jung had a pretty clean slate, but Kim’s predecessor Kim Young-sam caught the flak for South Korea getting caught in the 1997 East Asian financial crisis, which sent his approval ratings down to six percent, the lowest in South Korean history until recently with Park Geun-hye. In general, it seems more likely than not that a South Korean president will leave office with something terrible hanging over them.

Now, like I said, I like to compare things, and when I look at South Korea’s parties and politics, I can’t help but think of what America’s parties looked like in the 1800’s and 1810’s, and of the Democratic-Republicans and the Federalists. The main thing to note here is that while modern American political parties are vehicles for ideology and culture, rivaling theories of justice, it wasn’t always so. We try to sort the D-R’s and the Federalists into our modern boxes of big vs. small government, Hamilton vs. Jefferson and all that, but it’s just not so neat. What mattered then (and may be reasserting itself) was regionalism; in those days, Northeast meant Federalist, anything else meant Democratic-Republican, no matter if you were as reactionary as John Calhoun or as relatively progressive as a James Madison. South Korean parties do have ideology, generally, with the Liberty Party (Park’s Saenuri Party until just this month) being to the right and the Minjoo Party representing the left. That said, there’s still a regional spread, as you can see from polling results preceding their latest parliamentary election (if you can’t see the names, red=Saenuri and blue=Minjoo):


2016 20대 총선 지역구.svg

As you can see, there’s a pretty clear geographic correlation in who you support, with the west of the country being split between Minjoo, the People’s Party, and some Saenuri pockets, with most of the rest going to Saenuri. The other thing to know about these parties is that they’re very much dominated by personal charisma of their leaders. The Saenuri Party traces its origins back to a forerunner party founded by the former military regime after they decided to hold elections, and Park Geun-hye herself is the daughter of former dictator Park Chung-Hee, who ruled the country for sixteen years. Likewise, the People’s Party was founded by Ahn Cheol- Soo, who went his own way after a falling out with the Minjoo Party. The point I’m getting at here is that it wouldn’t be surprising to look at the South Korean partisan arrangements – regionalist, personality-driven, scandal-prone – and attribute it to the growing pains of a democracy that’s still quite young, as these things go.

Now, I thought this myself for the longest time, but with the rise of right-wing populism with its deliberately amorphous policy agendas, plus the geographic polarization and sorting that I alluded to in the introductory post to this blog, I’m now wondering if ideologically-driven mass parties like we see in the United States, the UK, and elsewhere are the real anomalies, and old norms are reasserting themselves. If so, then South Korea’s current turmoil might have some lessons to offer not of our past, but of our future.

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