Saturday, April 08, 2017

Korean Politics Viewer's Guide: I. The Lay of the Land

Dear Korean,

I know there is a conservative-liberal spectrum in Korean politics, but I have also read that conservativism/liberalism in Korea are not easily relatable to conservativism / liberalism in America. What are the major issues, and where do the different political parties in Korea come down on the major issues? I am soon-to-be a Korean citizen, but my Korean is terrible (I am only getting away with this because I am a Korean-American athlete that they want for their Pyeonchang team, so I am on the "special" citizenship track). I am very politically engaged in the US, but now that I am in Korea, I am trying to figure out WTF is going on here, and it isn't easy! 

Randi The Ringer

Ask a Korean! has received a lot of questions from a lot of cool people, but this is the first time that the blog received a question from an Olympic athlete! 

With the bizarre Choi Soon-sil scandal, people are suddenly more interested in Korean politics, as the presidential election is going to be held in a little more than a month. For those who are coming to see South Korean politics for the first time, TK prepared a three-part Viewer's Guide. Part I will discuss the basic lay of the political land in Korea; Part II is a brief history of South Korean politics that explains the status of different political parties today, and; Part III will be an overview of the major presidential candidates, their stance on issues and the electoral challenges they face.

So here we go with Part I - the basic political landscape in South Korea.

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The questioner Randi correctly noted two important points about Korean politics: (1) it has a conservative-liberal spectrum, but; (2) the spectrum is not the same as the conservative-liberal spectrum in the U.S., or in any other country for that matter. Of course, this is to be expected, because obviously, different countries have different political concerns. It would be ignorant and self-centered to expect that Korea's ideological spectrum would run on the same axis as any other country's.

Many of political issues that form a dividing line in the U.S. do not in Korea, either because Koreans simply live in a different environment or because there is a broad social consensus over them already. Before we cover the issues that do form the fault lines in Korean politics, let's go over some of the issues that don't.

Issues that Don't Really Arise in Korea

These are the issues that rarely get raised in Korean politics, because not enough number of Koreans deal with these issues for them to become a political topic. Clearly, this list is not to say that these issues are not important; rather, it is only to say that these issues are not front and center in politics in Korea.

- Racism.   There are now more than a million non-ethnic Koreans living in Korea, and the number is increasing rapidly. But so far, racial discrimination (which is very real and very pernicious) against ethnic minorities in Korea is not a big topic, because few Koreans ever interact with a non-Korean on a regular basis.

- Immigration.  Same as above. South Korea has a fairly restrictive immigration policy, and few bother to opine whether Korea needs more or less immigrants than it currently has. Although there is some low-level grumblings about how, for example, the immigrants from China are committing crimes in certain parts of Seoul, immigration policy overall is not a part of national politics.

- Terrorism (except those from North Korea).  If you exclude the attacks by North Korea, and isolated incidents of South Korean citizens finding themselves in dangerous parts of the world, South Korea has never experienced a terrorist attack. So Koreans simply don't think about terrorism. 

- Federalism.  There is no equivalent to the European Union of which South Korea is a part, nor is South Korea organized by U.S.-style states that retain some measure of sovereignty. So there is no "Brexit" or "state's rights" type issue in Korea.

- Religious Strife (except "culture war" issues).  South Korea does have a variety of religions. About a quarter of the country is Christian. (Among them, about 2/3 are Protestants and 1/3 are Catholics.) About a quarter of the country is Buddhist. But nearly half of the country does not really subscribe to a particular religion--which means religion rarely becomes a political issue. To be sure, there are times when religion shows up a collateral issue. For example, former president Lee Myung-bak was criticized when his cabinet appointments included too many people who was attending his church. But even then, the gravamen of the complaint was more about something that looked like nepotism, rather than the president's religion itself.

By "religious strife," I am excluding the "culture war" issues where people might take their position based on their religious beliefs. Those issues are further discussed below.

(More after the jump.)

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at

Issues for Which There is a Broad Consensus in Korea

These are the issues that rarely get raised in Korean politics because there is not much disagreement among Koreans on these issues. Many of the "culture war" issues fall under here. Obviously, I am speaking in generalities--there are plenty of disagreements on a localized level, and at times these issues flare up and become a major issue for a few months or so. Once again, this list is only to say that these issues do not form the constant, make-or-break fault line in Korea's national politics.

- Free Market / Government Size.  The whole of South Korea is a giant middle finger to the libertarian economic theory that government actions are bad and free market must reign supreme. In the last 60 years, Korea went from being one of the poorest countries to one of the richest, all under careful planning by the government that engaged in aggressive economic planning. Having experienced this, few Koreans are doctrinaires about laissez-faire economy in the domestic sphere. For just about any issue, Koreans expect the government to take an active lead in addressing the problem.

- International Trade.  On the flip side, because the Korean economy grew by participating in the international trade, few doubt the importance of being a part of the international trade. Although certain sectors of the economy (e.g. agriculture) complain vocally about the need to curb cheap imports, retreating from global trade as a general matter is unthinkable to most Koreans.

- Death Penalty.  Few Koreans get exercised over the idea, in the abstract, that the state has the power to execute the most heinous criminals. This also does not become an issue because South Korea has not actually executed anyone in the last 20 years, although around 60 criminals are now on the death row.

- Abortion.  As a formal matter, abortion is illegal in Korea except in cases of rape, incest, endangerment of mother's health, or fetal disability. As a practical matter, however, Koreans who want an abortion can get it without much difficulty. No one is particularly unhappy with this arrangement.

- Healthcare.  South Korea has a single-payer health insurance system that, overall, functions extremely well in providing affordable healthcare. While there are some complaints about how the system could be better, pretty much no Korean is stupid enough to think a single payer system is some kind of communism. (Remember - South Koreans do not have to look very far to see an example of how real life communism works.)

- Gun Ownership.  Civilian gun ownership is illegal in Korea. Even a hunting rifle must be checked in with the police during non-hunting season. Not-so-coincidentally, gun deaths are nearly non-existent in Korea, and the crime rate is low. Koreans do not feel the need to upset this situation for some kind of imaginary freedom of gun ownership, especially because they have a history of deposing three dictators through peaceful protests.

- Drugs.  There is no drug culture in Korea. This is not to say there is no drug use in Korea, because Korea does have drug users and addicts. But drug use in Korea is highly uncommon compared to U.S. and Europe, which means Korea does not have an elaborate culture surrounding drug use. So, for example, a chart-topping K-pop band would not feel the need to sing about smoking joints. Accordingly, Koreans never bother talking about drug legalization.

- Climate Change / Environment.  Virtually no Korean disputes the existence of climate change, nor do they dispute the need to protect the environment. Although coal mining once was a major industry for South Korea, there is no irrational sentimentality in favor of preserving coal mining. Many Koreans who live in urban areas must sort their trash into seven or eight different categories to assist with recycling, and they do so without much complaint.

Typical recycling center in an apartment complex in Korea.
Notice the number of different compartments, each for a different type of trash (source)
- China.  We are now entering a slightly borderline territory. Broadly speaking, South Koreans generally regard China as an important trading partner whose international politics cannot be trusted, because of China's expansionist tendencies that might reach North Korea. To be sure, there are certain localized issues in which Koreans are annoyed with China, such as the heavy metal-laden micro-particles flying east from China's polluting factories or (what Koreans consider) excessive number of Chinese tourists in certain areas who behave rudely. But there is no real conservative-liberal division as to how to interact with China.

- Japan.  To South Koreans, China does not inspire much emotion. Japan is the opposite; it inspires a ton of emotion, and uniformly so. Japan's colonial rule of Korea was a cruel, brutal one characterized by mass murder and sex slave camps. To be sure, Japan is also a major trading partner of Korea, and Korea and Japan share many elements of their respective popular culture. But there is near-uniform contempt against Japan's right-wing--which includes the current Prime Minister Abe Shinzo--as they drags their feet in recognizing the wrongfulness of Imperial Japan. Korea's conservatives are slightly more pro-Japan, but those attitudes are whispered in private rather than forming a political fault line.

- Same-sex Marriage.  I saved this as the last issue for this list, because this is the case that is closest to the borderline. The same-sex marriage issue is definitely becoming more prominent. But as of now, it is not yet a central and defining national political issue in a way that the issue was in the United States in the 2010s, as a solid majority of Koreans are against same sex marriage. While Protestants tend to be the most vocal in their objection (to put it kindly,) the ignorance and bigotry against LGBTs are hardly the exclusive province of the Protestants in Korea. Because Korea's LGBT population is not yet a meaningful political force, national-level politicians generally avoid this issue, as they have little to gain and much to lose by taking a strong stance in favor of gay marriage.

Issues in Korea's National Political Discourse

Alrighty then--what issues do Koreans talk about? Here are the issues that form the major fault lines in Korean politics in a way that divides liberals and conservatives.

- Dictatorship Legacy.  Remember that Korea's democracy is only 30 years old. Most voting-age Koreans remember what it was like to live under a dictatorship, which ended in 1987. (Heck - I am only 36 years old, but even I remember what it was like to live under a dictatorship!) And the legacy of dictatorship in Korea is quite complicated.

For those who never lived under a dictatorship, it comes as a surprise that anyone, much less a huge number of people, actually loved living under a dictatorship. This was the case in Korea, particularly because much of Korea's miraculous economic growth happened under the dictators. It is a naive assumption that people naturally desire freedom and democracy; many people would gladly exchange those things for a little more food and a little more security.

Korea's liberals are made up of the more left-leaning faction of those who battled the dictators, while Korea's conservatives are an amalgam of former cronies of the past dictators and the more right-leaning faction of the democratization movement. Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal president of Korea was a former human rights lawyer who litigated against the dictatorship; Park Geun-hye, the last conservative president, is the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee. (The next part of the series will discuss this history in greater detail.)

The fight on this front is about how to assess the legacy of the past dictatorships, and how democratic Korea's democracy ought to be. This is the greatest dividing line in Korea's politics when it comes domestic policies.

- North Korea.  The greatest dividing line in South Korean politics in terms of foreign policies is the very very obvious 500 pound gorilla in the room, or more precisely, the nuclear-armed 500 pound gorilla located just 35 miles away from Seoul.

North Korea is probably the issue that generates the most amount of emotion in South Korean politics. Millions died in the hands of North Korean army during the Korean War, and millions more lost their homes. Those who suffered in the war tend to become South Korea's conservatives, whose hatred toward North Korea burns so hard that they want nothing less than the total elimination of the North Korean regime.

South Korea's liberals are less repulsed by North Korea; it was not North Korea that imprisoned and tortured them, but the South Korean dictatorship that squelched dissent by smearing its political opponents are communists. This led to different attitudes in North Korean policy--South Korea's conservatives are more hawkish, while South Korea's liberals are more in favor of dialogue and engagement.

- Regionalism.  This issue is a second-order extension of the dictatorship legacy. Because South Korea's dictators mostly hailed from the southeastern Gyeongsang province, they sought to solidify their support from their home region while isolating and demonizing the political opponents from other parts of South Korea, particularly the southwestern Jeolla province which produced the most prominent democratization fighters--chief among them Kim Dae-jung, who would later go on to become South Korea's first liberal president and a Nobel Peace Prize winner.

If North Korea generates the most emotion in Korean politics, regionalism is a close second. The dictatorship rewarded their hometowns; the southeastern cities of Busan and Daegu thrived with massive seaports and heavy industry plants, while the southwestern cities remained an agricultural backwater. Because of South Korean dictators' deliberate strategy to demonize Jeolla province, Koreans from the southwest long suffered a second-class citizen treatment that is not unlike racial discrimination. The worst of this happened in 1980, when dictator Chun Doo-hwan massacred hundreds of civilians in the southwestern city of Gwangju when the city revolted against Chun's military rule.

To be sure, regionalism has become slightly less of an issue in Korean politics as both conservatives and liberals have made a deliberate push toward making a national appeal. But because of this history, Korea's southwest tends to vote strongly in favor of liberals, while the southeast votes strongly in favor of conservatives.

- United States.  Koreans' political attitude toward the United States is an extension of the two biggest issues:  dictatorship legacy and North Korea.

For Korea's conservatives who so hate North Korea, the U.S. is the literal savior that delivered South Korea from communism. Particularly among the pro-dictatorship faction of South Korean conservatives (whose love for South Korean dictatorship stems partially from the idea that a strongman was necessary to defend against the North,) there is a quasi-religious worship of America, an angel of a country that can do no wrong. This U.S.-worship showed when Korean conservatives were waving the Stars and Stripes in their pro-Park Geun-hye rallies, confusing American onlookers.

A pro-Park Geun-hye rally in January 2017.
Many people wave the Stars and Stripes along with Korea's taegeukgi (source)

Korea's liberals tend to be more skeptical of the United States. It would be an exaggeration to say that South Korean liberals are anti-American; the more accurate description would be that they're sober about the U.S.-Korea relation. They remember very well that the United States propped up South Korea's dictators that were imprisoning and torturing their political opponents, and they chafe at the fact that the U.S. military is occupying a very center of Seoul, turning what was once the heart of the city into a seedy row of brothels. When the push comes to shove, most South Korean liberals will agree that the United States is South Korea's most important ally, as U.S. forces are necessary to deter North Korea and the U.S. market is essential for an export-oriented economy like Korea's. But they will grit their teeth a little as they agree.

- Welfare State.  In addition to these issues, South Koreans care about the more mundane issues of politics--like the economy and jobs. In this decade, the most prominent economic issue in Korean politics has been the expansion of the welfare state.

As discussed above, few Koreans are doctrinaires about free market, and most Koreans expect the government to take the leadership is solving a problem. Accordingly, most Koreans are in favor of some form of a welfare state. But there is a strong disagreement as to what exactly the welfare state must provide, and this has been driving the political conversation in South Korea in the past five to six years. (In this election cycle, the big debate is about expanding public childcare.) As one might expect, Korea's liberals are more in favor of providing more benefits to everyone, while conservatives oppose. One of the liberal presidential candidates--Mayor Lee Jae-myung of Seongnam-si--went so far as to promise universal basic income.

- Labor Market Flexibility and Unions.  Jobs are always very high on the list of concerns for a democracy, and South Korea is not an exception. In Korea, the job issue expresses itself as a question about unions and labor market flexibility.

South Korea's labor market runs on two tracks, as there are "regular employees" and "irregular employees." Regular employees receive the full protection of the labor laws. Companies must provide insurance for the regular employees and cannot fire the regular employees without cause. The regular employees also have a right to form a union. On the other hand, the irregular employees are more like "at-will employees" in the United States; they can be hired and fired for any reason, and companies are not required to provide them with any benefit beyond their salary. (The hit Korean drama Incomplete Life is about the main character's struggle to become a regular employee at a major corporation.)

The irregular employee system was meant to be a temporary relief to give more flexibility in the labor market following the 1997 East Asian Financial Crisis. Since then, however, corporations found the irregular employee system useful and pushed the conservative government to expand it. Korea's liberals, which owes a lot of their strength to labor unions, oppose those efforts, fighting instead to give irregular employees greater protection and a pathway toward becoming a regular employee.

Got a question or a comment for the Korean? Email away at


  1. Thank you so much for this. I can't wait for the next part!

  2. "North Korea is probably the issue that generates the most amount of emotion in South Korean politics. "

    This claim was a bit suprising. I thought the younger generations don't care about NK issues very much at all. (Hell Chosun memes seem to dominate) Older generations, maybe.

    1. If you see "voters" as a whole, there are a lot more older people in that group.

  3. Thanks for this series. Looking forward to the next installments.

  4. Will you discuss China and Japan in your next installment? Perhaps not as front and center as North Korea and the United States, they are another complex part of the Korean political dialogue. Japan is a key issue in dealing with the colonial legacy and broader questions of historical interpretation and US geopolitics. China because of how it defines the modern Korean identity and directly tied into the issues of North Korea, US-ROK relations, trade and the environment.

    1. Not really. What you said is all correct, but China and Japan are not political fault lines for conservatives and liberals.

  5. Don't you think that pollution is a major issue, given how much worse the air quality is getting in Seoul and other metropolitan areas?

    1. I'm talking about the issues that divide conservatives and liberals in Korea. Pollution is an important issue, but not a dividing issue.

  6. For a while, the South Korean Government did have to ask the U.S. Commander of the U. N. Forces to deploy troops in the country. A classic example was the crushing of the Gwangju Democracy Protests. In a letter published 2 years after the massacre, the former U.S. Ambassador Note used the word permitted to transfer of ROK Troops to Gwangju. And this permission came from General John Wickham, who later became a U.S. Army of Staff. In U.S. Army Basic Training, I learned his name in the military hierarchy from Reagan, Weinberger, Wickham, etc.
    We can see why South Korean Liberals are skeptical of U.S. Influence and Power. With a nuclear armed thug in North Korea, I would like to see how the liberals respond to the real threat.

  7. A bit of suggestion here, shouldn't there be a third "progressive/left-wing" category, encompassing around ~10% support for the left-wing parties* in Korea? It has been a distinctive force apart from liberal and conservative parties, imo. I'm a Swede, so I tend to find Americanized Conservative- "Liberal"dichotomy a flawed tool when explaining non-American politics.

    *Democratic Labor, Unified Progressive, New Progressive, Labor, Justice....

  8. This was really interesting I've never really been a political person, but for some reason learning about foreign affairs is far more interesting than in my own country.

  9. This is great stuff, as usual. One question though:

    You mention the legacy of the dictatorship and the proper "extent" of Korea's democratization as the deepest divide between the right and left in Korea. How does that divide manifest itself at the grassroots?

    Are there specific issues that the parties fight over (I'm thinking similar to the recent controversy over textbooks), or is it more a matter of symbolism (ie. How the Korean government talks about that period)?

  10. Thank you.
    Very informative.
    Do you think that the Choi Soon-Sil gate will have some impact on the politic (Saenuri split, need for new politicians ?) and economy (chaebol-oriented)?

    By the way "laissez-faire"

  11. Causing issues "for some kind of imaginary freedom" is probably one of the best ways to describe the issues with young people in America (even though you were talking about Korea!). I have been trying to find a way to describe this phenomenon and you've done so perfectly in just a few words.

    I shouldn't rant, but I find it irritating when people try really hard about an issue they don't understand, but just want to support because they think its good or better, without actually knowing what REALLY IS good or better. I am definitely someone who wants to fight for equality, but I kind of don't like to say I am "liberal" because I see many liberals only fight for the sake of "being a liberal," not actually true, sensible equality and freedom. People just like to be part of a group and they are becoming the very thing they initially opposed.

    Also, great read. This article, and almost all of your articles, are a joy to learn from.

  12. "There is no drug culture in Korea."

    You mean, except for that extraordinarily criminogenic drug, which for historical reasons doesn't usually get called a "drug"? For that one, Korea has a deeply entrenched drug culture that includes socially forcing the drug upon others. Pretty low on the political agenda, for sure, though.

    (Also my own favorite drug, BTW.)

  13. Out of topic: your blog is amazing! Hopefully, you can buy a domain name for this blog, so people can easily search this cool article.

  14. This is a great read. Especially on regionalism. I now have a better understanding why my mom always said naturally Jeolla-do people don't like Gyeongsang-do people. And why my uncles used to rant about America a lot. Knowledge!


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