South Korea is a multiparty state with political parties in a state of constant flux. From 1948 to 1988, politics in South Korea were dominated by strongman leaders with military backing — namely Park Chung Hee, who led South Korea from 1961 to 1979. Despite this, there were active opposition parties. So when South Korea became a democracy the implementation of the revised 1987 constitution, political parties were ready to play an active part in the government.

The main political parties of the 1990s were the 1) Democratic Justice Party (DJP) of former President Roh Tae Woo; 2) the Reunification Democratic Party (RDP) of former President Kim Young Sam; 3) the Peace and Democracy Party (PDP) or Party of Peace and Democracy (PPD) of former President Kim Dae Jung; and 4) Democratic-Republic Party (NDRP) of Kim Jong Pil.

Political parties and leaders in 2020:
Bareun Mirae Party (BMP) headed by Sohn Hak-kyu (merger of Bareun Party and People's Party)
Democratic Party (DP) headed by Lee Hae-chan (renamed from Minjoo Party of Korea (MPK in October 2016; formerly New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD, which was a merger of the Democratic Party (DP (formerly DUP)) headed by Kim Han-gil and the New Political Vision Party (NPVP) headed by Ahn Cheol-soo in March 2014)
Justice Party (JP) headed by Sim Sang-jung
Minjung Party (MP (formed from the merger of the New People's Party (formerly the New People's Political Party (NPP) and the People's United Party (PUP)
Open Democratic Pary (ODP) headed by Lee Keun-shik (formed in early 2020)
Our Republic Party) headed by Cho Won-jin and Hong Moon-jong (formerly Korean Patriots' Party (KPP)
Party for Democracy and Peace (PDP) headed by Chung Dong-young
People Party (PP) headed by AHN Cheol-soo (formed in February 2020)
Together Citizens' Party) headed by WOO Hee-jong, Choi Bae-geun (formed in early 2020 in alliance with the Democratic Party)
United Future Party (UFP (formed in early 2020 by the merger of Liberty Korea Party, New Conservative Party, Onward for Future 4.0, and several other minor parties; it has a sister relationship with the Future Korea Party [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020]
Together Citizens' Party (TCP)
Liberty Korea Party (LKP)

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”:“Political parties have been organized primarily around a leader instead of a platform. The hometown and school ties of the founding leader of a party have often influenced voting patterns, contributing to emotional regionalism among voters as well as politicians. The political parties represented in the Fifteenth National Assembly (1996–2000) are the National Congress for New Politics (NCNP), the United Liberal Democrats (ULD), and the New Korea Party. The NCNP (founded by Kim Dae-jung) and the ULD (founded by Kim Jong-pil) as opposition parties formed a coalition for the 1997 presidential election to help D. J. Kim win the election. The socalled DJP alliance, named for the coalition of Kim Dae-jung and Prime Minister Kim Jong-pil, promised to change the executive branch into a cabinet system with the prime minister as the head of state. The constitutional amendment for a parliamentary government thus has become a major political issue in the Kim Dae-jung administration. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

In 2003, there were four major political parties. In general elections to the National Assembly in 2004, the majority party was the Uri Party (the party of President Roh Moo-hyun) with 152 seats, followed by the Grand National Party with 121 seats, the Democratic Labor Party with 10 seats, and the Millennium Democratic Party (the party of Roh’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung) with 9 seats. Other parties include the United Liberal Democrats and the Democratic People’s Party. [Source: Library of Congress, May 2005 **]

The Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) was the party of Kim Dae Jung and for a while of Roh Moo Hyun. The MDP was founded Kim Dae Jung, while he was president. He was elected as president in 1997 as a member of the National Congress for New Politics. Grand National Party (GNP). It is a conservative party opposed the sunshine policy of Kim Dae Jung. In September 2003, the Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) split. The New Party for te Particpatory Union was founded. The MDP became an opposition party. The Grand National Party tried to gain some strength by bring out Park Chung Hee’s daughter Park Keun Hae Roh became associated with the Uri Party. The Uri Party had 47 seats in 2004.

Elections in South Korea

There are separate presidential and legislative elections in South Korea. Presidential elections are held every five years. The last one was in 2017. The next one is in 2022. Legislative elections are held every four years. The last one was in 2020. The next one is in 2024. There are also various local elections for local assemblies and mayors and the like.

The unicameral legislature consists of the 300-seat National Assembly (Kuk Hoe): 253 members directly elected in single-seat constituencies by simple majority vote and 47 directly elected in a single national constituency by proportional representation vote. Elections were last held on April 15, 2020. The next election will be held in April 2024. The 2020 election results ( seats by party): 1) Democratic Party (DP) and Together Citizens' Party (TCP): 180 seats; 2) United Future Party (UFP) and Future Korea Part (/FKP): 103 seats; 3) Justice Party (JP): 6 seats); 4) Open Democratic Pary (ODP): 3 seats; 5) People’s Party (PP): 3 seats; 5) independent: 5 seats. Composition: 249 men and 51 women (17 percent). =

Legal voting age: 18 (compared to 16 in Ethiopia and Austria and 25 in United Arab Emirates, most country are 18) The voting age was lowered from 19 to 18 beginning with the 2020 national election. In the 2000s, the voting age was 21. [Source: worldatlas.com]

Voter turnout: A) presidential election: 77.2 percent in 2017; 75.8 percent in 2012; 63 percent in 2007; 70.8 percent in 2002; 80.7 percent in 1997. B) Legislative election: 66.2 percent in 2020; 58 percent in 2016; 54.3 percent in 2012; 46 percent in 2008; 60 percent in 2004. [Source: President IDEA idea.int ]

The first legislative elections after South Korea became a true democracy in 1988 were in 1992. There were 13,400 polling stations in South Korea in the late 2000s. Voters often make up their minds at the last minute.

Presidential Elections in South Korea

The president is popularly elected for a single five-year term by a simple majority popular vote for a single 5-year term. To deter strongman rule, the president can not be reelected to a second term. The Last election last held on May 9, 2017. The next to be held in March 2022. The 2017 election result: Moon Jae-in (Democratic Party, DP) was elected president with 41.1 percent of the vote. Hong Joon-pyo (LKP, Liberty Korea Party) was second with 25.5 percent; Ahn Cheol-soo (People’s Party, PP) was third with 21.4 percent. Other 12 percent. [Source: CIA World Factbook, 2020 =]

For Presidential elections, candidates have register. The campaign is four weeks long. According to South Korean law anyone 40 years old or older can register as a “preliminary candidate” for president. In 2008, more than 100 people, ranging from farmers to priests, registered as candidates in the presidential election. A government spokesman said in April, eight months before the December election, “Probably they are promoting their faces. Not many of them will be there at the real election date. Some are from major political parties. Others were registered as independent. Twelve were unemployed. [Source: AFP]

The first presidential elections after South Korea became a true democracy in 1988 were in 1992. There have been discussions about revising the constitution allowing the president to serve two four-year terms instead of the current single five-year term. South Korean presidents serving a single five-year term typically become lame ducks in the second half of their tenure, limiting their effectiveness. Usually proposals for extended terms have been launched by sitting presidents in some kind of political trouble and discussions have not gotten far.

South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun floated the idea of allowing two presidential terms in 2007. South Korean President Park Geun-hye pushed for it 2016. "Through the single-term presidency, it is difficult to maintain policy continuance, see results of policy and engage in unified foreign policy," she said. [Source: Ju-min Park and Christine Kim, Reuters, 2016]

VOA News reported: “ The current single five-year presidential term was introduced in 1987, in reaction to decades of authoritarian rule. The most commonly cited example is the 18-year rule of President Park Chung-hee, who was assassinated in 1979. President Roh suggested that South Korea has outgrown the need for such a limit. He said the single-term system means presidents are not held accountable for their actions, because their performance is not evaluated by voters after the fact. [Source: Kurt Achin, VOA News, November 1, 2007]

Political Campaigns in South Korea

The official campaign period lasts for 15 days. Election laws prevent politicians from criticizing rivals and prohibit the president from speaking on behalf of a political party Candidates are required to make public their tax, military service and criminal records. During election the sidewalks are filled with sash-wearing campaigners shouting slogans and passing out pamphlets. Loudspeakers mounted on vans and pick-up trucks blast out speeches and every wall is covered with posters with the candidates faces.

Televison and the Internet have replaced rallies as the main way to reach the electorate. Television programming is dominated by debates in which the candidates call each other communists.

In the mid 2000s, candidates were not supposed to spend more than US$150,000 in a campaign. Even so some candidates spent millions of dollars. Rallies sometimes cost US$20 million or more because the people that showed up were often paid and their travel and hotel costs were covered. Sometimes a million people would turn out. Organizing usually figured the cost at between US$10 and US$20 a head.

In 2004, campaign reforms severely limited campaigns. Candidates could only campaign in person. There were limits on staff and expenditures. There were even limits on how many shoes could be worn by campaign workers.

Candidates have been able to thumb their nose at election laws because they laws are only lightly enforced and the penalties are minimal.

Involvement of South Korean Spy Agency in Elections

During the 2012 presidential election, South Korean intelligence agents flooded the Internet with several thousand political comments, including some describing left-leaning candidates as North Korea sympathizers. Then on top of that in 2013 the spy agency declassified a 2007 transcript that showed then-President Roh Moo-hyun, a liberal, pressing to create a peace zone along a maritime border disputed with the North. Conservative lawmakers said the transcript showed Roh was a Pyongyang-sympathizer while liberal lawmakers accused the spy agency of meddling in politics , instead, was manufacturing one controversy to distract from the other. [Source: Chico Harlan, Washington Post July 6, 2013]

Chico Harlan wrote in the Washington Post: South Korea’s National Intelligence Service (NIS) some analysts here say has turned into a political provocateur, using its power to champion conservative causes and widen a partisan divide. The NIS, South Korea’s version of the CIA, is supposed to remain politically neutral. But prosecutors say its former leader,Won Sei-hoon, indicted in June 2013 on charges of election meddling, believed that “leftist followers of North Korea” were trying to regain power in the South. He ordered his agents to post comments not only criticizing Park’s opponents but also lauding Park, prosecutors say. Won resigned this year, having served under the previous president, Lee Myung-bak. If found guilty, Won will face up to five years in jail.

“It is grave — a big deal. It’s all about dividing the country into two parts — the patriots and those who sympathize with North Korea,” said Pyo Chang-won, who hosts a current-affairs Internet show and has spoken at protests. “The NIS is supposed to be politically neutral, but it has used its intelligence force to attack half the nation.” Left-leaning lawmakers say the problems at the NIS have continued under Won’s successor, Nam Jae-joon, who they say unilaterally released a document that should not have been made public for decades. At a closed-door meeting of the National Assembly’s intelligence committee late last month, Nam was grilled about the release, according to South Korean media, and asked whether he had any intention to resign. (He said he did not.)

In February 2105, a South Korean appeals court sentenced Won Sei-hoon, the former head of the national spy agency to three years in jail for meddling in the 2012 presidential election and helping Park Geun-hye win the vote. The Seoul High Court said Won Sei-hoon, who served as director of the National Intelligence Service from 2009 to 2013, used the agency "for activities against a particular (opposition) political party", Yonhap news agency reported. [Source: Reuters, February 9, 2015]

Politics in South Korea

South Korean politics is often defined by bitter battles with the authoritarian right and extremist left. Sometimes it seems like moderate is a word that doesn’t exist in the Korean vocabulary. Bribery, corruption, nepotism, and the abuse of power have traditionally been standard practices in South Korea politics. Vote buying is common. Switching parties or starting new parties are a tactics used to stay put of trouble. The Seoul mayorship has been a stepping stone to the presidency.

Choe Sang-Hun wrote in the New York Times: In the short history of South Korea’s vibrant democracy, voters have elected presidents and legislators more by which province or political party they represented than by their stands on jobs, welfare or North Korea.” [Source: Choe Sang-Hun, New York Times August 24, 2011]

Chunghee Sarah Soh wrote in “Countries and Their Cultures”:“Koreans lived under a dynastic system until 1910. Since 1948, when two Koreas emerged, South Korea has traveled a rocky road in its political development from autocratic governments to a more democratic state, amending its constitution nine times in the wake of tumultuous political events such as the Korean War, the April Revolution of 1960, the 1961 and 1979 military coups, the 1980 Kwangju uprising, and the 1987 democracy movement. The government has maintained a presidential system except in 1960–1961, when a parliamentary system was in place. The National Election Commission also perform governing functions. [Source: Chunghee Sarah Soh, “Countries and Their Cultures”, The Gale Group Inc., 2001]

According to “Governments of the World”: “South Korea's authoritarian past, combined with its particular pattern of socioeconomic development, has helped to create a vital and dynamic civil society. Indeed, citizen organizations, both secular and religious, grew exponentially following the establishment of democracy in 1987. Many of the largest, such as the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, have played an important role in ensuring meaningful citizen participation and in protecting and promoting civil and human rights and social justice. The party system continued to evolve into the early twenty-first century, with many reconfigurations and realignments, but it remained strong. The judiciary has demonstrated increasing independence and social power, as suggested previously.

On the situation on the eve of the 2007 presidential election, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation wrote: “The South Korean political landscape remains unpredictable since a significant portion of the electorate-up to 25 percent in some polls-remains undecided on a political party and presidential candidate. Voter loyalty to any candidate appears weak, and public opinion could fluctuate in response to wild cards such as North Korean behavior. [Source: Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation, September 12, 2007]

Corruption, Cronyism and Hardball Politics in South Korea

South Korea is known for its cutthroat politics. Politician often seen much more interested in attacking their enemies, seeking revenge, playing dirty tricks and furthering their ambitions than they helping the South Korea people. Government often becomes paralyzed by squabbling between parties. It is not uncommon for fist fights and strikes to be held in the legislature.

Bullying, blackballing and bribing are all considered fair play — at least until fairly recently — as long as you don’t get caught. The ruling parties and leaders have used the national security services to wiretap their opponents and threaten them with tax audits.. The opposition often to prefer staging walk outs and boycotts to negotiating and compromising.

According to “Governments of the World”: “South Korea's past also means that a great deal of power has been concentrated in two key institutions: the state and big business. The apparatus of South Korea's national security state has not disappeared, and the bureaucracy remains a powerful force. From the end of the twentieth century, on the other hand, big business felt freer to "flex its muscles," and corruption, long a problem, continued to plague South Korean politics. Overall, though, South Korea has seen a greater balance of power than ever before, strengthening prospects for democracy. [Source: “Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens’ Rights and Responsibilities” Thomson Gale, 2006]

Cronyism and nepotism are often manifestations of a patronage system in which successful candidates are tacitly required to reward their supporters. In some cases cabinet reshuffles are conducted to not make government better but to distribute high ranking positions among cronies. Abuse of power and scandals arise when these people get greedy and believe their positions and support of the leader while protect them.

Many politicians could accurately be described as criminals. In the 2000 parliamentary election, 17 percent of 1.153 candidates had criminal records that required them to serve prison terms. About a quarter did not do their mandatory military service. Nearly 40 percent had paid either no income or property taxes.

Regional Politics in South Korea

There are sharp regional political differences in South Korea. The rivalry has traditionally been particularly fierce between Jeolla (Cholla) province in the southwest — where Kim Dae Jung was from and Kwangju is located — and Kyongsang region in the southeast — where the dictators who ruled after 1961 were from. Regionalism is also strong the in the Choongchung region,

Jeolla has traditionally has reputation oaf being much poorer than the rich Kyongsang area. At one point southeasterners made up 54 percent of the government while southwestern Jeolla province made up only 10 percent. When Kim Dae Jung was elected in 1997 he received 90 percent of the vote from Jeolla. When he came to power he filled many positions with people from the Jeolla area.

Regionalism, however, is not that strong in Seoul, Kyunggi, Kangwon and Cheju Island. Kim Young Sam and Kim Jong Pil never got more than half the vote from Kyongsang and Choongchung despite the fact they were from those regions.

Choong Soon Kim wrote in the “Encyclopedia of World Cultures”: “Regional conflict and resentment — especially between Jeolla and Kyongsang provinces — have arisen because of the domination of South Korea's politics and business by people from Kyongsang Province. The three most recent presidents, all of whom were ex-generals, came from Kyongsang Province. The South Korean government has made a conscious effort — including the construction of a new four-lane highway between the two provincial capitals in 1984 — to reduce, if not eliminate, a potentially harmful animosity between these regions. [Source: Choong Soon Kim, “Encyclopedia of World Cultures Volume 5: East / Southeast Asia:” edited by Paul Hockings, 1993]

Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation wrote: “Political regionalism, referred to as Korea's "east-west conflict," remains the dominant factor in South Korean politics, despite efforts to reduce its significance. Political parties' support relies largely on core regional constituencies: The southwestern Jeolla provinces are traditional progressive strongholds, and the southeastern Kyongsan provinces are reliably conservative. However, to win nationwide elections, parties must reach beyond these regions to gain sufficient support. Political alliances are often calculated based on melding regional support. The most critical swing regions are the Seoul city district and the Gyeonggi and Chungcheong Provinces in the center of the country. [Source: Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation, September 12, 2007]

“Seoul and Gyeonggi are perceived as transient regions with less pronounced senses of regional identity due to the large influx of population in recent decades. Voter loyalty is often determined by ancestral home district. Seoul tends to favor the GNP, not necessarily for ideological reasons, but because Seoul voters have more education and are wealthier than voters in other districts and therefore more open to conservative fiscal ideas such as smaller government and lower taxes. Seoul and Gyeonggi residents were also angered by President Roh's real estate policies that targeted their districts and his plan to move the capital to Chungcheong Province.

Generational and Ideological Divisions in South Korean Politics

There also divisions along generational lines and views on North Korea and the U.S. Politicians have traditionally been divided between 1) conservatives with a pro-American stance and hardline position towards North Korea and Communists; and 2) liberals and leftist radicals with an anti-American stance and a softer even accommodating position towards North Korea and Communism. Traditionally, many conservative supporters have been old and many liberal supporters have been young.

The 386 generation was a term used in the 2000s describes a new generation of politicians that cut their political teeth in the demonstrations in the 1980s and began entering the status quo political system in the 1990s. They were in the 30s (the 3 in 386) when the term was popularized, attended college in the 1980s (the 8) and were born in the 1960s (the 6). Many were student leaders in the 1980s, ran for office in the early 2000s, and were involved in the Citizens Alliance Movement.

The term 386 is a reference to a computer microprocessor considered fast in the 1990s and refers to the computer saviness of this generation, many of whom studied abroad. It also has come to describe the South Korea generation born in the 60s the same way Baby Boomer is used to describe those born in the 1950s and 60s in the United States. In the 2000s, they were regarded as having new ideas and are intent on changing the business as usual relationship between the government and chabeol business and are gaining in influence in business and politics as people older then them get older and retire.

On younger post-386 voters in the late 2000s, Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation wrote: A new generational striation is forming in the South Korean political spectrum that is an exception to the paradigm that younger equates to more progressive. This cohort of college students and recent graduates (early to mid-20s) does not yet have a generational nomenclature, although several have been proposed, including "X and Y generation" and "1929 generation" (ages 19- 29). This post-386 generation remains in the formative stage, and one of its characteristics may indeed be that it does not develop a collective generational consciousness as did its predecessors. [Source: Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation, September 12, 2007]

“The post-386 generation simultaneously rejects both the progressive, anti-capitalist, pro-North Korean view of the 386 generation and the Cold War views and embrace of the United States that marked the older conservatives. Collectively, it is less ideological, less politicized, and more entrepreneurial. Its members are primarily focused on their financial futures, and when addressing political issues, they are more likely to vote on the merits rather than in accordance with party ideology. Less radicalized than its predecessor, the post-386 generation is more willing to criticize North Korea for its actions, including human rights violations. The shift is so prevalent that radical leftist student organizations have suffered dwindling membership, have been asked to leave college campuses, or have reoriented themselves toward pro-business pursuits.

Generation Politics in the Late 2010s

Hooyeon Kim of Bloomberg wrote: “Jeon Byeong-kwan took to the streets late last year, joining millions of demonstrators seeking to oust former South Korean President Park Geun-hye and protest the nation’s "wealth cliques." The 29-year-old event planner from Seoul sees Park’s downfall as progress toward a fairer society. His grandmother, 82-year-old Bae Ok-nam, disagrees. She views it as a betrayal of her generation’s long struggle to rebuild a war-torn country that transformed it into Asia’s fourth-largest economy, an effort largely directed by Park’s father, the "great economic leader" Park Chung-hee. “Did we really have to jail her? That broke my heart,” she said. [Source: Hooyeon Kim, Bloomberg, April 27, 2017]

Intergenerational resentments may influence the outcome of the vote on May 9, 2017 to elect Park’s replacement. A growing number of people — nearly two-thirds of Koreans, according to one survey — view the generation gap as a serious problem. According to a Gallup poll in late April, 53 percent of respondents age 19 to 29 supported Moon Jae-in, the left-leaning front-runner, while just 17 percent of those older than 60 supported him. Only 11 percent of those between 19 and 29 said they supported presidential candidates from conservative parties — compared with 20 percent of those above age 60.

“Past administrations are partly to blame for the discord because they sought political advantage by pushing the idea to both sides that resources weren’t distributed equally among the old and young, said Jung Hae-sik, an associate research fellow at the Korea Institute for Health and Social Affairs, who’s led research into the generation gap. “We need new language to solve the problem,” Jung said. “The problem can’t be solved if we continue to view it as a distribution issue. We need to discuss how to enlarge the pie.”

“At the heart of the divide are two very different experiences of life. When the Korean war ended in 1953, “people were literally worried about starving,” said Kim Nak-nyeon, a professor who teaches economic history at Dongguk University. The war-struck cities didn’t have the infrastructure to support all the people pouring in from the countryside looking for a better life, and many had to live in shanty towns while taking care of family members, he said. The country went about rebuilding, and gross national income per capita grew from US$67 right after the war to US$27,561 in 2016, according to the Bank of Korea. “Our generation went through all sorts of hardships," Jeong Young-wha, 56, a former housewife who now owns her own business, said at a pro-Park demonstration in Seoul. "The young people today enjoy the fruit of our economic endeavors.”

“But the years of rapid economic growth are well over, and difficulty finding good jobs has created a different set of barriers for today’s young Koreans.Many of the nation’s youth now refer to themselves as the “sam-po generation,” or the generation that’s given up on relationships, marriage and having children, because their economic prospects have become so limited. “I hate it when old people tell you how to behave based on their past,” said Baik Minki, 27, a Seoul resident who plans and manages exhibitions and theater performances. “We’ve had different hardships. The old may have suffered physically, but we suffer mentally.” The youth unemployment rate stood at 9.8 percent in 2016, more than double the level two decades earlier. During the same time the average age of first marriage for men has risen to 32.8 years from 28.4 years. The birth rate stands at 1.26 per woman, near the lowest among nations in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development. Voter turnout among the young should be strong. In the 2012 election, 69 percent of those in their 20s voted, while 81 percent of those in their 30s did, according to the National Election Commission of Korea.

“Meanwhile, Jeon, the event planner who is at odds with his grandmother, said he tries to understand his elders and their conservative ways but will keep working for a society that offers opportunity for everyone. “We had a really big fight and from then on we stopped talking about politics," he said, referring to his grandparents. "Now most of the time, I keep silent and just listen to what they have to say. But these days, especially after Park was arrested, it’s been easier for me to just leave them be, because things are already going in the direction that I see as right.”

Grassroots Politics in South Korea

In the 1990s and 2000s, many voters either didn’t care about or were disgusted by politics and politicians. A popular joke went that if a politician drowns in a river all the fish will go belly up. A group called the Citizens Alliance listed politicians classified as corrupt and incompetent on the Internet before the April 2000 elections. Fifty-seven of the 86 candidates named on the "dump" list were defeated.

Citizens Alliance was made up of 500 nongovernmental groups. Its website featured a caricature of a screaming politician caught in giant hand, under the headline “We cannot take it any longer.” It disclosed information on candidates who had criminal records, dodged the draft, avoided taxes or were charged with corruption. During the campaign activists carried brooms and gave out soccer-style yellow and red cards to candidates they opposed.

According to “Governments of the World”: “South Korea's authoritarian past, combined with its particular pattern of socioeconomic development, has helped to create a vital and dynamic civil society. Indeed, citizen organizations, both secular and religious, grew exponentially following the establishment of democracy in 1987. Many of the largest, such as the Citizens' Coalition for Economic Justice, have played an important role in ensuring meaningful citizen participation and in protecting and promoting civil and human rights and social justice. The party system continued to evolve into the early twenty-first century, with many reconfigurations and realignments, but it remained strong. The judiciary has demonstrated increasing independence and social power, as suggested previously. [Source: “Governments of the World: A Global Guide to Citizens’ Rights and Responsibilities” Thomson Gale, 2006]

Activism and Protests in South Korea

Political activism is still very much alive in South Korea. Large demonstrations, strikes and clashes between protesters and police still occur with some regularity. Activism has its roots in the pro-democracy. movement and labor unrest in the 1980s. Much of the activism in the 2000s and 2010s involved labor disputes and anti-Americanism and anti-Japan protests. Myongdong Cathedral in Seoul s a focal point for labor and student protests.

Some South Korean have set themselves on fire for various reasons. Before the game against Portugal at the World Cup soccer tournament in 2002 one fan doused himself with paint thinner and set himself on fire. He wrote in a note: “I will become the 12th soccer player by becoming a spirit and will run for the victory of the Korean team.”

In August 2001, a group of 20 young Koreans in Seoul protested the glossing over of Japanese war crimes in World War II in school textbooks and the visit by Japanese Prime Minister Koizumi to the Yasukuni War shrine by cutting off the tips of their little fingers while shouting, "Apologize! Apologize!." The wounds were bandaged with pieces of the Korean flag and the tips were collected and folded in another flag.

In September 2003, Lee Kyung Hae, a South Korean farm leader killed himself at a World Trade Organization meeting in Cancun to protest agricultural trade policies. He climbed a barricade and plunged his Swiss army knife into his heart. What was viewed abroad as a desperate gesture by disturbed man, was applauded as a heroic act by rural people in South Korea. Lee was a member of a provincial assembly.

Farmer Riot in South Korea

In 2005, thousands of farm activists and union workers hurled bottles in a clash with police near an APEC meeting venue in Pusan in protest that was put down a water cannon. Jack Kim of Reuters wrote: “The clash broke out about two kilometers (1.2 miles) from the convention center where leaders from 21 Asia-Pacific Economic Cooperation (APEC) economies were meeting. About 2,000 farmers and farm activists and 3,000 union workers took to the streets of Pusan to denounce APEC, the World Trade Organization and U.S. President George W. Bush, who was attending the leaders' meeting. “Organizers had hoped as many as 100,000 would attend. They said police had turned back busloads of people on highways before they even got to Pusan. [Source: Jack Kim, Reuters November 18, 2005]

“Nearly 30,000 police were deployed in and around the summit. When several hundred protesters who made it to the city tried to get to the venue by pushing past a police line they were stopped. "We want to hurt them and we want them to hurt us," a farmer from just north of the port city said, as he brandished a weighty three-meter (10-foot) bamboo stick, his face masked with a red handkerchief and his breath smelling of South Korean rice wine. The protesters threw rocks and bottles and propelled them with bamboo sticks and metal rods. Police repelled the assaults with shields and fired high-pressure sea water. The protesters failed to break through a make-shift police barricade of ocean-liner cargo containers and cross a bridge on to the grounds of the convention center.

A handful of riot police officers were taken away by ambulance with injuries from rocks thrown by the protesters, some the size of a volleyball, police said. The protest dispersed after two hours. The farmers were rallying against a bill being considered by South Korea's parliament to increase incrementally foreign access to the country's rice market, as well as global trade talks such as those under the World Trade Organization. "No to Bush, No to APEC. No to rice market opening. No to the WTO," they shouted as they marched through Pusan. Some older farmers had tears in their eyes as their voices rang out.

Protesters in South Korea

In 2006, six people were killed in a clash in Seoul between police and protesters who were tenants and small business owners demanding better compensation from construction companies redeveloping the building. Kwang-Tae Kim of Associated Press wrote: “Police commandos stormed a vacant office building occupied by displaced tenants in central Seoul sparking a clash and a blaze that killed six people and injured 23, authorities said. A team of 100 commandos raided the five-story building in Seoul's Yongsan neighborhood early this morning by landing on the roof in a shipping container to break up a protest against a redevelopment plan for the area, Seoul police said. [Source: Kwang-Tae Kim, Associated Press, January 20, 2009]

“The commandos and some 1,400 riot police were mobilized for the faceoff against some 40 people who had been camped out inside the building for days, officials said. The protesters fought back by hurling Molotov cocktails at police and out the building's windows, police said. One of the burning bottles sparked a fire on the roof that engulfed the building within minutes, sending flames and black smoke shooting into the sky, the cable news network YTN reported. Firefighters extinguished the blaze in about an hour, authorities said. Several dozen people inside the building were evacuated and 28 people were arrested, police said.

“Yongsan Police Chief Baek Dong-san said five bodies were found, including one police officer. Seoul police later said the death toll stood at six dead. One of the dead was the former owner of a watch shop who had been forced to vacate the building. Another was the manager of a now-defunct restaurant, said Kim Jang-ki, a member of the Tenants Association who said he knew both men. Baek said six protesters were injured, with one in serious condition, while 17 police officers suffered injuries. He said one other police officer remained unaccounted for.

“Police said the protesters were squatters who had been occupying the building. The tenants' association said the protesters were employees and business owners unhappy with plans to redevelop the area in the heart of the South Korean capital. Many of the dilapidated buildings in the neighborhood have been torn down to make way for new businesses, real estate agents said.

Molotov cocktails were a common feature of the pro-democracy protests in South Korea in the 1980s but are rarely used against police today. Paint thinner used in the makeshift explosives may have helped fuel the fire, Baek said.” The clash at the apartment building “was one of the most violent in recent years between police and protesters. South Koreans took to the streets last year over the government's decision to reopen the market to US beef but no one was killed in the near-daily protests.

Name Changes and Short-Lived Political Parties in South Korea

Jorein Versteege wrote: “Democratic Republican Party, Democratic Justice Party, Democratic Liberal Party, New Korea Party, Grand National Party and New Frontier Party. Sounds like many political parties, but all these South Korean party names serve only one party, the right-wing conservative party. In fact the Democratic Republican Party became the Democratic Justice Party in 1980 and then other names followed. In 1997, the conservatives called themselves Grand National Party and since 2012, they call themselves the New Frontier Party. [Source: Jorein Versteege, Revolutionary Socialist January 24, 2016]

The Peace Democratic Party was among the first liberal parties, tolerated by the conservative leaders of South Korea.” It “fused with other democratic minded liberals into the Democratic Party in 1991. In the mid 1990’s, the name of the party was changed to National Congress for New Politics! Meanwhile the conservatives also changed their name (again). The Democratic Liberal Party became the New Korea Party (NKP) in 1995 after another name change. The NKP only lived for two years, until the conservatives finally decided on a name they would keep for 15 years. In 1997, the Grand National Party (GNP) was created. This conservative party embraced neoconservatism, right-wing Korean nationalism and deep hostility towards leftism. Its ideology did not differ much from the early DRP/DJP/DLP/NKP formations!

On the liberal front, the National Congress for New Politics changed its name to Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) on 20 January 2000. After losing the elections to the Yeollin Uri Party in 2004, the MDP decided to fuse with them to form the United New Democratic Party in 2007. The name was changed again to Democratic Party (DP), a year later in 2008. But the new name did not last long. In 2011, the DP fused into the Democratic United Party which became the Democratic Party again in 2013, only to become the New Politics Alliance for Democracy in 2014 and then the Together Democratic Party on 28 december 2015!

Why Political Parties in South Korea Change Their Names So Often

Many political parties split and then fuse again. This is very common when a high profile politicians leaves his party and wins an election. After some years the old feuds are put aside and the politician and his follows fuse with their old mother party again under a new name. The Grand National Party of the conservatives, won the 2008 and 2012 elections. They were led by Park Geun-hye, the daughter of dictator Park Chung-hee since 2011. [Source: Jorein Versteege, Revolutionary Socialist January 24, 2016]

Political parties regularly change names, split and merge. Bruce Klingner of the Heritage Foundation wrote: “South Korean political parties have an average life expectancy of only three years and generally are regionally based coalitions formed around a charismatic leader. As such, they lack distinctive party platforms and frequently dissolve to form new ones, often with little change from their predecessors. Lawmakers commonly switch party allegiances to improve their re-election potential. [Source: Bruce Klingner, Heritage Foundation, September 12, 2007]

“Reflecting the Korean adage of "same bed, different dreams," ideological foes have formed short-term alliances to win presidential elections. In 1997, liberal Kim Dae-jung teamed with long-time conservative foe Kim Jong-pil of the United Liberal Democrats to win the election. Kim Dae-jung made a pact that, if elected, he would cede considerable power to Kim Jong-pil as prime minister, but he later reneged on the promise, and Kim Jong-pil broke with him in 2000.

Ruling Party Splits and Changes Its Name in 2016-2017

In 2012, the Grand National Party changed its name to "Saenori" or "New World" Party. The BBC reported: “It says the name change is meant to reflect a new Korea in which people can overcome differences and unite. The move is being seen as one of several attempts by political parties in South Korea to combat voter alienation ahead of elections in April. The change reflects just how difficult the ruling party is finding it to win voters' support. [Source: BBC, February 2, 2012]

“Talk of reform and rebirth by politicians from both sides is becoming more common here as polls suggest voters are drifting away from the big main parties towards independent candidates. Seoul's mayoral election in 2011 brought to power a political novice with a history of social activism. Since then, the main opposition Democratic Party has merged with one of its smaller rivals to become the Democratic United Party. And both ruling and opposition politicians have been working to stress their grassroots credentials - by using social media and opening up internal party issues to the public.

The Saenuri, or New Frontier, party — known as the Grand National Party until 2012 — changed its name in 2017 to Liberal Korea as it sought to distance itself from Park Geun-hye and the corruption scandal that forced her out of the presidency and into jail. AFP reported: “South Korean political parties have a tendency to don new names to sever ties with a tainted past or to appeal to larger audiences. Park adopted the Saenuri name in 2012 as part of an attempt to reform and regain voter support ahead of that year's general elections, which the party won. But a swirling corruption scandal has since surrounded Park, with huge demonstrations demanding her resignation, and she was impeached by parliament. The party initially favoured "Conservatives' Power Party" for a new title, as recommended by its acting leader In Myung-Jin. But the moniker met with public ridicule in the light of the scandal, one online poster commenting: "You'd better call it Money Power Party." Other alternatives were Happy Korea and the People First Party, potentially evoking US President Donald Trump's "America First" slogan. Saenuri's parliamentary floor leader Chung Woo-Taek said there had been disputes over using the word "conservative". "But as everyone knows we are conservative, we decided not to put the word in the party name," he said. [Source: AFP, February 9, 2017]

Before that, in December 2016, the Saenuri Party (Grand National Party, GNP, Liberal Party) split. Associated Press reported: “Dozens of lawmakers split from the conservative ruling party and likely will try to create a party fielding outgoing U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon as its presidential candidate. Choung Byoung-gug, one of the 29- lawmakers who left the Saenuri Party accused President Park Geun-hye’s loyalists in the party’s leadership of “neglecting the values of real conservatism” and “shamelessly defending the historically worst infringement of constitutional values.” More Saenuri lawmakers may leave the party in the coming weeks. The split came as investigators widened their inquiry into the scandal surrounding Park, who has been accused of allowing a longtime confidante of manipulating government affairs and colluding with the friend to extort money and favors from the country’s biggest companies. The investigators summoned a former presidential aide as well as the former health minister over the decision to support the merger of two Samsung affiliates. [Source: Kim Tong-hyung, Associated Press, December 27, 2016]

Image Sources: Wikimedia Commons.

Text Sources: South Korean government websites, Korea Tourism Organization, Cultural Heritage Administration, Republic of Korea, UNESCO, Wikipedia, Library of Congress, CIA World Factbook, World Bank, Lonely Planet guides, New York Times, Washington Post, Los Angeles Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian magazine, The New Yorker, “Culture and Customs of Korea” by Donald N. Clark, Chunghee Sarah Soh in “Countries and Their Cultures”, “Columbia Encyclopedia”, Korea Times, Korea Herald, The Hankyoreh, JoongAng Daily, Radio Free Asia, Bloomberg, Reuters, Associated Press, BBC, AFP, The Atlantic, The Guardian, Yomiuri Shimbun and various books and other publications.

Updated in July 2021

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