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[Research Reports] The ROK's Domestic politics and 20th presidential election

Hideki Okuzono (Professor, Graduate School of International Relations, University of Shizuoka)
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Research Group on 'Korean Peninsula' FY2021-# 5

"Research Reports" are compiled by participants in research groups set up at the Japan Institute of International Affairs, and are designed to disseminate, in a timely fashion, the content of presentations made at research group meetings or analyses of current affairs. The "Research Reports" represent their authors' views. In addition to these "Research Reports", individual research groups will publish "Research Bulletins" covering the full range of the group's research themes.

The Republic of Korea's (ROK's) 20th presidential election will be held on March 9, 2022. Elections are conducted by direct popular vote, and there is no runoff vote among the top vote-getting candidates; the candidate who gets the plurality of votes in a single round of voting is to be elected. The term of the president is five years and reappointment is not permitted, so the incumbent President Moon Jae-in cannot run. How will this election to select the country's eighth president under the current constitution that came into effect after democratization in June 1987 be positioned in the ROK's modern political history? This paper will consider that point while tracing the history of the ROK, focusing especially on the significance of President Park Geun-hye's impeachment and dismissal as well as the birth of the Moon Jae-in government.

The era of "dictatorship" vs. "anti-government democratic forces" (1948-1987)

Having established a government in the divided Korean peninsula and remained in power through the Korean War, Syngman Rhee, the ROK's first president, put the ROK on the path of living as an anti-communist state on the front lines of the Cold War in an order centered on the United States. On the other hand, Rhee tried to appropriate power through repeated arbitrary constitutional amendments with iron-fisted oppression and attempted to build a lifelong dictatorship. He was forced into exile after succumbing to anti-government demonstrations led by students who exploded in anger at fraudulent elections and demanded the government be toppled.

Then, Park Chung-hee, who led a military coup and seized power, organized the Economic Planning Board and pursued efficiency-first economic development and achieved remarkably high economic growth under a government-led export-oriented industrialization strategy. In parallel, Park set up the Korean Central Intelligence Agency (KCIA) to thoroughly monitor and crack down on domestic rebels in the name of anti-communism, limited freedom and democracy, and justified his authoritarian regime while trampling on human rights. Students, opposition parties, and civic groups who resisted the severe crackdowns launched anti-government and anti-dictatorship pro-democratization movements at home and abroad with the aim of overthrowing the military dictatorship.

When the Park Chung-hee era came to an end after more than 18 years with the president's assassination, Chun Doo-hwan led a coup d'état and took control of the army. Having suppressed the democratization movement in Gwangju by sending airborne units, he became the next president. While the Chun Doo-hwan administration succeeded in sustaining economic growth, the rampant surveillance, control, and crackdowns by intelligence agencies, the military and the police under the name of national security intensified, and the authoritarian regime became even more powerful. Students calling for freedom and democracy, middle-class citizens seeking distribution of the fruits of economic growth, as well as opposition parties and other forces out of power, formed the core of the anti-government democratization movement demanding the overthrow of the military dictatorship. They finally succeeded in June 1987, ahead of the Seoul Olympics in the following year, in opening the door to a democratic era by extracting across-the-board concessions from the Chun Doo-hwan government.

While under authoritarian rule for 40 years, the ROK saw its politics driven by a conflict over "democratization" between the dictatorship led by powerful leaders striving to win the inter-system competition with North Korea by advocating the supremacy of economic growth premised upon ensuring security, and rebel democratic forces consisting of students, opposition parties, and out-of-power organizations.

The era of "three-Kims politics" and "regionalism" (1987-2003)

"Regionalism" became the driving force behind the politics of the ROK as it achieved economic growth and entered an era of democratization. After democratization, the three political leaders Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-pil, who had played major roles on the political scene for a long time since the 1960s, led regionalist politics in which they used overwhelming support in their respective regions of origin (Gyeongsangnam-do, Jeolla-do, Chungcheong-do) as their political base. This style of politics was called "three-Kims politics." Supporters in these regions gathered around their respective leaders to form political parties that might be called private political groups, and these parties engaged in merging and aligning/realigning for positions of power. The first direct presidential election after democratization - the battle of "one Roh, three Kims" (the three Kims and Roh Tae-woo from Gyeongsangbuk-do) - symbolized the dawn of the era of regionalist politics.

Then, the inauguration of President Kim Dae-jung drew a clear line to the era of regionalism. Kim Dae-jung became the first president from Jeolla-do follwoing his predecessors Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, and Kim Young-sam, all from Gyeongsang-do. The Kim Dae-jung administration, which represented the first change of government between the ruling and opposition parties and called itself a "national government," actively promoted people from Jeolla-do who had suffered the trauma of the Gwangju Uprising and who felt a sense of alienation from having been kept away theretofore from the center of power, as well as influential persons positioned outside the halls of political power in the course of democratization. By doing so, Kim Dae-jung shocked the vested interest groups and caused a tectonic shift in ROK politics.

An era of ideological confrontation and disparity (2003-2017)

When the Kim Dae-Jung administration ended, the paradigm that had driven ROK politics since democratization, i.e., the three-Kim politics and regionalism that relied on specific political leaders, also came to an end. The subsequent emergence of the Roh Moo-hyun administration meant that ROK politics had entered a new stage.

Although Roh Moo-hyun was from Gyeongsangnam-do, he became the presidential candidate for the ruling party based in Jeolla-do and won the election. He not only succeeded in rallying candidates of other parties using the opinion polls conducted after the TV debate, but also gathered support from many in the general public, mainly from the younger generation connected through the Internet ("netizens"), rather than Korean society's traditional human networks of blood ties and territorial bonds. Roh Moo-hyun thus became a symbol of anti-establishment politics. A human rights lawyer who graduated from a commercial high school and belonged to a generation born after liberation from Japanese rule, Roh Moo-hyun had a political history of being repeatedly frustrated in his consistent attempts to demolish regionalism since he turned politician. Unlike Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, who had ascended to the presidency by joining hands with the forces connected to Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, he did not have any ties with political groups originating from the military. He was apparently enough of a figure himself to make people sense the arrival of a new era in ROK politics.

As might be expected, the Roh Moo-hyun administration did not hesitate to reconsider existing frameworks and approaches, exemplified in his policies of dismantling of the vested interests embedded in politics, bureaucracy and business and media under successive administrations, pursuing independence in foreign affairs and security, and adopting a North Korea policy emphasizing the ROK's own position rather than international cooperation. These bold political stances of the Roh government clarified the differences in perception between the conservatives and reformists regarding relations with the United States and North Korea, and brought about a new axis of confrontation - an ideological conflict - in ROK politics. During the five years of the Roh Moo-hyun administration, ROK society was at the mercy of constant friction and conflict.

The Lee Myung-bak administration was born out of the expectations of people who were disappointed with the provocative and unstable political methods of Roh Moo-hyun that had fueled conflict and friction, and with his economic management that had failed to halt widening disparities. Lee Myung-bak had a track record as a corporate manager who could be said as a self-made man to embody the businessman myth that had driven the ROK's high economic growth. After turning to politics, he demonstrated his high level of administrative skill as the mayor of the capital city Seoul by promoting and realizing one large-scale civic project after another. The people entrusted Lee Myung-bak, who advocated empirical pragmatism, to eliminate disparities and improve their lives as an economic president who prioritized tangible benefits.

However, the friction caused by the intensified ideological conflict under the Roh Moo-hyun administration had been serious enough to shake the public's trust in the values and basic strategies that previous administrations had maintained in security and North Korea policy, and it had brought about serious shocks and ruptures in ROK society. The conservatives, who had experienced the sorrow of being excluded from power for the first time during the two terms (ten years) of reformist party administrations, sought to make a sharp course correction to roll back the reformists' policies once they returned to government. The concerns of the reformists became a reality. It was no easy matter to break free of the ideological conflict in the name of pragmatism. To make matters worse, Roh Moo-hyun's suicide sparked fierce criticism that his tragedy was due to arbitrary political retaliation by the Lee Myung-bak administration and conservatives, inevitably steering the ideological conflict into a grudge rather than eliminating it.

Furthermore, the election of Park Geun-hye as the next president made it even more difficult to repair the cracks in ROK society. The heart of Park Geun-hye's political identity was the fact that she was the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the very symbol of the anti-communist and security-first conservative forces that had achieved economic development under a heavy-fisted governing structure, which had long been the mainstream of Korean politics and society. The 2012 presidential election was a one-on-one battle between conservatives and reformists, Park Geun-hye versus Moon Jae-in, when the latter, acknowledged by himself and others as the eternal secretary general of Roh Moo-hyun, became the de facto unified candidate for the opposition parties. The election campaign, which was waged with calls for blocking the return of the Yushin dictatorship and preventing the revival of Roh Moo-hyun's politics, became a proxy war between Park Chung-hee and Roh Moo-hyun. It was inevitable that the ideological conflict would become even more fierce under the Park Geun-hye administration.

And then, President Park Geun-hye was impeached and dismissed before her term ended.

The "Candlelight Revolution" and the pursuit of legitimacy by the Moon Jae-in government (since 2017)

It would be overly simplistic to assess the "Candlelight Revolution", the first political upheaval in constitutional history, within the framework of the conservative versus reformist ideological conflict. Participants in the candlelight rallies, whether conservative or reformist, exploded in anger against an unfair society where they went unrewarded no matter how sincere their efforts with no signs of improvement to their lives, and where the tyranny and privilege of vested interests, exemplified by the Choi Soon-sil-gate scandal in which Choi Soon-sil allegedly abused her personal relationship with the president to wield influence over national affairs, went overlooked. The "Candlelight Mandate", which sought to restore a society where common sense and principles prevail and a country characterized by fairness and justice, could not necessarily be interpreted as a rejection of conservative ideas and policies and a positive endorsement and choice of reform premised on a conflict of ideologies.

However, the Candlelight Revolution and the birth of the Moon Jae-in government were squarely positioned within the framework of ideological conflict by the reformists who returned to government, especially by the Moon Jae-in administration and the mainstream of the ruling party that supported Moon. This was perceived as the beginning of the end of traditional Korean conservative ideology, dealt a severe blow by questions of morality and credibility, instead of just a simple change of government in which the hegemony in ROK politics passed from conservatism to reformism. The reformists saw the conservative versus reformist ideological conflict already on the verge of structural collapse. They also saw this as an unmissable opportunity to shift the paradigm of ROK politics to a new configuration in which conservative groups merely representing the interests of certain extreme political groups would occupy the fringes around the majority reformist groups.

President Moon Jae-in's call to "eradicate deep-rooted evils" without sanctuary was initially praised widely by the public as symbolic of his effort to restore a fair society and a just country and became the greatest driving force for his administration. However, the administration's ideology-based view of history defined the conservatives as progeny of the pro-Japanese faction that had once collaborated in Japan's rule of the Korean Peninsula, and contended that decolonization would be completed and true liberation realized only by sweeping away the vested interests of those pro-Japanese conservatives that had been wielding power in every corner of society without national legitimacy. By doing so, it would be possible to regain national sanity for the first time, give ROK politics the legitimacy they had been lacking, and return the ROK to its proper trajectory.

Pursuing the eradication of deep-rooted evils based on such a historical perception inevitably led to denying the conservative-led progress that had been made theretofore in the ROK and took on the appearance of political retaliation targeting conservatives. For the Moon Jae-in government, the eradication of deep-rooted evils was not just about dismantling vested interests that had attached themselves to power and realizing a fair society. It entailed restoring proper justice and establishing legitimacy by clearing away the pro-Japanese faction and its vestiges that had been preserved even after liberation in the name of anti-communist security and economic development. Its aims were nothing less than wiping out the pro-Japanese conservatives with vested interests that had led the country, breaking down the old system, and switching over the mainstream of ROK politics. It was only natural that the sharpening of the ideological conflict would bring about a more serious division in the society.

In the eyes of the Moon Jae-in government and its core backers, the pro-Japanese faction that managed to survive under the post-liberation Cold War structure without being condemned as Japanese collaborators had had a hand in dividing the country, had monopolized vested interests and nestled their way into every corner of society by establishing ties with the military dictatorship. Such unjustifiable forces had created a warped nation without legitimacy that had heretofore taken the wrong path, and this needed to be corrected.

Unlosable battles and new trends in Korean politics

The reformist ruling party has won the national local elections and the general National Assembly elections since the Candlelight Revolution and the start of the Moon Jae-in government. The Moon government believes it has a responsibility to ensure that the momentum given by the people is irreversible and to create a "completely new country"; winning the next presidential election to keep a progressive government in power is thus an essential task that must be realized by all means and a serious commitment that must be fulfilled. The painful experience of having being forced after two terms (ten years) of progressive governments to go back to square one following the resurgence of a conservative government was more than enough to give the Moon administration an even greater sense of urgency.

Following democratization in June 1987, the axis driving Korean politics moved from the regionalism of the "three Kims" era to the ideological conflict that emerged with the birth of the Roh Moo-hyun administration. Although it appeared at one time that a shift would be made to non-ideological pragmatism, the ruptures in ROK society became more serious in the absence of any clear prospects for improvements to people's lives. The impeachment and dismissal of President Park Geun-hye dealt an almost fatal blow to the conservatives, and the Moon Jae-in administration, with its emphasis on reformist ideology, has sparked a sense of crisis in the conservative camp and led to an even sharper ideological conflict.

The key to the 20th presidential election, in which the elimination of disparities in employment, housing, education, etc., has received short shrift, seems to lie with the leanings of nonpartisan swing voters dominated by the "MZ Generation" in their twenties and thirties who place more importance on policies related to the exigencies of daily life than on conservative and reformist ideologies, and of women, particularly young women, who are garnering attention due to differing views on resolving gender disparities. There is no doubt that factors such as intergenerational conflicts and gender gaps have the potential to greatly influence voting behavior in ways far removed from the increasingly fierce ideological conflict.

This new trend of young people and independents being at the heart of ROK politics can be traced back to the "Ahn Cheol-soo phenomenon" that arose during the 18th presidential election in 2012. At that time, a person with no political experience and no party affiliation became a storm center that influenced the outcome of the election campaign. Behind this were the distrust and disappointment felt by the people toward all existing political parties, whether those in power or in opposition, and all politicians, whether conservative or reformist, who had lost their ability to resolve issues due to ideological disputes and power struggles.

Although temporarily obscured by the Candlelight Revolution and the subsequent escalation of ideological confrontation, the sense of stagnation in the ROK society that has been unable to halt the widening of disparities has not been dispelled, and the magma of discontent continues to build up. Will the youth and women ultimately prove the epicenter of a new tectonic shift? The expression of public sentiment that will be seen in the ROK's upcoming presidential election merits close attention.

(This is English translation of Japanese paper originally published on January 12.)