The Heritage Foundation

WebMemo #484 on Asia

April 19, 2004

April 19, 2004 | WebMemo on Asia

The Elections in South Korea: A Victory for the Electoral Process

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.

 

Implications

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 There is no indication that the ROK commitment of 3,000 combat troops to Iraq will be withdrawn.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.

Democracy Wins

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.

The electoral and campaign process in South Korea is also a victor. While Korea's electoral system has been considered highly advanced in terms of registration procedures, the process has been tainted in the past by corruption and irregularities due to lack of transparency and poor enforcement of campaign laws. But since the 2002 presidential elections and the disclosure of hundreds of millions worth of illegal campaign spending by parties, the National Election Commission, an independent organization charged with election monitoring, has aggressively implemented and enforced strict rules on campaigning for this parliamentary election. The result has been higher voter participation and increased confidence in the system. Candidates must rely more on engaging voters, rather than purchasing votes.

Ultimately, whatever political battles lie ahead in South Korea, the 2004 elections will be deemed a strong victory for Korean democracy. This election was the cleanest and most open in South Korea's often-turbulent political history. While the younger generation may be unpredictable and inexperienced, its political activism means that South Korea is on the road towards democratic maturity.

 

Balbina Y. Hwang is  Policy Analyst in the Asian Studies Center at The Heritage Foundation.

About the Author

Balbina Y. Hwang, Ph.D. Senior Policy Analyst
Asian Studies Center