The Impact of Korean Local Elections

Article excerpt

Summary

For the first time since the 1961 military coup, South Koreans went to the polls on June 27th to elect provincial governors, mayors and other local officials in what was widely seen as both a mid-term assessment of President Kim Young Sam and as the opening shot in the battle for the Blue House--up for grabs in 1997 at the expiration of Kim's five-year term. The results of the June local autonomy elections have dramatically altered the Republic of Korea (ROK) political landscape. The elections produced a new generation of political leaders while setting the stage for one final clash of the titans of the old guard, the "three Kims"--Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil. The results demonstrate both the promise and the limitations of Korean democracy, and have important policy implications for the United States.

Election Results

While the campaign season was not devoid of controversy--for example, in a successful effort to prevent the ruling Democratic Liberal Party (DLP) from passing a proposal to postpone the elections, opposition Democratic Party (DP) members held the National Assembly speaker and vice speaker captive in their own homes for a week--the elections were largely devoid of the widespread fraud, corruption and violence that have marred previous plebiscites. Opposition candidates showed that they could not only compete against, but actually defeat ruling party candidates in head-to-head competition. The elections marked the end of the era in which all local officials were appointed by the central government in Seoul. And, while the elections were for local offices, their impact has reverberated throughout the Republic and has altered the national political balance of power.

The results were a major blow to President Kim Young Sam, and while they may not have rendered him a lame duck, his stature has clearly been diminished even before the midpoint in his constitutionally mandated single five-year term. Of the top 15 prizes--the provincial gubernatorial and major city mayoral slots--President Kim's Democratic Liberal Party captured only five (the governors' posts in Kyonggi and North and South Kyongsang provinces and the mayors' positions in Pusan and Inchon.)

The Democratic Party, with which Kim Dae Jung has been closely allied even though he had officially retired from politics following his defeat in the 1992 presidential race, captured the "jewel in the crown," the mayor's slot in Seoul. The DP also won in Kim Dae Jung's strongholds of North and South Cholla provinces and the city of Kwangju.

The United Liberal Democratic Party--founded in March by Kim Jong Pil--made an impressive debut, winning the mayor's office in Taejon and the gubernatorial posts in Kangwon as well as North and South Chungchong provinces. (Independents won in the city of Taegu and on the island of Cheju.)

Democracy in Action

While the immediate effect of the DLP's drubbing was to breathe new life into the political careers of Kim Dae Jung and Kim Jong Pil, the elections also propelled a new generation of political leaders onto the national scene. These rising stars are building their political bases from the grassroots up, and if a sampling of victory speeches is representative, they know who put them in office and whom they have to satisfy to remain there. They are attuned to their constituents, less beholden to the older generation of autocratic party leaders, and largely devoid of ties to the old military-dominated power structure. There were other hopeful signs as well.

The media, increasingly free of governmental controls since 1987, served as both the principal source of information for the voters (TV coverage, including candidate debates, largely supplanted mass campaign rallies as major media events), and as a watchdog over the process, exposing--and thereby helping to scuttle--various attempts to manipulate the process for partisan advantage. …