Gwangju

Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012

300px-South_Korean_presidential_election_2012.svg South Korea is usually considered to be one of the world’s most homogenous countries. Regional differences in dialect are relatively minor, with only that of Jeju island being distinctive enough to merit designation as a separate language by linguistic splitters. A pronounced sense of Korean nationalism, moreover, is found across the country. But despite these commonalities, South Korea is still characterized by intense regionalism, as is evident in election returns. The December 19, 2012 presidential election in particular revealed deep political cleavages.

South Korea 2012 Presidential Election Map Most maps of this election, however, hide such disparities. The Wikipedia map posted here, for example, merely shows the southwest and greater Seoul as having supported the losing candidate, Moon Jae-in, and the rest of the country as having voted for the winning candidate, Park Geun-hye. I have therefore made a more detailed map that highlights regional differences, using data presented on the Electoral Geography website. As can be seen, Moon may have taken only 48 percent of the vote nationally, but he gathered over 80 percent throughout the southwest, winning more than 90 percent in the important southwestern city of Gwangju. Park, in contrast, did extremely well in the southeastern part of the country, taking more than 80 percent of the vote in North Gyeongsang and in the city of Daegu. Eastern South Korea more generally supported Park. Only the northwest, including the megalopolis of Seoul, saw a truly competitive election.

The South Korean regional patterns illustrated by the 2012 presidential election are nothing new. The southwest, a region traditionally known as Honam, generally supports left-leaning candidates, and hence went for Moon Jae-in, who represented the center-left Democratic United Party.  The southeast, a regiona traditionally known as Yeongnam, generally supports right-leaning candidates, and hence went for Park Geun-hye of the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly known as the Grand National Party). Personal factors, moreover, seem to have exacerbated regional differences in this election. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, a former South Korean leader and military strongman who declared martial law and named himself president-for-life in 1972. Park is said to have focused development on the southeast while marginalizing the southwest, which in turn became the stronghold of the democratization movement.  Shortly after Park was assassinated in 1979, a popular uprising against authoritarian government in the southwest was crushed by the South Korean military, an incident usually called the Guangju Massacre.

Korea Three Kingdoms Map Some writers have suggested that the roots of South Korea’s southwest-southeast tensions date back to the Three Kingdoms Period (57 CE to 668 CE). As can be seen on the map, southwestern South Korea was then largely coincident with the Kingdom of Baekje, whereas the southeast corresponded to the kingdom of Silla. In the struggles between the two, Silla eventually proved victorious.

In general terms, regional electoral discrepancies of the sort seen in South Korea indicate weak national foundations, with local particularism overriding unity of the nation. This does not seem to be the case in South Korea, however, where politicized regionalism does not seem to run counter to pronounced nationalism. But regardless of such widespread national solidarity, South Korea cannot be considered, strictly speaking, to form a nation-state, as the national sentiments in question encompass the people of another state as well, that of North Korea.

 

 

 

 

 

 

Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012 Read More »

South Korea is Divided Into Three Parts

“In South Korea …, the North’s human rights abuses are routinely shrugged off with reference to its supposed superior nationalist credentials. … Sympathy for Pyongyang is especially widespread in the peninsula’s chronically disgruntled southwest.”

B. R. Myers, “South Korea’s Collective Shrug.” The New York Times, May 28, 2010.

Nationalism and regionalism often seem to be contrary phenomena. Countries with strong regional identities and stark regional disparities tend to have weak national foundations. But nation and region do not always counteract each other. South Korea in particular is characterized by both deeply rooted regionalism and intense nationalism.

Korean nationalism has evolved into different variants in the North and South. Under Pyongyang, the enforced cult of patriotism has veered in the biological direction of classical fascism, emphasizing the racial purity of the Korean – and especially the North Korean – people (see R.B. Myers, The Cleanest Race: How North Koreans See Themselves and Why It Matters). South Korean nationalism is much more cultural and historical, and thus accommodates streams of foreigners marrying into the Korean population. More than 5,000 Vietnamese women immigrate every year, generating some cultural tensions to be sure, but helping to maintain otherwise depopulating rural areas.

Despite its intensity, South Korean nationalism has by no means erased the country’s regional distinctions. South Korea’s basic divisions are often said to date back to the Three Kingdoms period (57 BCE to 668 CE), when the peninsula was divided between Silla, Baekje, and Goguryeo (Gaya, seen on the map, was not nearly as significant as the other three.). In the 600s, Silla, based in the southeastern part of the peninsula, unified the country. After Silla collapsed in the 900s, Goguryeo, based in what is now North Korea and northern South Korea, reunified the peninsula. Goguryeo was eventually supplanted by the Joseon Dynasty (or Chosun, 1392-1897), governed from Seoul. Baekje in the southwest, unlike the other two ancient kingdoms, never served as the hub of a unified Korea.

In modern South Korea, the southwest has been the focus of regionalist antipathy to the central government. Through the early decades of the postwar period, the region remained relatively poor and agrarian, its people suspecting that they had been intentionally marginalized by a hostile government. In 1980, the southwestern city of Gwangju rose up against the authoritarian South Korean regime, only to be crushed by the military. Official reports at the time linked the rebellion to a communist plot, but today it is officially commemorated as part of the national movement for democratization. A major breakthrough occurred in 1998, when a southwesterner, Kim Dae Jung – the “Nelson Mandela of Asia” – was elected to the presidency.

Since Kim left office in 2003, South Korea’s presidency has been filled by men originating in the southeast. Homeland of the former kingdom of Silla, the area known today as the Gyeongsang region has produced six of South Korea’s eight most recent presidents, including the incumbent, Lee Myung-bak. Critics claim that the conservative-leaning southeast receives undue favor from the central government, with infrastructural investments nurturing its industrial development. The city of Daegu is particularly noted for its political influence, being the seat of the powerful center-right Grand National Party.

Unlike the southeast and southwest, northern South Korea is not identifiable with an ancient kingdom, having been merely the southern portion of Goguryeo. But it was the site of the capital city, and it has remained the seat of political power. Development has continued to gravitate around Seoul and its greater metropolitan area – an hour’s drive from the North Korean border. Ten million people now live in Seoul itself, while more than 24 million – almost half of South Korea’s population – live in the officially demarcated National Capital Area. Northeastern South Korea, by contrast, is lightly populated (see map), and barely figures in discussions of South Korean regionalism.

South Korea’s basic geographical structure is thus conventionally conceptualized around a three-fold division: the northwest is the administrative, economic, and demographic core; the southeast is the prosperous heartland of the old-guard political establishment; and the southwest is a marginalized area of leftist politics. Electoral maps generally bear out this division. In 2007, Chung Dong-young of the left-liberal United New Democratic Party took the southwest, while Lee Myung-bak of the conservative GNP triumphed elsewhere, particularly in North Gyeongsang, the core area of the one-time kingdom of Silla.

But if the tripartite division of South Korea still obtains politically, it no longer does so economically, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

South Korea is Divided Into Three Parts Read More »