On June 13, for the first time since the thaw in inter-Korean relations earlier this year, South Koreans went to the polls. They voted in nationwide local elections which are held every four years. The summit between US president Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jung Un, held only the day before, understandably overshadowed the election. Yet the election yields insight into how the political landscape is shifting in the East Asian nation.
South Koreans voted to select all local elected officials and fill 12 vacant National Assembly seats. In a landslide victory, President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party took 14 of 17 provincial governorships, 24 of 25 ward chief positions in Seoul, and 11 of 12 National Assembly seats. Given Moon’s high approval rating, this result might be unsurprising. On the other hand, since these were local contests, one might not expect national party reputations to dominate. The range of issues over which local governments have control – from managing parks to holding festivals – is distinct from the main themes in national politics.
Two currents in Korean politics made the election appear as a referendum on the Moon government. First, local elections in South Korea are almost never truly local. As the title of a book on the country’s local politics once put it, “the local is invisible in local politics.” South Korea implemented decentralization in the 1990s after decades of direct rule over local governments. Now two tiers of local governments have elected heads and assemblies. Their offices possess discretion in several areas of administration. Local elections, though, have routinely become national contests. National parties dominate local elections, and the results of local polls in any given district tend to follow results in that district’s voting in National Assembly and presidential elections.
Voting for parties is not based on any long-standing devotion to a particular party. As in most democracies today, party membership rates are extremely low. More pertinent is a set of laws that make campaigning on local issues and local reputations exceedingly difficult. Like-minded people in one part of the country cannot come together to form a party to contest elections in their district. Following the 1963 Political Parties Act, established following a military coup, parties must have their headquarters in Seoul and have representation in a majority of provinces. Election law, which was taken from militarist-era Japan, maintains strict limits on campaigning. Campaign periods are brief, rallies and debates are limited, and many types of political speech are regulated during the period before an election. All of these rules raise obstacles to local candidates trying to get their messages out, while the dominant national parties can rely on their fame. The practice of holding all local elections simultaneously also ensures that local elections become a national event, steering them away from issues that vary from district to district. The result is that citizens face an uphill battle in making local elections local.
The deeper historical foundation to these limits on local power relates to suspicion of communist revolutionaries. When Japanese rule in Korea ended in 1945, autonomously-organized people’s committees gained control over local offices in many areas. The American military figures who then administered southern Korea feared such organizations were formed by communist insurgents and made shutting down people’s committees a priority. From its formation, the South Korean state was oriented to clamping down on the local as a legitimate arena of politics.
It would be an exaggeration to claim that national dominance remains total in South Korea’s local politics. Sometimes, politicians come from outside the main parties. Pak Won-sun, Seoul’s mayor, is an example. He was a celebrated human rights lawyer and activist who won the most prominent local office despite not belonging to one of the major parties, though he later did join the Democratic Party. Pak’s case is far closer to the exception than the rule, and national party dominance was especially pronounced this year.
A second force behind this local election is the shifting meaning of “conservative” in South Korea. In October 2016, then-president Park Geun-hye, of the conservative party, became embroiled in a scandal over abuse of power. A series of peaceful demonstrations, known as the Candlelight Movement, brought millions of citizens onto the streets and led to her impeachment and then, in March 2017, her dismissal. She is now serving a lengthy prison sentence.
Park’s fall from grace raised huge questions about what holds the political right together. The daughter of long-serving dictator Park Chung Hee, she had crafted a political identity closely linked to her father. That identity stressed his role in modernizing the country, portraying his heavy-handed measures as little more than the necessary cost of progress. In Bonapartist fashion, she played to elderly supporters’ memories of past glory days. Park’s impeachment and imprisonment places this interpretation of history now unconvincing to most Koreans, especially since the scandal implicated figures connected to her father’s regime.
The Candlelight Movement swept up Korean society, generating the largest protests in 30 years in this protest-friendly country. At one point, before Park’s impeachment, only some four percent of the population supported her. Members of this fringe came out in pro-Park rallies. Most of her former political comrades sought to distance themselves from her. Legislators in her Saenuri Party left to form a new party, with only a minority still claiming to side with her. Though these factions have partly reconciled, conservatives have lost the story of hardline anticommunism that held them together. They had shared a belief in the need for order above respect for civil liberties, justified by a belief that the country’s security and prosperity rest above all on remaining close with the United States and Japan in isolating North Korea.
April’s historic meeting between Moon and Kim, as well as the June 12 Kim-Trump summit, dealt further blows to conservatives. With Pyongyang appearing more “normal,” the hawkish stance on North Korea that binds conservatives together is less compelling. Scenes of a North Korean leader joking with a South Korean president and then shaking hands with an American president undermine traditional conservative presentations of North Korea as an existential threat. The US meeting, from the perspective of South Korea’s domestic politics, meant a reversal of the US position.
Conservatives are now at an impasse. Their basis in anticommunist sentiment seems decreasingly relevant. In order to vie for power, they will need to shift their message. What that shift will be remained to be seen. For now, June’s local elections marks the culmination of the Candlelight Movement and the consolidation of support for the Moon administration’s direction.
With the conservative opposition severely weakened and laws continuing to restrict local political mobilization, the local elections reflected support for the national agenda of the current government. South Korean politics may finally be breaking away from its Cold War anchoring. Democratic Party dominance signals that something like consensus exists on events of the past two years. The window is open for a new partisan division to emerge. Such a division may turn more on socioeconomic issues than in the past. It could also make space for local elections to relate more to local concerns. At the moment, though, the election points to the optimism in South Korea in both domestic politics and inter-Korean relations.
Erik Mobrand is an associate professor of Korean Studies at Seoul National University. His research and teaching deal with politics in East Asia, with an emphasis on Korean and Chinese societies. Erik holds a PhD in Politics from Princeton and worked previously at the National University of Singapore. He is the author of a forthcoming book called Top-Down Democracy in South Korea (University of Washington Press, 2019).