Regionalism in South Korea

South Korea is considered to be one of the world’s most homogeneous countries. Nationalist sentiments run high throughout the entire country. Despite the commonalities between one another, South Korea is still plagued by intense regionalism. “Regionalism refers to political antagonisms among regions primarily manifested as confrontational regionalist voting in which voters cast their votes for candidates or parties only because they are based from their own regions.”

  • Political parties are split on geographical lines not on political differences.
  • Political ideologies are merely a front for their regional politics.
  • Political parties tend to split and merge time and time again.
  • One’s region of birth is a powerful predictor of voting behavior.

Of course I’m not saying there are not any political differences, but that they are secondary in nature.

Examining History

To begin the emergence of regionalism may be traced back to pre-modern South Korea.

During the period of 57 BC to 668 AD, Korea was divided into three main kingdoms, Baekje, Gorguryeo and Silla. The kingdoms in turn reflected earlier clan or ethnic loyalties. These kingdoms would fight for control over the peninsula with Silla eventually winning and unifying Korea. In Contemporary times the kingdom of Baekje is known as the province of Joella, and the region where Silla is located is now known as Gyeongsang province.

The province of Joella has expressed the most intense regionalism contested mostly against Gyeongsang province. Discriminatory policies which favoured Gyeonsang province has created negative sentiments between the two provinces. Unlike Joella, Gyeongsang province monopolized the fruits of economic development, dominated the administration, military, and business.

1971 Presidential Election

The prevalence of regionalism was first observed in the 1971 presidential election when Park Chung-Hee from Gyeongsang went against Kim Dae-Jung from Joella. Both the candidates won an overwhelming victory in their home regions and lost by a big margin in the region of their opposition. This is depicted by the amount of votes they received, Park with 66.9% in Southern Gyeongsang and 78% in Northern Gyeongsang and Kim with 62.8% in South Joella and 61.5% in North Joella.

Regionalism was evoked as part of both Park Chung Hee and Kim Dae Jung’s campaign strategy in order to mobilize individuals by raising regional consciousness.

  • Most of modern Korean history has been dominated by leaders from the Gyeongsang region.

2002 Presidential Election

From this image we could see the regional divide between the left Democratic Party (yellow) and the conservative Grand National Party (blue). Roh-Moo who was born in Southern Gyeongsang managed to garner votes in Joella. This may be due to the fact that he aligned with a left leaning party who traditionally got support from the southwestern province.

  • Roh-Moo won in his city of birth in Gimhae which is located in Gyeongsang province.

It is possible that the race between Roh-Moo and Lee-Hoi was perceived by some Gimhae voters as a race between a Grand National Party nominee who was not of Gimhae origin and a Democratic Party nominee who was of Gimhae origin.

2007 Presidential Election

In this image Youngnam is Gyeongsang province and Honam is Joella province. Throughout all three elections spanning from 1997 to 2007, the provinces of Gyeongsang and Joella tend to vote for their regional parties. Their devotion towards the parties is significantly higher than the average level of support nationwide.

2017 Presidential Election

The regional divide is still prevalent with the eastern regions voting for conservatives and the western regions voting for left leaning parties. Moon Jae-In was also the first president to take both the southwestern city of of Gwangju as well as the southeastern port city of Busan. He also took Ulsan which is north of Busan. One reason why he might have won the southeastern cities in the Gyeongsang province is that he was born there.

Final Thoughts

Regionalism is an overwhelming issue in South Korea. Regionalism found in the country could be attributed to several factors, one being the historical aspect of the three kingdoms, economic disparities between regions due to policies which favored a specific region, and constructed regionally territoriality basis conducted by political parties by contrasting regions to garner support.

While all politics are somewhat influenced by having a hometown advantage, regionalism in South Korea has been quite excessive. Political parties are seen to shift time and time again, with alternating titles, as either merger or splinter groups. Korean politics has experienced the weak institutionalization of political parties. Because of this Korean presidential election campaigns place more of a focus on the candidate rather than the party. Politicians are seen to focus on regional issues and are loyal to individuals from their region.

As a result of regionalism South Korea’s democracy has been limited. In the future we may see the younger generation vote based on what is best for the country rather than who is from their region.

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