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WebMemo #737 on Asia

May 5, 2005

By-Elections in South Korea: Democracy Marches On

By

In crucial by-elections held on April 30 in South Korea, the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP) won a resounding victory, taking five out of the six available seats in the National Assembly. The by-election results are a serious political blow to President Roh Moo Hyun and his Uri Party, which was weakened in March when it lost a slim parliamentary majority after five Uri legislators were forced to resign for electoral law violations. The Uri Party's failure in every race in the by-elections-including seven mayoral and gubernatorial posts and 31 local council seats-will not only change the power structure in the National Assembly for the next three years, but also the nation's political landscape.

 

Meanwhile, the GNP increased its seats in the National Assembly to 125, successfully blocking the ruling Uri Party from regaining the majority in the 299-member parliament. The radical Democratic Labor Party (DLP) and liberal Millennium Democratic Party (MDP) retained ten and nine seats, respectively. With the remaining seat going to an independent candidate, the 146-seat Uri Party, failed to gain a single new seat in the Assembly.[1]

Impact on Domestic Politics

The by-elections are an important barometer of public opinion on the two-year-old Roh administration and the Uri party. Their results may represent a significant shift in public support for the Uri Party and its platform agenda of sweeping reforms, such as the elimination of the controversial National Security Law.

 

One reform that may now be in jeopardy is the plan to build a new administrative city to replace Seoul. President Roh's initial proposal to move the capital was struck down by the constitutional courts last year. Both he and his party, however, are continuing with a modified plan to move some 40 central government offices, including 12 ministries, out of Seoul starting in 2012. The Uri Party's inability to win elections even in President Roh's hometown (Gongju-Yeongi in South Chungcheong province), which is to host the new government facilities, may demonstrate serious public skepticism. The plan will certainly face even stronger opposition in the National Assembly with the GNP's new seats.

 

Although it is too soon to assume that the weakened Uri Party will dissolve, restructuring and a change in leadership are certain. The party may attempt to form a coalition with the DLP or the MDP to gain back the majority in the National Assembly. Notably, although they hold few seats, the DLP and MDP can expect their influence to increase as Uri and GNP woo their support for legislation. Whether or not Uri or GNP is able to form a coalition majority, both will have to look for support outside of their parties to pass any legislation.

 

The GNP may find it tempting to claim victory following the by-election, but public rejection of Uri candidates was not necessarily a vote of confidence for the GNP. The public remains distrustful of politicians due to seemingly endless political scandals and negative campaigning, even though reported campaign procedure violations actually fell in this election.

 

Implications for Foreign Policy

The elections are unlikely to alter the South's policy of engagement and reconciliation with North Korea. Specific aspects of engagement, however, such as the amount and timing of aid, may shift. The GNP takes a tougher stance on the North, while the Uri party advocates moderation. The on-going nuclear weapons issue will likely polarize public opinion even further.

 

For the United States, the election results are ambiguous. The conservative GNP has been critical of the progressive Uri Party's stance on the U.S.-ROK alliance. While both President Roh and his party officially support the alliance, many Uri members have expressed skepticism of the bilateral relationship and are openly critical of U.S. North Korea policy. The Uri Party has also expressed interest in loosening South Korea's relationship with the United States in favor of stronger relations with China. With the Uri Party's weakened position in the Assembly, expect debate to flair on this point, with uncertain results.

 

The by-election results may also reflect public skepticism of the Uri Party's foreign policy. President Roh and the Uri Party's desire to elevate South Korea's relationship with China may be checked for now, but not their vocal suspicions about Japan and its ambitions in the region. In part, this reflects a non-partisan, nationalist public sentiment that seeks a more independent role for South Korea in the region. This attitude could have negative consequences for the United States, which is working to promote a stronger U.S.-Japan alliance and better relations between Seoul and Tokyo. These are key facets of the U.S. response to China's rise and North Korea's continued belligerence. In a sense, Uri's loss at the polls may be a relief for Washington.

 

Conclusion

President Roh, who is not eligible to run for a second term, faces many challenges before the next presidential elections in December 2007. His party's weakened position will make the road ahead even more difficult. In addition to increased tensions over North Korea's nuclear program, rising conflict with Japan over territory and history, and ongoing uncertainty about China's role in the region, South Korea's economic growth is expected to slow over the next year.

 

On the bright side, despite being a disappointment for Roh and the Uri Party, the by-election proves that the Korean people are holding their leaders to account for their policies and that democracy continues its march forward in South Korea.

 

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



[1] Although Kim Won-Ki, the National Assembly Speaker is a member of the Uri Party, he is not counted as one of the 146 Uri representative members due to his status as Speaker.

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