South Korea Politics

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South Korea - Politics

More about the Government of South Korea.


The period from late June through December 1987 saw rapid implementation of political reforms in an unusual mood of compromise between the ruling and opposition parties. In July the government paroled 357 political offenders, amnestied more than 2,000 other prisoners, and restored full political rights to prominent opposition figure Kim Dae Jung. In August the National Assembly established a committee to study constitutional revision. Representatives of four parties took one month to negotiate and propose a draft constitution that incorporated most of the provisions long sought by the opposition parties: greater press freedom and protection for civil rights, a stronger National Assembly, and direct presidential elections. After the bill passed the National Assembly, more than 93 percent of the voters approved the new draft in a plebiscite on October 28, 1987.

Anticipating the presidential election of December 1987, the four major presidential candidates (Roh Tae Woo, Kim Dae Jung, Kim Young Sam, and Kim Chong-p'il, collectively referred to in the media as "one Roh and three Kims", began their informal campaigning with a series of public appearances and speeches in October.

In April 1987, Kim Young Sam and Kim Dae Jung had led their respective factions, who together included seventy-two National Assembly members, out of the New Korea Democratic Party (NKDP) to form the Reunification Democratic Party (RDP). Summer-long efforts to produce a single RDP presidential candidate failed. By late September, Kim Young Sam was finally left in control of the party when Kim Dae Jung and his followers departed to form a new party of their own--the Party for Peace and Democracy (PPD). Kim Young Sam announced his candidacy on October 10 and the RDP convention proclaimed Kim the party's candidate on November 9. Kim Chong-p'il was affiliated with the New Democratic Republican Party (NDRP).

Hoping to benefit from the inability of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam to agree on a unified candidacy, Roh Tae Woo's Democratic Justice Party (DJP) expected to win the election with a plurality of 1 million votes and sweep about 45 percent of the total vote. The party's strategy was based on the substantive appeal of Roh Tae Woo's June 29 declaration in favor of a new democratic constitution and other reforms along with a massive public relations campaign. The public relations campaign--roundly scored by Roh's political rivals--portrayed the former four-star general and division commander (he had helped Chun depose the army chief of staff in December 1979) as a simple, "ordinary man" who would bring about a society in which other ordinary people could live comfortably and more affluently. The Roh campaign also avoided the traditionally strident slogans of South Korean politics, preferring promising phrases, such as "Commitment to a Bright Future."

DJP strategists seeking the youth vote, which accounted for nearly 60 percent of the electorate, acknowledged the party's likely problem with the more opposition-minded liberal arts college graduates; instead, they focused on segments of the young population believed to be more easily won, such as high-school graduates and technical college graduates. As the campaign continued, Roh increasingly attempted to distance himself from his patron, Chun Doo Hwan, admitting that the government had committed torture and "other mistakes" and affirming that not even the head of state could be exempted in eradicating corruption.

The other conservative candidate, viewed by some of the press as a "spoiler," who would take votes from Roh Tae Woo, was Kim Chong-p'il. Kim's campaign used the "man of experience" theme and was structured around small meetings (especially outside his native South Ch'ungch'ong Province), some larger rallies, and carefully chosen television spots financed from the coffers of the Fraternal Association of National Revitalization and by other affluent and conservative South Koreans. In his speeches, Kim criticized Roh's long association with the evils of the Fifth Republic and outlined a tentative program of financial relief for farmers, coal miners, and others.

Like the other major candidates, Kim Young Sam took advantage of the liberalized political climate to begin his presidential campaign with a series of public rallies even before the October 28 national referendum on the new constitution. The failure to agree with Kim Dae Jung on a unified opposition candidacy required a two-pronged offensive, designed both to divert blame for potentially splitting the opposition vote in the election and to attack Roh Tae Woo. The RDP's slogans, "End Military Government with Kim Young Sam" and "A Man for Peace, Harmony, and Honesty," reflected the dual objectives of the campaign. On October 17, 1987, Kim told a home-town audience of 1 million in Pusan that, unlike Roh, he would lead a corruption-free government that would end a "long tradition of military-backed governments" and would make appropriate monetary and symbolic compensation to those killed and wounded in the 1980 "civilian uprising" in Kwangju. In a large rally in Taejon on October 24, Kim suggested that a Kim Dae Jung candidacy would "bring about sharp confrontation among Cholla and Kyongsang people." In keeping with the name of his party, Kim also publicized his plan for "Five Steps to Peaceful Unification" on October 12.

Kim Dae Jung's populist campaign themes were national reconciliation, a just economy, political neutrality of the military, and pursuit of reunification. The platform struck a balance between appeals to Kim Dae Jung's hoped-for constituency among workers, farmers, and lower middle-class voters and reassurances to voters who feared that a Kim Dae Jung candidacy could inflame regional loyalties or result in vindictive purges against those who held power during the Fifth Republic. One of Kim's sons directed specialized party organs such as the United Democratic Youth Association to attract younger voters. Like Roh and Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung was able to assemble 1 million participants in rallies in Seoul and in home-province appearances, while drawing somewhat smaller crowds in other provinces.

In addition to the four principal candidates, several minor parties also offered candidates. These included relative unknowns, such as Kim Son-jok of the Ilche Party (Unified Party), Sin Chong-il of the Hanism Unification Party, and Hong Suk-cha of the Social Democratic Party. Another candidate, Paek Ki-wan, was prominent in dissident circles. Most of these candidates faded as the campaign progressed, eventually withdrawing their candidacy in support of one or another major candidate.

The election results closely followed projections based on the regional origins of the four major candidates, despite protestations by all that regionalism should not divide the country. Of the major candidates, Roh took 36.9 percent of the votes, Kim Young Sam 28 percent, Kim Dae Jung 26.9 percent, and Kim Chong-p'il only 8 percent.

Losers in the election had been charging the government party with illegal electioneering activities ever since it became clear in late September that Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam would not be able to agree on a unified candidacy. The traditional advantages of incumbency were evident early; by October the business pages of Seoul's daily press were already discussing the "election inflation" caused by election-related spending, which included government disbursements for development projects. Such spending, common in many countries prior to elections, included a substantial decrease in the price of heating oil, an increase in the official purchase price of rice, and a salary increase for civil servants. Also common, although by no means limited to the ruling party, were customary "transportation costs" given to people to people to attend rallies and the wide distribution of small gifts, such as the cigarette lighters bearing Roh Tae Woo's name, dispensed by the ruling party. Political cartoonists could easily make light of the latter practice, probably because it had been many years since the votes of South Koreans, even in rural areas, had been swayed by simple gifts such as a bowl of rice wine or a pair of rubber shoes. One candidate seemed to sum up the prevailing attitude in remarks at a mid-November rally: "If they give you money, take it. If they take you to Mount Sorak for sightseeing, then have a nice journey. But on 16 December, be sure to give your vote to me."

More serious irregularities reported prior to and during the elections included acts of violence or intimidation against election observers, biased television coverage, mobilization of local officials and neighborhood organization officers to encourage people to vote for Roh, and fraudulent handling of ballot boxes. In one working class district in Seoul, for example, election observers seized two ballot boxes being surreptitiously brought in to a polling station on the morning of the election. The government, which removed the observers by force two days later, claimed that the boxes contained absentee ballots, but had no explanation for why they were delivered in commercial trucks carrying fruit, bread, and other consumer goods.

Conversely, few election observers commented on the intimidating effect--no less on potential voters than on candidates--of acts of violence that repeatedly occurred against all major candidates. Candidates were forced to hire phalanxes of bodyguards with plastic shields for protection against flying objects and often were made to cut short public speeches during appearances in regional strongholds of other candidates. In spite of local abuses, it was difficult to estimate what fraction of Roh Tae Woo's plurality of almost 2 million votes, out of 23 million cast, may have been improperly influenced. Extravagant claims of wholesale manipulation in the computerized vote tabulation were made difficult to assess by the failure of those who had made such charges to present convincing evidence. Claims of election rigging also were undercut at the time by the continued insistence of both the Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam camps that their candidate was the one to whom the election rightfully should have gone.

Within a week after the election, public anger at the outcome was divided. Protests continued against election irregularities, but were accompanied by increasing criticism of the two major opposition leaders for their failure to produce a unified candidacy that could have defeated the government party candidate. The RDP and PPD, embarrassed by the fact that Kim Dae Jung and Kim Young Sam together received 54 percent of the vote to Roh's 36 percent, both apologized to the public, while vowing to continue disputing the results of the election. Both major opposition parties, together with Kim Chong-p'il's party, gradually turned their attention to the question of upcoming National Assembly elections.

Events in 1988
Returning to the Politics of National Security, 1989
Parties and Leaders
Interest Groups
Political Extremism and Political Violence

You can read more regarding this subject on the following websites:

Politics of South Korea - Wikipedia
Politics of South Korea - Political Science - Oxford
South Korea Politics & Policy | Financial Times
South Korean politics | The Diplomat
The Transformation of South Korean Politics: Implications

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