The ICAS Lectures

No. 2000-0211-StC

South Korea's Political Dynamics:
Parliamentary Election and Its Impact on Economic Outlook

  Stephen Costello

ICAS Winter Symposium
Asia's Challenges Ahead
University of Pennsylvania
February 11, 2000

Institute for Corean-American Studies, Inc.

965 Clover Court, Blue Bell, PA 19422

Tel : (610) 277-9989; (610) 277-0149
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South Korea's Political Dynamics:
Parliamentary Election and Its Impact on Economic Outlook

Stephen Costello
Director, Program on Korea In Transition,
Atlantic Council of the United States)

First I would like to express my thanks to Sang Joo for inviting me to this august event. I have been impressed in past years with the quality of the participants and the level of discussion surrounding the ICAS symposia.

Korean Political Turmoil in Run up to April 13 General Elections

In today's Korea there is a crisis of the political class, inevitable since the election of Kim Dae-jung in December 1997.

We should begin with a recognition of the scope of upheaval faced by the Korean public and leadership. The twin shocks of economic and political revolution that Winter were neither expected nor inevitable, making them all the more disorienting.

Also important is to see how power and class relationships have been effected. Ideologically speaking, the inauguration of KDJ brought to power a group who had been on the outside for at least 40 years. Regionally, the election put in jeopardy the privileged position of a class of leaders in business, journalism, politics, academics and government. Here the perception of privilege and discrimination is more important than the hard facts, although I suspect those would tell a vivid story.

The previous ruling coalition lacked experience being in opposition, and Kim Dae-jung and the NCNP lacked experience in government. This has combined with a tradition of no compromise, "zero-sum" power relationships to create a mix that is, on the political level, incendiary.

President Kim is experiencing the downside of having a divided and weak opposition that has yet to find its voice. The main unifying organizing principle among the opposition subgroups is the desire to attack government initiatives and figures. This is not to say the slow pace of political reform is all the fault of the opposition. Kim's government has made many mistakes. Kim himself is adamant that the government bears ultimate responsibility for making progress in the political arena.

New Dynamics Are At Play

Fifteen analysts, journalists and observers of Korea gathered two weeks ago at the Atlantic Council to talk about the political climate. There was a consensus that this vote on April 13 will be a mid-term assessment of both the Kim government and the opposition. One can also say without fear of overstatement that a large section of the public is disgusted with politicians and the way political institutions operate.

This frustration is the direct cause of the explosive rise in activism and boldness on the part of hundreds of citizens groups over the past six months. The new umbrella group, with includes some older clean government organizations and many with religious affiliations, seems to be a genuine popular movement with broad public support. They have published two "blacklists" of politicians unfit for office, including members from all parties. They have vowed to continue their guerilla tactics despite the Assembly's vote this week to partially legalize their activities.

The press has generally supported the groups, while being very lazy about investigating their background and makeup. Politicians were originally shocked and offended by the tactics - and temerity - of the groups, and moved to silence the outburst. A notable exception was President Kim, who called the groups' goals and otivations understandable in light of the failure of the government and Assembly to make more progress on urgent legislation. He did not endorse the tactic of "blacklisting" but promised to take the findings of the groups into account when candidates are chosen to run for seats two months from now.

Another new dynamic is the increasing transparency of policy-making. This is perhaps most striking in the remarkable example of the Tripartite Commission of representatives from labor, business and government. Contributing to this phenomenon is the drumbeat of scandals involving the Blue House and Assembly, and the increased need for public support in this shaky coalition government. Now there are movements among the labor and business sectors to increase their own participation in choosing politicians, and this is sure to threaten the political class even more. A broad debate about the structure of organized political participation in Korea is inevitable, welcome and overdue. However, we are unlikely to see cool heads examine these questions during the tense election season, with will extend well into May.

Contrary to many current predictions, the nominating process within the parties will be forced open by the time of the next presidential election in 2003. Further political reforms are now inevitable, due to several trends beyond the control of party bosses. The expressed values of the new civic groups are to oppose regional rivalry, oppose corruption, and hold politicians to a higher standard of performance. Those goals have so far proved compelling to the public, the media and intellectuals.

Two weeks ago, President Kim promised to pursue a summit meeting with the DPRK's Kim Jung-il if his party wins strong support in the April elections. This is notable for the fact that an appeal to the public is being made on the basis of hope for improvement rather than fear of new provocations. It suggests that the ROK public is sufficiently confident in the ROK-US security posture to take the initiative in improvement of relations.

Coalition Government a Necessity

It is important to remember that this is a coalition among at least two parties and three or more individuals. It is an attempt to establish a pan-ideological, pan-regional base of support for bold and far-reaching initiatives in the economic, political and foreign policy spheres. One can argue about whether this is motivated by true reformist zeal or pure power-mongering (and many do), but the necessity to solidify the ruling party around a program of reforms in these three areas remains the organizing message of the administration.

President Kim and his government face a situation similar to that of President Clinton, in that they are distrusted and vilified by many observers and commentators for perceived lapses of integrity at the same time their policies are broadly popular. Kim's handling of relations with North Korea consistently receives over 70% support. There is no serious challenge to the direction of economic policy. This general level of support has been recently reaffirmed.

As we speak, the coalition is facing its most severe test in two years. President Kim's embrace of the goals of the civic groups has embittered members of Kim Jong-pil's party, partly because Kim JP was listed as unfit for office in the first blacklist. The ULD is torn between remaining part of the government or trying to expand its power by striking a clear, ideologically conservative profile. This is noteworthy, because it shows how this one party is attempting to adjust to the end of the "three Kims/boss politics" era.

Which Party Will Win the April Election?

According to the many experts I have been talking to lately, all bets are off. However, the likelihood is that the new ruling party - the New Millennium Party (NMP) - will hold its own in the vote and then make a strong bid to pick up enough of the independent legislators to finally gain a working majority. The number of independents is expected to grow this year in comparison to past years, due to the public disgust with politicians noted above. To complicate the picture further, the opposition is likely to loose cohesion no matter how well it does in the vote, and the ULD - Kim's coalition partner - may begin to cease cooperating with the ruling party on some important votes.

Impact on Economics

Broadly speaking, any weakening of the President or his government will effect the economic climate. The lingering prospect of renewed tensions or violence with North Korea drives the engagement policy of the government. Consistency in policy, both international and domestic, has been a hallmark of this administration, and any sign that such consistency is no longer sustainable due to a weakened government will rattle foreign investors.

The battle between the Blue House and the Chaebol continues, and is the central arena for broad-based reform of the economy. This is true for reasons of symbolism as well as practical management. Everyone is watching this struggle, and taking cues from it.

We have heard consistently that President Kim is on the ropes, a lame duck, the coalition ended, North Korea policy attacked, public support eroded. But when the dust settles the news has consistently been the opposite: policy direction reaffirmed through actions and personnel changes, recommitment to basic principles in economic restructuring, domestic policy and North Korea policy, and unrelenting prosecution of a new activist regional diplomacy. All has not been success and clarity, but compared to the recent past and in the context of the economic and political crises, there is more stability under the surface than the wild daily reports would lead one to believe.

Issue of the "Imperial Presidency"

This is a recurring theme among observers, both Korean and foreign. It remains broadly accurate in the sense that the Korean Presidency is more powerful relative to the other branches of government than most other presidential systems. But as a practical matter President Kim Dae-jung inherited a significantly diminished post in February 1998. The combination of the IMF bailout and increased transparency of government combined to prevent the exercise of unchecked power available to past Presidents.

In addition to these factors, Kim's profile as a democratic reformer and the necessity of filling senior posts with opposition party figures and bureaucrats made it impossible to railroad legislation easily or intimidate opponents without scrutiny. The clumsy attempts at Blue House manipulation, the high-profile charges of corruption, and the appointment of Korea's first Special Prosecutors all attest to the erosion of the "imperial presidency." Finally, Kim's narrow Presidential victory and coalition government mean that leaks and press reports are now reaching levels seen in the U.S. This development, while not pretty, is an essential ingredient of accountable government in the new millennium.

What is the U.S. Interest in This Election?

Broadly speaking, the U.S. is interested in the strength of any Korean government and the range of policies with which it agrees. Partly due to similar policy direction on a range of issues in Korea and the Asian region, the U.S. and ROK governments are looking to each other for support. Presidents Kim and Clinton reportedly have an excellent relationship. One by-product of the "Perry process" has been an unprecedented level of cooperation and mutual support among Korea, Japan and the U.S. for a set of medium-range policy goals and tactics.

Changes in Korean policy can now directly involve U.S. interests, as in the case of North Korea policy, economic restructuring, and regional diplomacy. For example, the major-power summitry of President Kim is remaking the web of diplomatic relationships for Korea in Asia and the world, with new opportunities for the U.S. The dispatch of Korean troops to East Timor as part of the U.N. peacekeeping mission there is a profound step for the country, and may signal a new, expanded role which directly effects U.S. interests. Despite the shrinking powers of the Korean presidency, presidential leadership is still the determining factor in policy, and therefore a subject for close U.S. observation.

All of this increases the importance to Americans of the strength and direction of Korean policy. As Korea becomes a more normal country, breaking free of the security-only profile it has had for so long in the U.S., its internal dynamics should become more relevant to all Americans who appreciate the growing Korean-American community or study Asia professionally.


This page last updated 2/28/2000 jdb


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