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.

Ethiopia’s Failed Ethnic Federalism

Ethiopia is known for a venerable Christian tradition and a record of successful resistance to nineteenth-century European colonization. Less often discussed is the depth of Islam in the country, whose population today is more than one third Muslim. Also overlooked is Ethiopia’s transformation into an imperial state in its own right during the late 1800s. Acquiring modern weapons to avoid colonial rule allowed the monarchy to embark on its own land-grabbing spree, conquering and incorporating large areas inhabited by people of strikingly different political and cultural traditions. This episode of Ethiopian imperialism remains invisible on most maps of late nineteenth and early twentieth century Africa, which portray the division of the continent as a strictly European affair.

The Ethiopian (or Abyssinian) kingdom had long been dominated by the Amhara people, with the Tigray and other Christian groups of the north also playing significant roles. Eastward conquests brought in Muslim areas, inhabited primarily by Somali and Afar speakers. Expansion to the southwest incorporated a large number of animist groups. The situation to the immediate south of Ethiopia’s historical core was more complicated. This was the homeland of the Oromo, a large ethnic group whose northward spread had vexed the Ethiopian monarchy in the 1600s and 1700s. Ethiopian kings intermarried with the Oromo, partly to co-opt them, and about half of all Oromos eventually converted to Christianity. As many turned to Islam, however, while a few retained their original beliefs. Today the Oromo people are roughly 47% Muslim, 30% Ethiopian Christian, 17% Protestant Christian, and 3% animist. Despite these religious divisions, the Oromo constitute the largest ethnic group in Ethiopia (some 25 million strong) and tend to have a strong sense of ethnic identity.

Ethiopia remained essentially a feudal monarchy until 1974, when the communist Derg (“committee”) seized power. The Derg attempted to demolish the traditional structures of Ethiopian society in a brutal and inept manner, but Amhara dominance of the state did not change. Regional and ethnic rebels gathered strength during the 1980s and made common cause against the Derg. In 1991, a multi-ethnic Ethiopian People’s Revolutionary Democratic Front seized power. Although the Front was a composite organization, its leading faction represented the Tigrayan area of the Christian north.

In 1996, Ethiopia’s new Tigrayan-dominated government restructured the country’s political geography, replacing thirteen provinces with nine ethnically based regions. Such a federal approach, it was hoped, would lessen the country’s severe regional tensions. But the new division of the country presented a few challenges. Trying to include all of the Oromo–speaking people into one region required intricate boundaries (see map above). Southwestern Ethiopia, one of the world’s more linguistically diverse areas, ended up comprising two ethnically composite regions. In the east, the historically important cities of Harar and Dire Dawa formed city-regions, as did Addis Ababa.

Ethiopia’s ethnic reorganization generated considerable enthusiasm in the international development community at first. It did not last long. By the early 2000s, complaints of continued Tigrayan domination mounted, especially in the Oromo region. Secession movements took root; today the Oromo Independence Movement, the Oromo Liberation Front, the Islamic Front for the Liberation of Oromia, and the Conference of Oromiya Peoples Liberation Front are all classified as actively seeking to split the state. Due both to poverty and conflicts with Ethiopian governments, many Oromos have been fleeing the country, often for Yemen across the Red Sea.

Recent reports highlight the plight of Muslim Oromo refugees in Yemen. As Voice of America News reported on March 4, 2010, “The Yemeni government calls many of those coming from Ethiopia ‘infiltrators’ and ‘sneakers’ and regularly announces mass arrests, and plans for deportations.” Ethiopia’s human rights record is increasingly criticized by the United States, generating bilateral tensions. The Ethiopian government has recently been jamming the Voice of America’s Amharic radio programming. Ethiopian president Meles Zenawi accused the station of broadcasting “destabilizing propaganda,” comparing it to the Rwandan radio station that propelled the 1994 Tutsi genocide. Perhaps not coincidently, Ethiopian national elections are scheduled for May of this year.

Although the Oromo region is currently Ethiopia’s main trouble spot, more serious human rights abuses may well be taking place in the western region of Gambella, as tomorrow’s post will explore.

The New State of Coastal California?

In 2009, former California legislator Bill Maze proposed dividing his state, hiving off thirteen counties as Coastal (or Western) California (see map). Maze, a conservative from the agricultural Central Valley, objects to the domination of state politics by the left-leaning Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas. The initial impetus for his proposal was the passage by state voters in 2008 of Proposition 2, requiring larger pens and cages for farm animals. Agricultural interests denounced the measure, arguing that it would increase their costs and threaten their livelihoods. Meanwhile, the state’s on-going water crisis, which largely pits farmers against environmentalists, widens the divide. Unforgiving invective marks both sides of the debate. A post in Politics Daily characterized secessionist farmers as dolts fighting against “liberal Hollywood types [who] don’t understand the importance of torturing animals.” The Downsize California website, on the other side, fulminates against coastal “radicals” who are “infatuated with nature over mankind and are sympathetic to illegals and criminals.”

The desire to divide unwieldy California may be quixotic but it is nothing new; at least 27 divisional schemes have been proposed since statehood in 1850. Most have sought to split the state along north-south lines. In the mid 1800s, southern California secessionists felt marginalized and ill-served by a state government based in the distant Sacramento. By the mid 1900s, the tables had been turned, as northern Californians came to resent the demographically and economically dominant greater Los Angeles (LA) area. The California State Water Project, with its vast pipes snaking over the Tehachapi Mountains, was a particular irritant. As a child growing up in northern California’s Bay Area in the 1960s, I almost never heard positive statements about LA, which was widely condemned as a vast suburban wasteland inhabited by shallow people scheming to “steal our water.” Such naked regional bigotry was spouted by people who would have been ashamed to say anything remotely smacking of racial or religious prejudice.

Economic and political evolution, coupled with substantial immigration and emigration, gradually reduced the tensions between the Los Angeles and San Francisco metropolitan areas while accentuating the division between urban coastal and interior agricultural regions. But as the 2004 “voter index map” reproduced above shows, the state’s actual political divide is far more complex than that. Close inspection reveals a Democratic voting zone essentially split between coastal northern California and the Los Angeles area, with a few interior outliers in college towns, urban cores, Hispanic rural areas, and mountainous recreation sites.Contrasting to this area is a spatially larger and more contiguous but demographically smaller Republican-voting block covering the rest of the state.

Maze’s scheme places several relatively conservative counties (Ventura, San Luis Obispo) in liberal Coastal California, doing so largely for reasons of geographical contiguity. Less explicable is his exclusion of the left-voting northern coastal countries of Sonoma, Mendocino, and Humboldt. These may be relatively rural counties, but where the main crops are wine grapes and marijuana one should not expect conservative voting patterns. Note that certainly highly rural and relatively remote regions have solidly left electoral records, an unusual pattern. These include the Big Sur coast in Monterrey County, with its artistic heritage, and the counter-cultural “hippy” centers of Mendocino and southern Humboldt counties, such as Willits and Garberville.