In 2016, South Koreans will vote in the parliamentary election, which some see as a “dress rehearsal” for the 2017 presidential race. To put readers in the picture, it would be reasonable to look at the political balance of power in the Republic of Korea and prospective candidates for senior positions.
To have a complete grasp of the South Korean political landscape, it is vital to understand that, although at first glance it looks like there are just two major parties and several marginal groups on the outskirts, in reality, each of these parties is represented by a fairly loose coalition of factions tied to influential politicians. And that, the way a party promotes itself and what direction its political course takes depends totally on the agreements made by politicians. For example, until recently, the ruling party was composed of not only the faction associated with Park Geun-hye, but also of the factions headed by Lee Myung-bak and Kim Young-sam (ex-presidents of the country) and several smaller political groups, for example, the group headed by the right-wing populist, Chon Mon Zhong, who is openly calling for South Korea to develop its own nuclear program.
Party-switching is not that rare for the faction leaders either. Chon Mon Zhong began his political career before the 2002 elections as a left-winger and ally of Roh Moo-hyun. Well, that did not actually work out: when it became clear that Roh Moo-hyun was not planning on making Zhong his successor, the latter broke the agreement and called on his supporters to vote against Roh Moo-hyun. Later, Zhong positioned himself as a conservative.
There is no unanimity within the political groups either. Disagreements between Park Geun-hye and Kim Young-sam have already been covered in our articles: Kim Young-sam started his political career during the pre-election campaign of 2012 as a political oppositionist to Park Chung-hee. Kim Young-sam and his faction extended support not to Park’s daughter, but to the centrist/populis
Regionalism also plays a major role in the process. For example, the southwestern part of the country (the Honam region) has always been a traditional oppositionist base, with the majority of them originating from this area, while the southeastern section (the Yeongnam region) traditionally favors conservatives. Competition gets serious mainly in the metropolitan area.
So far, neither left nor right wing has clearly proposed their presidential candidates. There are several potential candidates among the conservatives, including the current head of the ruling party, Kim Moo-sung, who is considered one of the chief lobbyists of the “single history” textbook. Another prospective candidate mentioned earlier is Chon Mon Zhong.
What chances centrists have is not yet clear since so far Park Geun-hye’s faction has not nominated anybody to stand as a candidate for the presidential election (it should be kept in mind that the Constitution of the Republic of Korea forbids incumbent presidents to run for a second term). On the other hand, the death of Kim Young-sam, who headed an influential faction, might initiate some changes in the faction’s composition since the members will inevitably be in need of a new patron.
Circumstances are about the same on the left flank. They have Moon Jae-in, who is considered the chief leader, but not everyone is comfortable with him: many believe that Moon does no longer have the competencies necessary to be the leader of the opposition. There is a possibility that the mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon, will join the presidential race, but he has not been showing willingness to do so, as he believes that he could better serve people in the mayor’s post. That’s laudable, isn’t it? Perhaps, but in Korean political culture they often play mind games pretending not to be into politics, while deep at heart that’s what they really want. They act as if, “I really do not think so… I do not see the strength in me to do it… And, in general, politics is dirty… But, in light of the current difficult situation… I, perhaps, should put my doubts aside and engage in the race… For, if not me, then who?”
At the same time, it is usually rather hard for a representative of “a third power” to interpose between the two main trends. In 1992, even Chung Ju-yung, head of Hyundai Corporation, failed to accomplish this task. In 2012, Ahn Cheol-soo, who was promoting himself as a neutral candidate not affiliated with any party, joined the left-wingers in the end. In part, this has to do with the specifics of the political system, in part—with the fact that there were at least two occasions in modern Korean history, when because of a factional struggle, the ideologically close powers failed to nominate a candidate and an unexpected party won the elections as a result.
For example, at the time of conception of the Sixth Republic, when Kim Young-sam, Kim Dae-jung and Roh Tae-woo were running for president, Roh Tae-woo represented the ruling regime, while the two Kims represented the opposition and their combined electorate exceeded that of Roh. However, because of a factional struggle and an unwillingness of one to yield to the other, they both ran for president causing the electorate to split and in doing so helped Roh to win. For this reason, some experts believe that a division in the opposition and the launch of a new party by Ahn Cheol-soo will have negative consequences, causing leftists to do poorly in the parliamentary elections.
But they might still stand a chance of winning in the presidential election. According to recent polls, 40% of respondents support the ruling Saenuri Party, while 21% — the opposition coalition. However, 43% of respondents back the policy of the President of the Republic of Korea, Park Geun-hye, while 46% do not.
Please read the next article to learn more about the “third power” candidate.
Konstantin Asmolov, Ph.D. (History), Chief Research Fellow of the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of Far Eastern Studies, Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.”