The April 15 elections in South Korea marked the first significant shift of power in the National Assembly in four decades. The reformist Uri Party ("Our Open Party"), supported by impeached President Roh and representing younger South Koreans, emerged as the victor in the country's 17th parliamentary elections, pushing aside the 43-year dominance of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP). Although the Uri Party won only a slim majority (152 of the 299 seats in parliament), this was an astonishing victory for a party formed six months ago as a small political splinter. The GNP captured only 121 seats, and the Liberal Millennium Democratic Party (MDP), which had been the largest opposition party, will now hold nine seats. The radical left Democratic Labor Party (DLP) captured ten seats. The greatest victor of all, though, is South Korean democracy.
This marks the first time in sixteen years that the president's party controls the National Assembly and gives a strong boost for impeached President Roh Moo Hyun. On March 12, President Roh was impeached by the GNP-dominated National Assembly on two charges of campaign irregularities. His fate now rests with the Constitutional Court, which will decide whether he will be reinstated or stripped of his presidential powers.
Although it would be premature to make further conclusions about the impact of the elections, several observations are noteworthy from the U.S. perspective:
The future of the U.S.-ROK alliance and a greater bilateral relationship are not in jeopardy. While the Uri Party has made vague statements about a more "equal" relationship with the United States, the party leadership has also provided assurances that it the alliance. There is no indication that the ROK commitment of 3,000 combat troops to Iraq will be withdrawn.
Coordination between the United States and South Korea on policy towards North Korea may become more complicated, given the Uri party's support of active economic and social engagement with the North. On the other hand, if President Roh reassumes power, the South Korean leadership will bear greater responsibility for ensuring that its engagement with North Korea produces tangible results because it will no longer be able to blame the majority opposition party for its failures. The Uri Party's victory should not affect the Six Party talks on North Korean nuclear disarmament.
Although the effect of the elections results on on Roh Moo Hyun's fate remains uncertain, the election has given Roh a de facto mandate for leadership. This has immediate implications for stability and confidence in the Korean financial markets, as the Uri party has expressed strong commitment to continued economic and financial reforms.
A long-term impact may be the erosion of the dominance of regional politics. Until this election, the strengths of regional factions have been the overriding determinant of electoral outcomes. During this campaign, however, the Uri party managed to reach across regions to appeal to the younger generation, marking the first significant shift away from regionalism and towards ideological and generational battlefields.
The greatest victory, however, may not be for a particular party or individual leader, but for democracy itself. Aroused by both indignation and support for President Roh's impeachment, almost 60 percent of eligible voters made it to the polls, an unprecedented turnout. The turnout of voters was also unusually high, boosting the Uri's Party victory. But conservatives were also able to rouse support for the GNP party, and their voice will remain strong in Parliament.
Balbina Y. Hwang is Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.