Democracy in Contemporary Korea:
The Politics of Extreme Uncertainty
Jang Jip Choi
Professor Emeritus of Political Science
Notes for a lecture delivered at
Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center, Stanford University
October 5, 2012
1. Introductory remarks
Current South Korean politics may be described as a situation of extreme uncertainty, and the political process for the presidential election on December 19, 2012 is the culmination of a recent history of such uncertainty. Only two weeks ago, major independent candidate Mr. Ahn Cheol-soo publicly declared his intention to enter the race, but Korean voters still do not know who will appear on the ballot. We do not know anything about how the race is going to evolve or what impact the election will have on the existing party system.
On various occasions I have discussed the weaknesses of the parties and party system in Korean politics as a major stumbling block to the robust development of democracy. From the democratic transition of 1987-1988 until the present, the Central Election Management Office has officially recorded 110 political parties, of which forty have managed to send at least one delegate to the National Assembly.
Even those parties that have remained on the scene have often changed their names. Most recently, as this presidential election race was beginning, the ruling Hannara-dang (or the Grand National Party) changed its name to Saenuri-dang (or the New Frontier Party). I do not know why the party needed a new name or what sort of policy change the new name would imply.
On the other side of the battle lines, the opposition Democratic Party also came up with a new name for itself, the Democratic United Party. This new name signifies nothing except that the Democratic Party incorporated a number of former members of the Yeollin Uri Party (or Our Open Party), the ruling party during the Roh Moo-hyun government.
There is no better evidence than this that the institutionalization of parties in Korea remains at a very low level, if not actually losing ground. From this perspective, I would say that democracy in Korea has been consolidated, while parties and the party system have not been.
2. What are the features of the extreme uncertainty that characterizes Korean politics today?
2-1. The dominance of public opinion
Given the weak and underdeveloped nature of Korea’s party organization and party system, a massive inflow of public opinion into the parties would naturally have a quite negative effect on politics in general and on party development in particular. In Korean society, the influence of public opinion is extremely strong. It exercises unrivaled influence on major parties’ decisions on key issues, especially critically important personnel decisions such as those for party leader, congressional and presidential candidates, and candidates for local office. Every important decision in party affairs is subject to the verdict of public opinion through surveys or the decisions of external judges assigned by the party. One might say that the party in Korea has degenerated into a public opinion survey organization. Party politics that relies so heavily on public opinion will be just as moody and unpredictable as public opinion is, and as volatile as stock market fluctuations.
Stanford University Professor Shanto Iyengar and a number of other American political scientists have pointed out that the introduction of television has brought about great changes in terms of the development of political communication, resulting in turn in a fundamental transformation of politics. Party politics have been replaced by media politics, causing a shift from party-based campaigns to candidate-based campaigns. However, the findings and theoretical conceptualizations of these American specialists of political communication are substantially limited to American experiences, and partly inapplicable to new democracies such as South Korea.
2-2. The new role of new media
In recent years, Korean parties have widely adopted voting by the use of new media, including the Internet, smart phones, and social networking services (SNS). Now, I don’t mean to say that the new media’s role in politics is inherently bad. What I am talking about is the fact that, when parties’ institutionalization is as weak as it is in Korea, the new media’s effect on party politics is quite negative, because it magnifies the influence of transitory public opinion.
The Democratic United Party (DUP) elections to choose its presidential candidates represent a vivid example of the decisiveness of the increasing use of new media in bringing about particular election results. The most recent example is the DUP’s election last month of Moon Jae-in as its presidential candidate. New media, or “mobile voting” in Korean usage, is now much more common than the traditional method of casting ballots in the voting booth. The “election system for prompting citizen participation” (ESPCP) (gukmin chamyeo gyeongseon jye) is one of the most important political reforms since the late nineties, allowing the general public to participate in party primary elections by mobile voting. This system may be likened to the open primary system in some U.S. states, although I doubt that any U.S. state’s open primary system is as radical in practice. Under such circumstances, it is highly difficult for party members to energize local party organizations. Mobile voting is unquestionably a powerful instrument for individual politicians who can draw more intense support from a clearly defined group sharing an ethos, culture, values, and beliefs.
2-3. The inability to foster political leadership
Discontent with politicians and political parties is now widespread among Korea’s electorate. At election time, the growing discontent with parties manifests itself in a negative attitude toward career party politicians. One result is an extraordinarily high turnover rate in office, with an average of more than 40% of incumbent representatives failing to win re-election. (In the general election of 2004, the turnover reached a record high of 62.9%.) Thus, most National Assembly members are serving only their first or second term. This high turnover rate does not necessarily represent a more democratic outcome. In fact, the representation of social and producer groups such as workers and farmers has not increased in the National Assembly. Instead, the major beneficiaries have been lawyers, intellectual elites with professional knowledge and expertise, and former bureaucrats and social celebrities. In other words, in terms of the content of representation, nothing has been changed except an acceleration of elite circulation. Meanwhile, the high turnover rate in office has made it more difficult for parties and the National Assembly as institutions to produce and train party politicians so that they can be more competent and capable in the policy-making process.
If members of the general public feel that their only means of sanctioning a politician is to vote against his reelection, the turnover rate will remain extraordinarily high. Associated with this kind of political sentiment, recently the Korean people have been witnessing a political drama: the emergence of Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in as an independent candidate and the DUP candidate, respectively, in the upcoming presidential election. In particular, the case of Ahn, a successful IT entrepreneur, is the most dramatic to have yet appeared in the electoral arena. In his entire professional career, Ahn has never once run for elected office. As for Moon, he is only a first-term National Assembly member, in office for less than six months and never having held any other elected position. But in Korea today, the shorter the political career, the better, because a political career and political experience are not an electoral asset but a liability. This is the reality of Korean politics today.
2-4. Defining “extreme uncertainty” in Korean politics
In talking about “extreme uncertainty,” I am referring above all to the electoral process. This phenomenon is the result of the low-level institutionalization of political parties. A party’s most important role is to select candidates for public office, reducing the contradictions of diverse interests and passions to a reasonably small number and thus enabling citizen voters to easily express their preferences. This makes the representation-accountability nexus effective. In short, the principal role of the party is to organize for elections. In Korea today, however, in both presidential elections and general elections, the candidate selection process is atypical and completely unpredictable.
The presidential election is less than three months away, and we still cannot predict what will happen. This is the pathological situation of Korean politics today. All the candidates proclaim themselves to be in favor of the same things: promoting the growth of the welfare state, reducing social polarization, reforming the chaebol or business conglomerates, fostering “economic democracy,” etc. Who could have imagined that three candidates from such different places on the ideological spectrum—conservative, reformist, and progressive—would adopt the same campaign platforms and slogans? The election campaign has degenerated into a competition of rhetoric rather than substance. Meanwhile, workers, other socially alienated groups, and the lower middle class have failed to organize themselves politically and develop reliable political channels to represent their interests.
“Extreme uncertainty” is thus a situation in which everything is possible but nothing changes. Under such circumstances, politically important matters such as elections become unpredictable. The causal relationship between political action and political outcome, on the basis of reasonably acceptable values and norms and stable standards, is lost.
3. Why is the phenomenon of “extreme uncertainty” occuring?
3-1. The legacy of authoritarian rule
Timing is an important variable in shaping democratic politics and institutions. Economically, Korea developed remarkably quickly, approaching the level of the world’s most advanced countries. On the other hand, its parties and party politicians appeared to be characterized by significant, even deplorable, underdevelopment and incompetence. The people found the contrast quite striking, and it resulted in them holding a negative attitude toward politics. Party politicians and intellectuals, progressives and conservatives alike, felt hard-pressed by public opinion to implement political reforms according to neo-liberal economic values and norms, such as efficiency, productivity, openness, anti-corruption, transparency, competitiveness, and the merit system. The institutions of mass media played a leading role in promoting reform agendas and mobilizing public opinion.
It was under the Roh Moo-hyun administration that the most important political reforms were carried out, reforms that led to the disorganization and dissolution of existing party organizations and leadership structures. Ironically, the most radical of Korean political forces pushed reforms that were guided by neo-liberal values and norms, which aligned these progressive activists with conservative reformers.
3-2. The competition between party politicians and movement activists
The political reform of 2004 during the Roh Moo-hyun administration was the most radical so far and had the most devastating effect on party institutionalization. Competition and factional strife within the party—between the older and younger generations of party politicians, and between party conservatives and party reformers—prompted the reformist group of younger politicians to pursue radical reform. The factional strife in the ruling party under President Roh brought about the breakup of the then-ruling party and the creation of a new ruling party, the Uri Party.
The political reforms of 2004 were wide-ranging. Among other things, they forbade political contributions by corporations and social groups, drastically shortened the election campaign period, forbade various types of party meetings and public rallies, and abolished party branch offices in electoral districts. The effects were immediate: they severed the link between political society and civil society. On the one hand, they severely shrank the party’s intermediary role of representing particular interests; on the other, they dissolved the meaningful boundary between the party and civil society, enabling transitory public opinion to flow into the party’s decision-making process in a direct and massive fashion.
4. What are the consequences of the politics of extreme uncertainty?
4-1. The democratic deficit in the 2012 presidential election
Korea’s party structure can be postulated as a model that is the opposite of two familiar cases. First, it is the opposite of the party boss politics symbolized by the so-called three Kims, that is, Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung, and Kim Jong-pil. These political leaders, whose careers largely started in the 1960s, dominated the political scene in the period from democratization in 1987-1988 to 2003. Second, it is the opposite of “the iron law of oligarchy,” a notion made famous by the early twentieth-century German sociologist Robert Michels. Since around the year 2000, Korean liberal progressives have suffered a failure of party institutionalization. Their turmoil is reflected in the successive renaming and reshaping of their main party organization, from the (New) Millennium Democratic Party of the Kim Dae-jung government, the Uri Party of the Roh Moo-hyun government, the Democratic Party, and, today, the Democratic United Party (DUP).
The DUP aimed for what can be called a loose collective leadership, never allowing one leader to dominate and wield strong leadership, and dividing power into several small parcels. In doing this, the party separated institutional authority between the “party representative” (the top party leadership position) and its presidential candidate, as well as between the party representative and the floor leader in the National Assembly. This party structure is divisive, eccentric, and centrifugal. Party unity is substantially weakened, and leadership is disaggregated. The party is no more than a loose alignment of several factions with no strong leadership and no central organizational structure. Under such circumstances, there is no room for the bureaucratization of party organization centered on politicians to develop.
This low level of party institutionalization has brought about a politics of extreme uncertainty side by side with “instantaneous politics.” Again, the result is that no one can predict what will happen in important political affairs, and one can hardly establish a causal relationship between a particular political action and its outcome.
For party leaders, reaching a consensus on the rules to elect the party’s candidates for public office has become very difficult. The process of the DUP’s candidate selection for the presidency especially illustrates just how difficult it is. The election rules were never fully agreed upon among the competitors in the current race and remained a major problem throughout the entire process. In any event, Moon Jae-in was finally chosen as the DUP candidate. As I noted, his election was very unusual: he is a first-term National Assembly member in office less than six months, who has never before held elected office. His election was made possible by the existence of an intense support base of followers of the late President Roh Moo-hyun (the Nosamo group) and by a new electoral method that allows ordinary citizens to vote in the party primaries, including by use of the mobile voting method. Only a couple of months ago, no one could have predicted that Moon would become the party candidate. Recently, another major candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, entered the presidential race as an independent. Again, as I mentioned, he had never before set foot in the political arena and is a complete newcomer to politics. The evolution of Korean politics as shown in the ongoing presidential election process is definitely atypical, extremely uncertain, and unpredictable.
Based on experience, we have observed that anything can happen. All of the candidates now are as one in proclaiming their support for a strengthening of the welfare state, resolving social and economic polarization, cutting college tuition in half, reforming the chaebol, and promoting economic democratization. As mentioned previously, who could have imagined, only a year ago, that candidates coming from all different ideological directions, conservative, liberal, and progressive, would champion such policies? This is evidence of the serious democratic deficit in Korea today. Moreover, the campaign period is too short for the electorate to be able closely to examine all of the candidates to make an informed choice.
4-2. “Camp government” attenuates the representation-accountability nexus
The deinstitutionalization of a party, whether it be the governing party or an opposition party, results in a phenomenon we may call “camp government.” As the case of the DUP demonstrates, the deinstitutionalized party is composed of a loose alignment of several factions; these are not fully integrated into the party organization, and the party itself lacks a centralized leadership hierarchy. The presidential campaign is not managed by the party as a whole but by the faction whose candidate won the party nomination. In other words, in the case of both Korea’s ruling party and the main opposition party, it is a particular camp that provides the leadership of the party rather than the party that nominates or elects the candidate. The candidate and the members of his or her camp lead and rule the party. The party of the winning candidate in an election thus does not constitute the government, and so the party does not and cannot provide the base of accountability. Once the leader of a particular camp or faction enters the Blue House (Korea’s White House), his official position ensures the dominance of his faction to such an extent that the other factions of the governing party will eventually turn against the president.
A “camp government” is also not conducive to making the chief executive accountable to the electorate. Moreover, two factors make such a presidency ill-equipped to govern.
First, if the entire party really committed itself to carrying out its campaign pledges, it would likely succeed to a greater or lesser extent. That not being the case in Korea, whenever a camp-dominated party puts forward a genuinely reformist agenda, it provokes countermoves from other interests. A camp government is not strong enough to resist the strong opposition of powerful interests and critical public opinion supported by the mainstream mass media
Second, a prospective "camp government” from the same party is much less willing to be held accountable for the incumbent camp government’s poor performance or policy failures. In the current campaign, the candidate of the ruling Saenuri Party, Madame Park Geun-hye, criticizes the Lee Myung-bak government as if she were an opposition party candidate. Madame Park’s camp’s first principle seems to be that “we have nothing to do with the Lee Myung-bak government.” If that is the case, how can Korean voters hold the current government accountable? If a candidate can feel free to say anything and make any campaign promise that seems likely to help win election, and there is no way to hold the winner accountable, the representation-accountability nexus is greatly weakened. It is tantamount to electing a demagogue or a king. When a party is deinstitutionalized, it is not possible for the electorate to use elections to hold a government accountable for its policy outcomes and performance.
4-3. The ambiguous ideological divide and the dislocation of interest representation
In Korea, it is widely accepted by the general public that ideological conflict in the country is polarized and severe. But the issue is more complex than it seems. The ideological dividing line is twofold. The first dimension concerns the national question, which stems from the country’s territorial and ideological division. The second dimension is a more general divide, based, as in many other countries, on the distribution of income and wealth. In terms of the national question, the dividing line between the conservative right and the progressive left is very clear, and the ideological conflict is indeed severe, but the conflict in regard to the other dimension is not well defined. On the whole, the right-left ideological conflict is quite ambiguous, and this is particularly true in the political sphere. Generally speaking, the DUP is a relatively liberal progressive or center-left party, while the Saenuri Party is definitely conservative and right-wing. But this classification on the ideological scale requires further explanation for a grasp of the full reality.
The voting patterns of workers show the complexity of the question of ideological division. Korea’s workers have not been organized along class lines, and thus their voting behavior is not consistent with their class membership. In some regions, more workers vote for the Saenuri Party than for the DUP, while in other regions more vote for progressive parties. Labor unions’ party affiliations are similar to these voting patterns. Of the twenty-three national industrial unions, the chairman of the conservative Federation of Korean Trade Unions (FKTU) and a few other unions supported the DUP in the National Assembly elections of April 2012, but all other industrial unions supported the Saenuri Party.
Like the FKTU, the member unions of the democratic, progressive labor union umbrella organization, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU), is not politically unified. The KCTU itself officially supported the Unified Progressive Party (UPP), but that party imploded recently. The industrial unions affiliated with the KCTU are supporting either the DUP or the UPP. In short, the progressive-conservative ideological divide represented by the two mainstream parties, the DUP and the Saenuri Party, is not very aptly matched to the country’s social and economic bases, such as social stratification, functional categories, and occupational structure.
The dissociation between ideology and a party’s real character is most clearly shown in the case of Korean workers’ political and associational activities. The Unified Progressive Party (UPP), which recently broke up, was a progressive party that incorporated the former Democratic Labor Party (DLP), which was the political arm of the radical progressive union umbrella organization, the KCTU. All of these labor movements have taken revolutionary nationalism, derived from the national question, as their central ideological tenet, and this has been reflected in their political activities. In other words, they have made national reunification their top priority, rather than improving workers’ social and economic lives. On one level, the conflict reflected in this ideological discourse and rhetoric seems radical and overblown. Indeed, it is extremely fierce, aggressive, and divisive. On another level, however, there is no real conflict in dealing with actual social and economic matters.
The so-called progressive DUP is not all that different from the conservative Saenuri Party. As a mainstream party, the DUP has never challenged the country’s state-led growth-first policy. It has fully supported the chaebols and antagonized workers and, until recently, never provided a realistic alternative to the growth-first policy biased in favor of the chaebols.
The DUP’s role as a representative association is substantially limited because it lacks three broad social support bases: the educated middle class; the younger generation, which suffers from fierce competition in the job market, a high unemployment rate, and forced reliance on temporary jobs and the resulting instability of employment conditions, not to mention their existential agony; and the lower strata of society, including workers and the lower middle class. All of those groups and classes remain outside the DUP’s purview. For many among them, independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s appeal is considerable.
4-4. The limits of political participation and representation of the lower and lower-middle classes
The weaknesses of Korean political parties are causally associated with their lack of roots in the country’s social and economic realities. The DUP has not substantially represented citizens’ demands and interests, and public opinion by itself cannot sustain the impetus for major reforms such that they become really contested issues in presidential campaigns. While public opinion can momentarily exercise massive influence over party politics, its character is basically temperamental, flickering, discontinuous, and rapidly changing.
The effect of the ever-expanding influence of the new media on politics is to replace political participation through parties with hi-tech communication technology. This has advantaged the younger generation, which is much more comfortable than their elders with the latest media technology, allowing them to exert ever greater influence on politics.
In the meantime, the role of citizens in politics has drastically shrunk; citizens have become more like passive spectators. The representation of the middle class, the lower class, and socioeconomic groups such as workers and the younger generation has also narrowed. All in all, while political discourse and rhetoric have become radicalized and polarized, the parties have failed to broaden the range of representation for concrete socioeconomic groups, particularly the lower social strata.
5. Concluding remarks
I would like to emphasize the significance of the Korean population’s growing dissatisfaction with the party system and party politicians. There is no better evidence of this discontent than the long-term decline in voter turnout. Voter turnout in the April 2012 National Assembly election was only 54%, while turnout for presidential elections has suffered a dramatic decline of about 30% over the past twenty-five years. The low turnout rates clearly reflect citizens’ growing disenchantment with politics in general and political parties in particular.
The extreme uncertainty of Korean politics is closely related to the gradual deinstitutionalization of political parties. The new generations of party politicians have consistently failed to organize parties on a new social base and develop the competence to deal with urgent social and economic problems. Following the democratic transition of 1987, the older political parties have experienced substantial disorganization, while new parties have not yet consolidated.
The current situation of extreme political uncertainty thus represents a transitional process toward some kind of new equilibrium with a higher degree of institutionalization.