A Beginner’s Guide to Korean Politics


What are the Political Issues in South Korea?

When living in the US I tried to mostly stay out of political discussions. This avoidance was not because I am devoid of political views, but more because I have found these arguments to be an unproductive recounting of points and counterpoints that have been thrown out ad nauseam by others in the past. In my experience, the debate predictably and inevitably would feature two arguing parties escalating both their rhetoric and blood pressure until both reached the point of fatigue. The combatants would end red-faced and even more entrenched in whatever viewpoint they had at the beginning of the verbal volley.

Since moving to Korea, I have had a few Koreans ask me what I think about Korean politics. I doubt this is because they want to engage me on a deep level and begin a battle similar to the one described above, but I believe this inquisition is just a genuine curiosity as to what a fairly detached outsider believes. Thus far I haven’t had a real substantive answer to these questions and my shrugging response has likely been taken as something akin to apathy by the questioner. There is some truth in that. Not speaking the language in a meaningful way has made it incredibly easy for me to just bury my head and not really pay attention to what is going on with respect to the local political landscape.

In the interest of showing respect for my new home, I believe it behooves me to at least educate myself on a base level to what is really going on around me. Therefore, I decided it would be of some value to research the general structure of the Korean government, and try to at least scratch the surface of some key issues in contemporary Korean politics. Below are the results of that research, and I hope this article can serve as a general primer to others as they navigate discussions with the local residents. As I discuss the various issues below, I will do my best to play them completely down the middle from a positional standpoint. I am not looking to engage in any arguments or debates, but just understand what various sides exist in the debates.

Korean Government Structure

The most basic information a foreigner needs to know is a high-level guide to the general structure of the Korean government. A quick navigation to Wikipedia will yield more detail than anyone likely requires, but I can offer a high-level synopsis here.

The Korean government has similarities to many other democracies around the world.  There is an Executive, a Legislative, and a Judicial branch — all with the requisite checks and balances over each other. The Legislative (National Assembly) has one body with 300 members who serve unlimited 4-year terms. The Executive (President) serves exactly one 5-year term. The Judiciary is actually two different bodies — the Supreme Court and the Constitutional Court. The Supreme Court is the final court of appeal for cases involving the law. The Constitutional Court is the final arbiter of issues involving the Korean Constitution. Members of both serve 6-year renewable terms.  The President appoints members with approval from the National Assembly. The Prime Minister is appointed by the president and approved by the National Assembly.   The Prime Minister rules over the various ministries that make up the cabinet, and is actually first in line for succession if the president were to be unable to fulfill their duties.

Politically, there are two main parties in Korea. The Saenuri Party (also known as the NFP – New Frontier Party) is the conservative party and the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) is the more liberal party. There are a significant number of smaller parties (especially on the liberal side), but most currently have no seats in the National Assembly. In colloquial nomenclature, all liberal parties are typically linked together and called “the opposition”, but in recent history these parties have banded together to support one candidate in presidential elections.

Unlike other countries (the US, specifically), it is quite common for incumbent legislators to be replaced after one term, and turnover of over 50% from one election to the next is pretty standard. From a geographic standpoint, the greater Seoul area tends to vote more for the liberal party and the more rural areas vote more for the conservative party. In addition, there is a significant gap in voter tendencies from an age standpoint, with the older generation slanting much more conservative and the younger generation being more liberal.

The current ruling party is the conservative Saenuri party, which controls both the National Assembly and the Presidency with Park Geun-Hye. The previous presidential election in 2012 was extremely close with the conservative NFP candidate (Park Guen-Hye) getting 51% of the vote and the liberal candidate getting 48%, demonstrating just how closely divided the country currently is from a political standpoint.


Historical Backgound

I didn’t plan on including much, if any, history in this article, but even a tiny bit of research quickly shows that it is virtually impossible to discuss the present without the aid of some context from the past. Korea’s democracy has a complicated legacy. Unsurprisingly, there is as much information and literature available as anyone could want if further study is desired. There doesn’t seem to be much dispute that the four leaders that held the presidency from South Korea’s formation in 1948 until 1988 were dictatorial in nature. During that time, the Constitution was re-drafted several times (five) in ways that typically allowed the president at that time to retain their power.

To speak of one of these presidents directly (current president Park Geun-Hye’s father), Park Chung-Hee was leader from 1961-1979. He initially gained power in a military coup in 1961, and was able to retain power by changing the Constitution in 1972 to change elections from direct to indirect, which meant the people no longer had any way to remove him from power. Overall, Park Chung-Hee has a mixed legacy. He is typically given significant credit for overseeing the Miracle on the Han River, which saw the economy of Korea grow at a virtually unprecedented rate in the 60’s and 70’s.

When he seized power, Korea had one of the lowest per capita GDP’s in the world, and many give him credit for laying the framework that has allowed Korea to become one of the true economic powers both in Asia and also around the world today. Despite this economic growth, by the late-70’s many Koreans had grown tired of the dictatorial rule and student protests around Korea had grown both in number and in frequency – mostly protesting the dissolution of the freedom of speech and of the press.

President Park Chung-Hee was assassinated in 1979 by the director of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, and as with most political assassinations there are numerous conspiracy theories as to the number and identification of the co-conspirators. It is widely viewed that the authoritarian control actually became even tighter after Park’s rule, and only turned around due to pressure that arose before the 1988 Olympics in Seoul. The most recent revision of the Korean constitution went into effect in 1988, and elections have been direct and free since that time.


Significant Current Political Issues

While it is no means all-inclusive, the following is a list of a few of the most important issues in Korean politics today, along with a brief explanation of each side of the debate.

Business Landscape – The relationship between large corporations and government is very complicated. The most important vocabulary word ones needs for discussions on Korean business is the word Chaebol. Chaebols are the large business conglomerations that more or less dominate the economy and are mostly run by traditional family groups.

The fact that Samsung, LG, Hyundai, and SK are often referred to as the Big Four shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone. Through the rapid economic expansion in the 1970’s, the Korean government gave Chaebols significant incentives and direction to invest and expand into certain industries — and the size and wealth of these companies grew exponentially as a result. To this day, Chaebols have incredible power and influence on the Korean economy as a whole.

Politically, there is a push in some circles to move away from the Chaebol structure and begin to promote more medium and small businesses. In the previous election, this was a major campaign issue as the liberals are looking for reforms in the regulations over Chaebols and conservatives believing that these conglomerates are the key to Korea’s relevance in the international economy. Chaebols and the regulation are currently in the news as Lotte’s founder is in rapidly-declining health, and his two sons are currently fighting both publicly and privately for control of the company. Many liberals cite this as one key example as to why these companies need significant reform as this instability is extremely unsettling in the economy as a whole.

Japanese Relations and the Legacy of Comfort Women – This is by far the most touchy subject for a foreigner to write about as (for obvious reasons) emotions around the issue are sky high. I will do my best to explain my understanding of the current situation implore the reader to do research on their own if they want more information and viewpoints.

Globally, it is not disputed that local women from many of the lands Japan conquered in the early part of World War II were coerced into providing sexual “comfort” to members of the Japanese army. At the time, state-sponsored prostitution was legal in Japan, and as the Japanese army decentralized through invasions, the Japanese government decided to set up “comfort stations” in the occupied lands of Korea, Philippines, Taiwan, and China (among others) using local women.

Hardline Japanese insist that all of these women were willing participants, while the occupied countries have universally said the women were forcibly taken from their families and used as sex slaves. The total number of women involved is also hotly disputed, with estimates ranging from as low as 20,000 to as high as 300,000. While the tension over this issue has never really died down, it has increased significantly in recent years. In 1994, the Japanese Prime Minister issued a formal apology letter with an offer of some compensation to surviving comfort women — which was widely rejected.

However, the current Prime Minister of Japan (Shinzo Abe) said in 2007 that there was no evidence that Japan had kept sex slaves during World War II. This statement along with statements from other conservative Japanese officials to the same effect continue to strain relations between the two nations to this day. While present-day Koreans are united in their disgust about the use of Korean Comfort Women during World War II, there is debate on just how strongly the present Japanese government should be pushed in their recognition of this history, and how much the lack of recognition by current Japanese government officials should set the tone for all relations with Japan. 

There are numerous other disputes that add to these tensions, only some of which are related to the colonial rule in the first half of the century.  For instance, there are territorial disputes between the two countries regarding islands found between the two nations, the most famous of which is known as Dokdo in Korea.


Declining Fertility and Aging PopulationWelfare programs (especially as they relate to retirement) are also a hotly-contested and important issue, which is certainly not unique to South Korea. As was famously experienced first in Japan, and then in Europe, low fertility rates coupled with extended life expectancies are causing enormous problems with national pension systems. In Korea, one of the key developments surrounding the national pension and aging has been the establishment of a minimum mandatory retirement age.

For many companies (especially larger ones), the mandatory retirement age for employees had been traditionally set at age 55. However, in 2014 a law was passed to require the minimum mandatory retirement age for companies with over 300 employees be raised to 60 by 2016, with smaller companies following in 2017. Traditionally, older workers have been pushed to retire so they can be replaced by younger and cheaper workers.

However, the pension system was not set up until relatively recently as it had been traditionally expected that children should take care of their parents as they get older. With the cost of children today being incredibly high (specifically their education), it is impossible for many families to help their parents financially as they age. As a result, this has caused a tremendous financial burden that many older Koreans have been unable to bear. Currently about 47% of people over 60 live below the poverty line. National pension funding, payment amounts, and payment structure has been, and will continue to be, a hyper-important issue for the next election, and elections for many years into the future. On the other end of the spectrum, increased retirement ages and employment for older people have created additional issues for people earlier in life. Specifically, the unemployment rate for people 15-25 is about 10%, while country-wide it is less than 4%.

North Korea – Unsurprisingly, the relationship with the other resident of the Korean peninsula is also an enormous political topic. Conservatives tend to prefer a very hardline stance on the North, and any discussion of aid (financial or otherwise) requires the inclusion of denuclearization talks. Absent of that, they believe that talks should not even be started and intense economic pressure is believed to be the key to eventual regime change in the North. In contrast, liberals tend to favor a return to the so-called “Sunshine Policy”, which was active from the late 1990’s until the presidential election of Lee Myung-bak in 2007. The chief tenants of the Sunshine Policy include the hope that North Korea’s aggression towards the South can be softened over time through economic aid and increased talks.

Relationship with the US/China This topic seems to be one that has been rising in its seriousness in recent years. The significance of the US’s military presence in Korea is being questioned more and more. China has continued to partner with North Korea, a situation that is discomforting to the US. The more hardline against the North that the South becomes, the more they risk upsetting the Chinese, who is an economic player of increasing importance to Korea. Taking a softer stance on the North will appease the Chinese at the expense of upsetting the Americans, and exactly how to balance these relationships is an area of contention. In general, liberals favor more independence from American influence (both militarily and economically), while conservatives continue to see the Americans as a key ally in dealing with Korea’s neighbors.

SEOUL, SOUTH KOREA - DECEMBER 06: U.S. Vice President Joe Biden (L) shakes hands with South Korean President Park Geun-Hye (R) during their meeting at presidentisl house on December 6, 2013 in Seoul, South Korea. Vice President Biden has been visiting Japan, China and South Korea this week. Some of the issues to discuss are the Trans-Pacific Partnership, diplomacy on the East China Sea and the South China Sea, economic relationship with China, implementation of the U.S.-Korea Free Trade Agreement, and alliance issues in both Japan and Korea. (Photo by Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images)

Due to a lack of personal investment, as a foreigner it is virtually impossible to fully comprehend the complex inner politics of another nation. Regardless, making an effort to at least understand some of the key issues I believe is imperative to at least beginning to understand the greater context. Hopefully this article begins to provide a base for you to do further research and come to your own conclusions.


* If you are looking for further information on the Korean political landscape, I highly recommend the “Korea and the World” podcast on iTunes.  The podcast is put together by three grad students at Seoul National University, and features well-constructed long-form interviews with people from academia, business, and daily life, and covers topics from the extremely serious (North Korean relations) to the significantly more mundane (Korean gaming culture). 

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