Politics: Commentary:


South Korea’s Political Crisis

and Its Development Directions


by Professor Yang-Taek Lim

Dean of College of Economics and Finance

Hanyang University, Korea



Given the rapidly-changing political environment, South Korea’s political leaders should establish a long-term and short-term strategy for the nation’s survival and present visions and directions to take another leap forward. They have to derive the Korean people’s agreement to this end and lead the people on all levels to be united for the nation’s future.

However, in reality, South Korean politicians tend to focus on the interests of their parties and with short-sighted interests of the current situation and, by doing so, are losing an important opportunity to take a second leap forward; in short, their current actions have led to a situation in which they have failed to bring the South Korean people together.
What is worse, since 1970s, South Korean politicians, much like feudal lords, have enjoyed keeping their parties’ interests by dividing the national territory into three regions: the East, the West and the Central regions, and by further deepening regional conflicts. Such a political system has been the fundamental bottleneck in the development process which Korea requires if it is to move forward from its current status as a developing country and become an advanced nation.

South Korean political structure has long been bi-partisan, with two major parties constituting the mainstream, and political aspirants have had to ride this two-horse wagon whether they liked it or not. This is related to the confrontational structure between the Right and the Left, the conservatives and the progressives. However, the political situation is now changing. The conservatives are split; so are the progressives. The conservatives are divided into the GNP (Grand National Party) and the LFP (Liberal Forward Party). And there are also three progressive parties. The UDP (United Democratic Party) is a way station that has emerged in the course of the split. Interestingly enough, the UDP chairman Sohn Hak-kyu, the LFP leader Lee Hoi-chang and Suh Chung-won, who leads the Pro-Park Geun-hye alliance, are all former GNP members.

In general, a political party is virtually a group of people who share the same political convictions, create policies on the basis of their political vision and compete against other parties for power in order to implement their policies. A political party reveals its political nature as a matter of course. Because political parties must earn support from the people, parties create a spectrum of policies to reflect the spectrum of popular opinion. Political parties in a party democracy must exist over an extended period of time and take root among the people. However, Korean political parties do not have distinct political characteristics. They don’t clearly reveal their political identities. One sometimes wonders if they even know what their identities are. With the identities of political parties unclear, politicians who think that it doesn’t matter which party they belong to move from one party to another in pursuit of their own interests. Politicians repeatedly gather and separate depending on their interests, and as a result, political parties disappear after a short period. Political parties don’t survive for long, and politicians remain the focus of the people.

For politicians, political parties are like bus stops in the course of their political careers, not their hometowns. It is thus impossible to expect these political parties to serve as a nest that brings politicians together as comrades. It is impossible for such parties to exist over time and to earn the support of the people. As they don’t have distinct identities and more closely resemble private organizations, political parties don’t have the capacity to guide political action in a certain direction. Even if there is a spectrum of political opinions, political parties don’t have the capacity to reflect them. This leaves people feeling disconnected from the issues and they are left to decide which party they should support by considering their hometowns, schools and short-term interests, rather than their political convictions or policies. In the recent legislative elections, regionalism and short-term interests were important factors to separate winners from the losers. This was because political parties failed to properly implement their duties.

On the 18th legislative election held on April 9, 2008, the GNP won a slim majority of the seats in the National Assembly with 131 of 245 seats selected by direct ballot.[1] The LFP practically conquered Daejeon and South Chungcheong Province in the central region. But the LFP must realize the fact that this victory also highlights its limits. The DLP (Democratic Labor Party) won two seats from its electoral constituencies, but saw declining public support compared to the previous general election. This was an obvious consequence of the DLP’s stance of ‘worshiping’, so to speak, North Korea.

A total of 14 lawmakers were elected for the “pro-Park Geun-hye alliance” to the National Assembly, as well as 11 lawmakers loyal to Park who ran as independents, plus eight other independent candidates who support conservative policies. Most of these lawmakers defected from the GNP after they failed to win the party’s nomination for the general elections, and most of them now want to rejoin the ruling party. This appears to have become difficult. Defecting from a party and running for the National Assembly because of a failure to win the party’s nomination is an act that clearly harms the party. If lawmakers who defected were allowed to rejoin a political party simply because they won the election, it would be difficult to maintain that party. The GNP’s constitution and regulations stipulate that such members are harmful to the party. On the surface, the GNP’s refusal to allow them to rejoin may seem to adhere to that principle.

During the 18th legislative election held on April 9, 2008, the GNP committed a succession of mistakes that appeared as if it was deliberately choosing to do things that a ruling party should not have done. The new government’s problems in forming a Cabinet were criticized by the Korean public, while factional feuding within the GNP over nominations disgusted voters.[2] As a result, the approval ratings of President Lee and the GNP plummeted. In the end, the GNP split as lawmakers loyal to former GNP chief Park Geun-hye defected to form the pro-Park Geun-hye alliance or run as independent candidates supporting her.

However, South Korean voters still gave a slight majority of seats in the National Assembly to this chaotic and divided GNP. This was because they realistically had no other choice, even if they did not like the GNP. South Korean voters were worried that if the GNP failed to secure a stable number of seats less than two months after the launch of the Lee Myung-bak administration, the entire country would have faced instability with nothing being achieved over the next five years. If the GNP fails to heed the hearts and minds of the public, then it will be abandoned by them, and South Koreans will end up losing hope for their future.

The 18th general election cast light and shadow over the ruling GNP. Winning a majority of the National Assembly and a landslide victory in the metro area are certainly bright sides. However, the blast caused by Pro-Park Geun-hye alliance, the alliance of independent candidates supporting Park and the LFP casts a shadow on the GNP. Ironically, the two main figures who cast this shadow are former GNP chairmen. It seems that there will be conflict among the ruling party members, rather than between the ruling and the opposition party. This is because the mainstream force of the GNP has broken promises and failed to make compromises.

Most importantly, President Lee and the GNP should not force their policies on the public according to their priorities, but accept the public’s priorities first. Controversial projects like the cross-Korea Grand Canal project should not be forcefully pursued. That is not the reason why voters cast their ballots for the GNP. The government and the ruling party must work harder to convince the public and to listen to its opinions. The public will watch the Grand Canal project from its initial promotion stage.

Like a bird flying with two wings, a democracy must have a healthy opposition party. The UDP has lost, but it will be able to continue its role of keeping the GNP in check. UDP members now have to ask themselves fundamental questions if the party is to continue to exist: What is the identity of the party? Which direction should the UDP take? More liberal or more conservative? Korean society is heading toward conservatism, which is due to globalization and ‘10 lost years’ (February 1998 - February 2008). Under these circumstances, the UDP might be able to narrow the ideological gap with the second opposition party. The UDP lost its leadership. What kind of leadership should be set up to replace it? The party’s fate depends on how it responds to these questions. If it answers incorrectly, the party might wither and die. The party should overcome its defeat and initiate discussion on its identity. It must have been unimaginably painful for key UDP members, including its leader Sohn Hak-kyu and former presidential candidate Chung Dong-young, to suffer defeats and lose Seoul to the GNP. Low voter turnout and a continuation of the dissatisfaction voters felt with the progressive camp did not help the UDP. But it was chiefly unable to keep the election campaign from becoming a battle between conservative factions, rather than a race between the ruling and opposition parties. The UDP must ponder the reasons that led to the defeat of its former-activist lawmakers who were elected to the National Assembly during the last general elections riding on the popularity of former president Roh Moo-hyun after he survived the GNP’s attempt to impeach him. Although it lacks holding the majority of seats, the UDP must find a new role for itself in keeping the huge ruling party in check.

By taking this opportunity, the author would like to proclaim that two of the South Korean political systems, 1) the proportional representation system, and 2) the nomination of candidates for the National Assembly and the financing system should be reformed in the following directions:

First of all, in accordance with the Korean Constitution, many privileges are given to political parties that protect them. For instance, the state provides subsidies to political parties to help them financially and endows parties with the right to nominate their candidates for elections. However, experience proves that Korea’s party democracy doesn’t exist in reality. The 18th legislative elections held on April 9, 2008 clearly showed that political parties and party politics exist only in theory. It seems that the best way to promote the party politics is a proportional representation system led by political parties. The system in which each person has two votes in legislative elections should have begun to change the way people think of parties and politicians.[3]

If the single-member constituency system is the election system of the 19th century, proportional representation is that of the 20th century. The mixed system is now called the electoral system of the 21st century. Korea’s proportional representation system was introduced by the Park Chung-hee administration to allow the ruling party to secure a stable majority in the legislature. While the ruling parties have abused the system to secure influence, the opposition parties have used the system to attract more political funds. However, the 2004 legislative election brought about an opportunity for normalization. By introducing a new system that allowed voters to cast separate ballots to express their support for a political party, the proportionality of the system was secured. The political parties also began to nominate their candidates fairly and transparently as political reform began to take hold. As a result, a large number of policy specialists entered the National Assembly. For the GNP, in particular, contributions from those lawmakers helped it win back power. A large number of female lawmakers also developed their political careers because they received a nationwide platform.

However, the proportional representation system became a problem again after the political party support system ended. The parties stopped nominating their proportional representation candidates based on the opinions of party members. In a change from the 2004 National Assembly elections, support associations for the political parties were shut down. The parties found that the only way they could raise funds was to receive state subsidies or collect membership fees. Since the state subsidies were distributed in favor of the major political parties, the minority parties have suffered a severe monetary drought. Small political parties are inevitably tempted by the possibility of collecting special membership fees. Furthermore, the political parties have taken a step backward, nominating candidates behind closed doors. In doing so, some have used the nominations to purge unwanted rivals. It also opened opportunities to buy a nomination from the party.

As discussed previously, seats for proportional representatives were used as means to raise funds for a party that was formed in haste for the elections. The lists of proportional representatives were used to hide the true colors of the political parties. The system of voting for political parties doesn’t have significance in these circumstances. Proportional representatives represent not only professionals in many areas but also minority groups. A proportional representative system contributes to helping women or disabled people become representatives in the National Assembly. However, people who have little ideological affiliation with certain political parties use the name tags of the parties and enter the National Assembly. Winning a seat under the proportional representation system is highly dependent on the party, not the voters. Therefore, lawmakers chosen by proportional representation can be less independent than the lawmakers elected to represent their own constituency. Of course, without actually running for election before voters, the lawmakers become nothing more than rubber-stamp representatives to serve their party. Meanwhile, key members of the political parties were defeated in electoral constituencies and thus failed to enter the National Assembly. As a result, political parties lose their legislative leadership.

It might be a good idea to introduce Germany’s personalized proportional system. In that system, core members who advocate their parties’ identities can earn parliamentary seats with votes that they win in the names of their parties. With this system in place, political parties can maintain consistent policies and their identities will become clearer, which will help the people get a better understanding of party politics and party democracy.

On the other hand, the Korean public asserts that candidates for the National Assembly need to be nominated openly and the financing system must be changed to avoid more problems in the future. The titles of the lawmakers selected to represent the nation’s constituency have been changed to proportional representatives. Even with that, the controversy over whether those lawmaker badges are for sale continues. Some even argue that the proportional lawmaker system should be abolished.

However, the primary cause of the so-called ‘money badge’ scandal was not the proportional representation system itself, but the impracticality of the funding system for candidates and the fact that candidates are nominated behind closed doors. Those factors need to be changed. If they aren’t, these problems will continue not just in the National Assembly elections, but in the local elections, as well, which are not as carefully monitored by the public.

Just like the electoral system, in which one candidate is chosen for each of 245 districts nationwide, the proportional representation system has its pros and cons. Each political party is given a certain number of seats based on the proportion of votes they win overall, which creates a disparity between the number of total votes and the number of seats handed out. While the single-member electorate system requires the candidate to have a great deal of money and power to win, the proportional representation system allows a policy specialist or a minority candidate to join the National Assembly, thereby diversifying the legislature.

The two systems complement each other. New Zealand, a country with a long tradition of democracy, and Japan and Italy have adopted the mixed system, combining single-member districts and proportional representation, in the 1990s. Countries in Eastern Europe, after the fall of the communist bloc, also introduced a similar system.

To stop Korea’s politics from moving any farther backward, political parties must be allowed to form supporting associations. By imposing a ceiling limit on donations and making the list of contributors public, we can make those political parties healthy and transparent. The details of the spending of party membership fees should be made public and a ceiling should be imposed on admission fees to stop the political parties from getting rebates in return for nominations and to prevent a circumstance in which only a small number of rich individuals have the opportunity to win the nomination. All of the details of a political party’s candidate nomination process also should be documented and the record should be released for public scrutiny. Finally, a new law should be passed to govern the way the nominations are made and establish a timeline to stop the parties from nominating their candidates behind closed doors.

[1] There are close to 40 independent lawmakers loyal to Park Geun-hye and therefore with leanings toward the GNP which won. These lawmakers have openly said they want to re-join the GNP. If they do, the conservative party (the GNP) will have a comfortable majority in the 15 standing committees in the National Assembly. President Lee Myung-bak will secure a stable base of support in parliament to pursue the policies of the new government.

[2] The GNP has publicly confronted Cheong Wa Dae (equivalent to the White House in the US) over loopholes in policy and personnel management. The party says a big part of the blame lays with the president's political affairs aides. The Lee Myung-bak administration has treaded a tough path from the onset, starting with the Cabinet formation. The president's selection of wealthy experts for minister posts did not sit well with the general public and led to three ministerial nominees stepping down over alleged real estate speculation claims and other ethical lapses. The administration has also faced criticism for pushing ahead with controversial projects without scrutiny and fanning a factional split in the party in the lead up to general elections. The GNP accuses Cheong Wa Dae of ignoring consultation with the ruling party.

[3] In the most recent elections, voters were allowed to vote directly for which party would win proportional seats. In previous elections, parties were awarded proportional seats based on the percentage of the popular vote garnered by their candidates.

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