Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012
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.
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.
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.