[Weekender] [KH Explains] Defining political ideologies in South Korea

The ideological divide between liberalism and conservatism is apparent in South Korea as in most democratic countries, but here it is slightly different from what is visible elsewhere.

This doesn’t fit the textbook definition, and that’s largely because South Korea’s unique geographic and historical context plays a role in shaping unique political ideologies.

Through excerpts from research articles and expert opinions, we explore what constitutes being conservative or liberal in South Korea and how this ideological divide has shifted and transformed over the years.

Q. What defines being conservative or liberal in South Korea?

A. Since South Korea took shape in 1948 and until recent years, one of the main differences between conservatives and liberals has been their priorities in approaching North Korea.

From the Korean War of 1950-1953 which ended in a ceasefire, and through industrialization and growth during the Cold War era, South Koreans have developed two very different about what the country should do with its closest but most hostile neighbor to the north. .

Many of South Korea’s middle-aged and elderly populations received an anti-communist education in school and lived under constant military threat from North Korea. Although they saw and learned the same thing, how they react to these risk factors was a crucial factor in deciding who is liberal or conservative.

Conservatives there have largely focused on strengthening ties with the United States and have stressed the need to coerce North Korea into giving up its military might in exchange for economic deals.

Maintaining a hard line and heavier military spending were therefore stressed, and they believe that the United States is a trustworthy country to work for unification, because it fought on the same side as South Korea. South during the war and shed blood together on the front lines for three years.

The liberals, on the other hand, have believed in the potential for a ripple effect in approaching North Korea, which means they expect to take steps towards unification by providing aid. to encourage cooperation across the peninsula. Some liberals have opposed a continued US military presence in South Korea, calling it a blockade to genuine peacemaking efforts between the two Koreas.

The so-called “sun policy” under the Kim Dae-jung administration is an example of the liberal approach to peace with North Korea. The idea of ​​giving gifts to enemies to prevent them from causing harm was seen as a way to open talks of economic, cultural and political cooperation.

Some extremist activists on the liberal side have been branded communists in the past for organizing pro-North Korea activities, but their base of support has crumbled in recent years – notably the fall of the United Progressive Party – which has contributed to erase some of the “communist” label from the liberal faction.

Such differences in which side to take and which philosophies to take towards North Korea have been one of the major deciding factors in defining its political affiliation, and more broadly, have helped cement the foundations of strong support from both major political parties.

Q. What else should we consider to understand the ideological divide?

A. In addition to North Korea, another major branch of the conservative-liberal split is how each side views militant movements during military dictatorships.

Much of the progress toward democracy in South Korea was led by fierce protests and rallies organized by young activists from 1961 to 1988 during the Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan administrations, and those who actively participated demonstrations against the dictatorship constitute a large part of the sympathizers of the liberal bloc.

Most of these supporters are voters in their 40s and 50s and, as seen in the last presidential election, these voters have continued to voice support for the main liberal party, the Democratic Party of Korea.

It’s not that conservatives are against these moves, but there is a clear age bracket emerging among the main supporters of the conservative faction, now led by the People Power Party.

Many of the Conservative Party’s staunch supporters are people in their 60s and older, most of whom experienced poverty in South Korea when it was one of the poorest countries in the world after the end of the Korean War. in 1953.

These people prioritize economic growth and prosperity over other issues, showing their support for the conservative faction, especially crediting the Park Chung-hee administration for the explosive economic growth and exit of the country from poverty.

The Conservatives have highlighted how friendly they are to business while the Liberals put workers and their rights first. However, nearly every past administration – liberal and conservative – has eventually gone pro-business in the interests of job creation and economic growth.

Q. What additional changes can we expect in the future?

A. But in recent years, the political game has become complicated in South Korea, especially as we see an increasing number of new voters now in their twenties and thirties. They have stayed away from ideological allegiances and have other priorities in mind than national security and democratization.

Experts say their entry into politics has helped South Korea see a shift in the ideological divide in a way reminiscent of the United States. Many of these new voters are well educated and have their own beliefs about what constitutes good politics.

These days, conservatives and liberals alike are forced to answer questions about what kind of strategies they have in mind to address more detailed issues like gender conflict, the housing crisis, the labor market and the labor market. extent of government involvement.

The People Power Party is increasingly resembling the Republican Party in the United States, while the Democratic Party is beginning to resemble the party of the same name in the United States, experts say.

By Ko Jun-tae ([email protected])


The Korea Herald interviewed Eom Gyeong-yeong, director of local political think tank Zeitgeist Institute, and political commentator Rhee Jong-hoon.

The story also used a 2021 report by Kim Gi-dong, professor of political science at the University of Missouri, a research report by Park Hyun-shin, professor of administrative studies at the Women’s University of Dongduk, published last year and a 2017 report. by Hwang Ji-hwan, professor of international relations at Seoul University.

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