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Home » East Asia, Elections, Historical Geography, Regionalism

Intense Regionalism in the South Korean Presidential Election of 2012

Submitted by on February 19, 2013 – 5:22 pm 20 Comments |  
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.







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  • Verpa’

    One difference between southeast and the southwest/Seoul can be the demographic structure. Old people prefers Park Geun-Hye against Moon Jae-in. The opposite is relevant for the connection between young voters and Moon Jae-in. One part of the voters for the right-win are nostalgic for the Park Geun-hye’s father, despite the dictatorship aspect. It was a very strong period in order to improve economical production and an improvement of the living standard.

    • Thanks for sharing this—fascinating stuff!

    • Interesting comments. I would like to see an age break-down of the returns, region by region.

  • David Schwartz

    Looking at the historic map of the kingdoms I wonder if there’s a distinct “Korean” region in China that corresponds to northern Goguryoe and the successor kingdoms that followed? Or was that regionality removed in the intervening centuries? I just have to wonder if there are genetic markers and cultural/linguistic traits that still exist in the area from this earlier border.

    • Brendan Hennessy

      There’s a small Korean minority in that part of China with two autonomous areas (Yanbian and Changbai), but as I understand it that population came from relatively recent migrations. A lot of countries have come and gone since Goguryeo fell to the Tang, and it’s hard to imagine that any kind of regional identity would have survived all that history.

      • Yes, the Chinese Koreans (who number several million) are generally believed to be the descendants of migrants who moved into China from the Korean Peninsula in the late 1800s. In regard to Goguryeo, there is some doubt as to whether its main language was a form of Korean. The debate here centers on the possible existence of an old Buyeo family of languages (see After the fall of Goguryeo, much of the region that it controlled passed to a little known kingdom called Balhae (or Bohai). Balheo seems to have been a multi-lingual state, partly Tungusic, partly “Buyeo” (or Korean). It does seem that more research is needed here!

        • I seem to remember Koguryoic to be somewhat more distantly related to modern Korean than the languages of Packche and Silla (please excuse the antiquated spelling, but I could not remember the current standard).

        • David Schwartz

          Very interesting, thank you.

  • jaredway

    I’m pleased to see a professional geographer pick up on this – I hope more work is done with it. I mentioned the same phenomenon in a blog entry (entirely amateur: that I wrote back in April, 2012, with respect to the SK parliamentary elections at that time. It’s also worth noting, in an extension of another commenter’s thought above, that Park Geun-hye’s exceptionally strong showing in the central southeast (around Daegu) is partly related to her being the daughter of strongman Park Chung-hee, who’s hometown is northwest of Daegu. Family loyalties are still quite strong here. But, regardless, the west=liberal / east=nationalist divide is very strong, having essentially overridden Moon’s own hometown status in the southeastern metropolis of Busan.

  • What an interesting post. Do any of the other commenters know of any other Packche/Silla cultural differences?

    As for the question of whether South Korea is a nation-state, does the existence of a population outside the state, toward which the nationalists harbor irredentist ambitions, really disqualify a state as a nation-state? I would have thought that states that had the goal of uniting all of a particular “nation” within their borders were precisely what we were talking about, or when we use the term are we simply saying that it can only ever be a goal.

    Finally, I know it is dreadful of me to say, but I wish the Koreans would get just a few more surnames.

    • Good point about nation-states. I mentioned the issue because most Koreans hope that (and think that?) that the Korean Peninsula will eventually be politically reunited, with one nation forming one state. There is still the issue of the ethnic Korean areas of China, however.

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  • What surprised me the most about South Korea, was how prevalent Shamanism is there. Confucius’ birthday is celebrated as Teachers Day, and the Taoist yin and yang is on their national flag. But the belief in nature deities of Shamanism is very supreme. Shintoism in Japan, is their form of Shamanism, and you can definitely see the Siberian origin of it. But both the Koreans and Japanese are primarily of Tungusic origin. But the Japanese all have Ainu DNA in them.

    • “But both the Koreans and Japanese are primarily of Tungusic origin.”— just to clarify, are you talking about the people’s genes or the languages?

      • I do not know for sure about genes. I know the Japanese are a mixture of Siberian Tungusic, Ainu, and Malayo-Polynesian. I am assuming the Koreans are of Siberian Tungusic origin. Both Japanese (Kanji) and Korean are in their own language families. It has been debated if they both are Altaic languages (Turkic, Mongolic, and Tungusic) Ainu is in its own family of languages, but their DNA shows they are related to the Andaman Islanders and people of central Tibet. The European connection has been dropped.

        • I just wanted to make sure we are talking about the same thing. I don’t know about genes either, but as for the question of whether Japanese and or Korean are altaic languages, we discussed this very issue in class today, Martin and I. There doesn’t seem to be solud evidence to link them to altaic, or to Austronesian in the case of Japanese.

          • Ah, but you seem to think there is such a thing as “Altaic.” I had been told by Mongolists and Turkists that there was no such thing (of course, that is now a decade ago).

          • Actually, no I don’t believe there’s such thing as “Altaic languages” (although I just sent in an abstract to a sorkshop on Altaic linguistics today!). But even if Altaic is/were a family, there’s little evidence that ties Japanese or Korean to it. Or put differently, there’s little evidence that Japanese and/or Korean are related to any of the “Altaic” (i.e. Turkic, Mongolic or Tungusic) languages.

    • Thanks for the interesting comments. Korean Shamanism, or “Muism,” is strong, although I have been taken to task by Korean students for emphasizing it too much. Most Korean shamans (Mudang) are women, which I find intriguing. The Wikipedia claims that 8% or South Koreans consider themselves to be followers of this faith, and that their numbers are growing. The Tungusic origin of the Japanese and Koreans is controversial. Also of note is the fact that most Tungusic shamans use the psychoactive mushroom Amanita muscaria, but I do not know of its use in Korea or Japan. Anyone?

      • The majority of shamans among the indigenous peoples of Siberia were women. They were either overly hysterical people or epileptics. The amanita mushroom only grows in Siberia. Its use did not exist in the Korean Peninsula or Japan. The Shinto belief in a Sun Goddess, goes along with that of polar peoples. After a long, hard, cold winter, a sun deity always come to warm the land. Among the Saami, the sun deity was welcomed by reindeer who flew up into the air, to welcome it back. Thus the origin of the myth of Santa Claus’ flying reindeer, brought to the United States by northern Scandinavian immigrants.

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