Features | Politics | East Asia

Is South Korea Really a Liberal Country?

The liberals’ primacy is unprecedented and likely long-term. But is it permanent?

By James Park for
Is South Korea Really a Liberal Country?

South Korea’s presidential candidate Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party raises his hands in front of the media as his party leaders, members and supporters watch on television local media’s results of exit polls for the presidential election at National Assembly in Seoul, South Korea, May 9, 2017.

Credit: AP Photo/Lee Jin-man

On April 15, South Korea held its 21st parliamentary election, marking the ruling liberal party’s fourth consecutive win following the 2016 parliamentary election, the 2017 presidential election, and the 2018 local elections. Having already won 14 of the 17 metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial posts in 2018, the liberal party clinched a three-fifths supermajority in the 300-seat national assembly in the most recent election. This level of liberal dominance has not been seen before in the history of South Korean politics, nor have there been occasions when any single party has won four elections in a row.

The crushing liberal victory in the April 15 election stimulated the debate over whether recent liberal successes may have permanently reshaped South Korea as a liberal polity. The liberal primacy of South Korea’s political landscape is not a fluke and may be a long-term phenomenon. The essence of the liberal transformation emerged from a natural generational shift between two historically and ideologically contested cohorts. However, the claims of a permanent structural change seem premature because it is unpredictable what the South Korean polity will look like once the historically and ideologically unaffiliated younger generations currently sitting on the sidelines become the mainstream political decision-makers.

The Formation of Two Cohorts

Since adopting a democratic election system in 1987, South Korea has gone through four conservative and three liberal presidential administrations. Although the relative balance found at the executive office can give an impression that the two sides had been equally influential, the truth is that over the course of time, conservatives, for the most part, held power over South Korea.

With the notion that they thwarted the North Korean communist threat and transformed a Third World economy into a developed economy, South Korean conservatives established an extensive support base. South Korea’s modernization and economic growth during the post-war developmental era was referred to as  the “Miracle on the Han River.” Those supporters who are now in their 60s and older are known as the Miracle on the Han River generation.

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Behind the shining Miracle on the Han River, however, hid decades of bureaucratic-military authoritarian governance that maximized state-led development. Though fiercely anti-communist, the early conservative leadership neglected democracy and pursued personal greed. The Miracle on the Han River generation, believing that the legacy of anti-communism ideology and astonishing development safeguarded the country, acquiesced to dictatorships. The younger post-war generation, which chased after the values of democracy, labor rights, human rights, and pro-reunification ethnic nationalism, could not accept dictatorship and thus decided to fight.

After years of battling, the 1987 June Struggle ended the military dictatorship and opened a new era of a democratic South Korea, pushed ahead by liberal supporters who are now mostly in their middle adulthood. Following democratization, South Korean liberals, who were suppressed throughout the pre-democratization era, became a legitimate political force, inducing the formation of a competitive two-party system in the 1990s. The two consecutive liberal wins in 1997 and 2002 presidential elections underscored that the South Korean polity was no longer a solo stage for the conservatives.

However, the polity’s inclination was not certain: both victories came from fortunate fallouts. Kim Dae-jung won in 1997 due to vote-splitting between two competitive conservative candidates and in 2002 Roh Moo-hyun won by a small margin after his merge with another popular candidate. Despite the liberals’ expanded position, frequent conservative outperformance in major elections implied a continued conservative tilt in the South Korean political landscape.

The Cohort Effect: Farewell to the Miracle on the Han River

The Miracle on the Han River cohort and the June Struggle cohort formed reliable support bases for the conservatives and the liberals, respectively, creating the so-called “cohort effect.” The Miracle on the Han River cohort was considered mainstream throughout the 1990s and 2000s. At that time, the June Struggle generation was still a young dark horse. Entering the 2010s, however, the political landscape increasingly witnessed signs of a liberal leaning.

In the 2012 parliamentary election, despite winning fewer seats, the liberals dominated in votes from young adults and middle-aged groups — those generally regarded as the June Struggle cohort. Similarly, in the 2012 presidential elections, 2014 local elections, and 2016 parliamentary election, the liberals found themselves notably more competitive than they were in the past. Contemporaneously, the existing conservative support base, though still dense, was narrowing in range with the aging population.

With a generational shift arriving, an eventual conservative decline seemed unavoidable if they did not add new factions to their support base. Park Geun-hye entered her presidency in 2013 as an unprecedented conservative advocate of liberal pro-welfare and economic democratization policies. Her liberal pivot, however, turned out to be more of an electoral tactic, not a long-term vision, as neither policy was prioritized during her short-lived presidency. Consequently, the conservatives’ voting base quickly contracted again.

In early 2017, Park’s scandal and impeachment hastened the downfall of the conservatives. Park Geun-hye is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who is credited for driving the Miracle on the Han River and long prevailed as a prominent figure in conservative politics. Dubbed the “election queen,” Park was not only considered symbolic, but also a competent leader who guided the conservative party to years-long success. Park’s impeachment thus was more than the collapse of an individual leader; it marked a loss of identity for the conservative party.

On the whole, the Park Geun-hye saga and her alleged personal ties with chaebols (large family-run conglomerates) fueled a huge public disappointment for South Korean conservatism, especially the state-chaebol economy that had been heartily advocated since her father’s rule. Park’s predecessor Lee Myung-bak’s corruption scandal further devastated the already negative image of the conservatives as an old, chaebol-capitalist “vested interest group.” The candlelight protest that dethroned Park from office sparked a blue wave more powerful than ever. Under the influence of a generational shift featuring the cohort effect, South Korean polity was already turning gradually liberal, and the impeachment precipitated that process.

A “Permanently Liberal” South Korea, or Toward a “No Man’s Land?” 

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No doubt, as the conservative disarray continues, the momentum currently belongs to the liberals. The “liberal South Korea” narrative is not groundless speculation when looking at four consecutive electoral victories highlighted by three crushing landslides. Narrowing down the scope of observation exclusively to the central-capital region, where the population tends to be younger, the ruling liberal party won a whopping 103 of 121 seats in this most recent election.

Several optimistic statistical assessments of the April 15 election downplay the 77-seat gap because the conservative party still managed to earn a meaningful number of total votes. The relatively narrow gap in total votes, however, would have been a sign of encouragement only if there had not been a continual generational shift featuring the cohort effect. As of now, the conservative party is an unpopular party that only wins in votes from the old and eclipsing Miracle on the Han River cohort. The public animosity toward the former Park and Lee administrations inevitably damaged the public perception of the conservative party. But by expanding their support base and constructing a fresh post-impeachment identity with renewed values, conservatives could preserve a competitive edge.

Throughout Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak administrations, which were marked by growth-motivated chaebol-favoritism and deprioritized welfare, the conservatives pulled out the Miracle on the Han River card again — just a modern version of it. However, this time it made little impact because they failed to realize the ongoing generational shift featuring frustrations over bureaucratism, opaqueness and private state-chaebol ties. That said, as many have suggested, if the conservatives willingly undergo reforms, including a revision of policy agenda and memberships turnover, and escape the shadow of past leaders and old customs, a window of opportunity to bounce back with a fresh image as a young, flexible, and inclusive party would await them.

In reaction to the unending conservative shrinkage, numerous watchers of South Korean politics have asserted that the April 15 election put a period on South Korea’s “permanent” transformation as a liberal polity. However, though it appears that the era of conservative polity is gone, the “permanent liberal transformation” seems to be an overly bold and hasty claim when considering the progressing cohort effect.

Over the years, both major parties have been dependent on ideological politics shaped by past historical events, but as time moves on, those events may no longer hold as much sway over voting behavior. After the era of the June Struggle cohort there will be a new chapter of the post-democratization generation and future generations. The post-democratization generation, now in their young adulthood, only learned about the Miracle on the Han River and the June Struggle from textbooks. They represent the first generation free from the two core ideological legacies. Influenced by Park’s impeachment, many of the post-democratization cohort currently turn away from the conservatives, but they are also generally known to be more conservative than the June Struggle cohort.

As of now, Moon and the liberals face no immediate political obstacles as the weaponless conservatives have a long way to build up a new momentum. But in the long run, the sustainability of the current liberal polity is not at all guaranteed. The generational shift will continue, and incoming generations, unaffected by pre-democratization legacies, will someday replace the June Struggle cohort as the mainstream political and social agent. Then the liberals will face a situation similar to one the conservatives have experienced: the June Struggle ideological politics will no longer work.

The conservatives, stuck in their old Miracle on the Han River mindset without acknowledging the urgent need to abandon ideological politics, failed to expand their support base and were swallowed by the cohort effect. If the liberals also cling onto their outdated card of the June Struggle and self-indulge in ideological politics, they too may be harshly abandoned by future generations. The post-democratization generations’ political orientations will be shaped by their needs and interests, and future events. Who knows what type of polity South Korea will witness in a “no man’s land” era, when the Miracle on the Han River and the June Struggle have each passed into history as mere legends?

James Park is a M.A. student in International Politics and China Studies at the Johns Hopkins University-Nanjing University Center for Chinese and American Studies