Category Archives: South Korea

South Korea – By-elections 2015: what lessons for the NPAD?

South Korea held by-elections to four seats on April 29, 2015. The lopsided results – the ruling Saenuri party won three of the four seats, while an independent formerly associated with the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) won the remaining seat – are resounding defeats for the opposition NPAD for several reasons discussed below. With these by-election wins, the ruling party holds 160 of the 298-seat National Assembly while the NPAD holds 130. Why did the opposition NPAD fare so poorly? Perhaps more importantly, what lessons do the results hold for the NPAD?


Hopes dashed?

Notwithstanding the low number of seats, the by-elections appear to favour the NPAD on at least four grounds: first, although this is the first by-election for the newly-elected leader of the opposition, Moon Jae-In, Representative Moon is an old political hand in the opposition, having previously been the 2012 presidential candidate for the then-opposition Democratic United Party. There were hopes that Rep. Moon may be able to draw on or build from his experiences following the presidential election loss to Park in 2012, to unite the party and move it forward. Still, the party leadership-contest divided rather than united the different camps in the NPAD. Although Rep Moon has extended olive branches to the other factions with appointments to high-ranking party positions, the party has so far failed to develop viable policy positions to challenge the ruling party. This failing is not trivial: the NPAD has not been able to achieve public approvals significantly above 20 percent, and this may be the root cause of the NPAD’s poor electoral showing.

Second, the corruption scandal engulfing the country – deceased construction tycoon Sung Wan-jong left a suicide note implicating several prominent politicians as having received bribes, including Prime Minister Lee Wan Koo, President Park’s former chief-of-staffs Kim Ki-choon and Huh Tae-yeol, and current chief-of-staff Lee Byung-kee – ensnared President Park and the ruling Saenuri Party more than the opposition NPAD. Such a scandal should have favoured the NPAD in the election; yet, the results underline that Rep Moon’s message for the election to be a “judgement on a corrupt government” was not sufficient to move voters to the NPAD. Here, again, the outcome directs the NPAD towards the position-strategy of running as a viable governing party, with clear policy-positions, and away from the position-strategy of running only as an opposition.

Third, the one-year anniversary of the Sewol ferry tragedy with more than 300 dead, mostly students, was a painful reminder of the failings of the ruling party that could have diminished support for the ruling Saenuri party. The public’s dissatisfaction and frustration at the lack of progress on investigations or salvage of the ferry has led to demonstrations and fueled criticism even within the ruling party. Under these conditions, the NPAD’s failure to capture the disaffected for the by-election is, again, a clear signal that opposing President Park is not enough to win votes.

Fourth, it is a useful to note that three of the four by-election seats were previously held by leftist party, the Unified Progressive Party, which had been disbanded following the Constitutional Court’s ruling in December that the party was guilty of instigating armed rebellion in the country. That these seats from districts supportive of opposition candidates did not fall to the NPAD is telling: it is a reminder – again – that the public is not just supportive of opposition to the ruling party.

Will the opposition NPAD be viable for the 2016 elections? As discussed previously, it is clear that the headwinds against the opposition must be overcome by clear policies and governance strategies that show that it is more than stonewalling or obstruction.

South Korea – Will the Opposition be a Viable Challenge in the 2016 Elections?

The successful founding of the NPAD alliance – officially launched in April 2014 with two co-chairs, the popular independent representative and former presidential candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, and Democratic Party chair Kim Han-gill, hot on the heels of Ahn’s establishment of his New Political Vision Party – offered the possibility of a viable opposition party to challenge the conservative turn in politics and policies in the country. Yet, supporters of the opposition have seen more disappointments than successes, and the 11-4 landslide in favour of the ruling Saenuri Party in the July 31 2014 by-elections did not bode well for an alliance that started off on strong footing. Will the opposition mature into a viable challenge for the 2016 elections? What lessons did the past year hold for the NPAD?

A big disappointment that contributed to the lackluster support for the NPAD was its reversal on party-nomination reforms. The closed-door nomination process was blamed for feeding corruption, and was a primary source of public disapprobation and distrust. Not surprisingly, all the candidates for the 2012 presidential race pledged to reform the process. However, while the NPAD pushed hard for the reform to be implemented in the 2014 elections, the Saenuri party reversed itself to adopt an open primary system that maintained party-nomination. Meanwhile, rifts within the NPAD over the value of scrapping party-nomination process arose, particularly since the Saenuri party’s reversal improved its candidates’ electability. In the face of a party revolt – leading NPAD members such as Gwangju’s Mayor Kang Un-tae and party spokesperson and Representative Lee Yong-sup quit the party over party-nominations – the NPAD reversed itself; to its further detriment, co-chair Ahn proceeded to pick candidates close to him for the local races. This double reversal – on the principle of “new” politics, followed by inconsistent and opaque party-nominations – fed the 11-4 hammering in the by-elections. 20 NPAD party leaders, including co-chairs Ahn and Kim, resigned from their leadership posts to take responsibility for the trouncing.

Another major set-back occurred over the opposition alliance failure to advocate for the Sewol families. In particular, then-NPAD floor leader Park Young-sun, who was elected to fill the chair position following the resignation of the NPAD party leaders, dropped a key demand that the Sewol families be granted a say in recommending candidates for the role of special prosecutor in the investigation of the tragedy. Committees representing the Sewol families blamed the NPAD – even more than the ruling party – for failing to represent their interests. Following the internal party rancor over the agreement, Park resigned her leadership posts at the NPAD. Still, the incident damaged the opposition’s standing.

At the party convention in February 2015, the NPAD elected the 2012 opposition presidential candidate Rep Moon Jae-in as leader in a contest that laid bare the three major factions in the alliance. Moon, who leads the pro-Roh Moo-hyun faction that comprise supporters of the deceased former president, beat out Rep Park Jie-won, who leads the pro-Kim Dae-jung faction that comprise supporters of the former president and Nobel-peace prize winner, and Rep Lee In-young, who leads the 486 faction that comprises former student activists and protestors against the authoritarian regime.

Since his election as opposition leader, Rep Moon has extended olive-branches to the other factions while beating a steady drumbeat against President Park’s overreach.  Whether this works against the considerable headwinds against the opposition remains to be seen. At a minimum, it is clear that the opposition is aware of the need to articulate clear policies and governance strategies that show that it is more than stonewalling or obstruction.

East Asia – Presidential Powers and Semi-Presidential Systems

Calls for constitutional revisions have surfaced across four of the presidential and semi-presidential systems in East and Southeast Asia, namely, South Korea, Taiwan, the Philippines, and Indonesia. The appeals for constitutional changes have arisen for different reasons: in the Philippines, some have raised the possibility in order to extend the tenure of a generally successful and popular president. In Indonesia, it is aimed at improving governability in the face of a fragmented, uncooperative legislature. In South Korea, the option relates to reducing the powers of the executive for greater accountability, a stance advocated by presidential candidates – including current President Park – in the 2012 campaign. Likewise, in Taiwan, constitutional change offers the prospect of constraining the powers of the president. Despite differences in the objectives of change, one reform frequently suggested to replace existing institutional set-up across the countries is the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system. This raises an interesting question: what is the underlying problem across the countries that the premier-presidential form may resolve?

Despite differences in the objectives, one commonality across the countries is presidentialized parties, where the executive-leader has “considerable independence in the electoral and governing arenas.” [1]According to Samuels and Shugart (2009), presidentialized parties result when the “constitutional structure separates executive and legislative origin and/or survival.” The outcome of the president’s independence manifests differently across the countries: in the Philippines, political parties may rally around strong candidates to ensure continuity; in Indonesia, presidents may be saddled with hostile legislatures; in South Korea and Taiwan, presidents may have few incentives to shift focus away from their personal agendas to the parties.[2]

Clearly, the outcomes depend in part on party organization and party-system development  in the countries. What is less clear is that the premier-presidential form of semi-presidential system will resolve the underlying problem of party weakness. It may behoove these new democracies of the Philippines, Indonesia, South Korea and Taiwan, to consider the outlay of time and effort towards constitutional change.


[1] Elgie, Robert. 2011.

[2] For another perspective, see Cheibub and Limongi (2014). Cheibub, Jose Antonio and Fernando Limongi. 2014. “The structure of legislative-executive relations: Asia in comparative perspective.” In Comparative Constitutional Law in Asia, ed. Rosalind Dixon and Tim Ginsburg. Northampton: Edward Elgar Publishing


South Korea – The President, Opposition, and Political Trust

200 days following the Sewol ferry tragedy, the legislature finally formulated a bill for the investigation of the disaster to which the Sewol families have given their consent. The prolonged passage of the bill – due largely to the victim families’ resistance to previous iterations of the Sewol investigation bill – underlines political distrust of President Park and her Saenuri Party government as well as the opposition alliance, the New Political Alliance for Democracy (NPAD), to represent the interests of the Sewol victims’ families. This raises the questions: what is political trust? What are the effects of political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea?

What is political trust? Political trust refers to public confidence in the facility and capacity of the political system to deliver regularly political goods that include contestable political succession, regularized competition, civil and political liberties, and freedom of association and expression.[1] Political trust, then, rests on the design and workings of the “institutions, structures and processes” to produce quality political goods “even if left untended,” based on principles of fairness and accountability. [2]

What are the effects of political distrust? Studies show that political trust – derived from institutional performance – underpins the distinction of political performance from government performance so that it buffers the political system from the pressures of immediate outputs. Conversely, political distrust means that the political system is under pressure to produce immediate outputs, while the concomitant lack of vested interests in the political system means that the public is more willing to engage in non-compliant behaviors, including civil disobedience and protests, to demand for these outputs.[3] Political distrust in an emergent democracy such as South Korea, then, potentially jeopardizes democracy in the country.

The regular rallies and protests in Seoul and outside the Blue House – including hunger strikers – demanding a full, independent investigation of the Sewol tragedy signal the political distrust with a political system that has given rise to regulatory lapses that endanger wellbeing.

Importantly, the political distrust extends to the opposition alliance: indeed, the opposition NPAD alliance’s effort to push through previous iterations of the Sewol bill faced bitter opposition from the Sewol victims’ families and felled the recently-elected NPAD floor leader, Park Young-sun. Clearly, the political distrust means that the opposition – like the government – is faced with pressures of immediate outputs and performance.

The road to build political trust is clear: focus on institution-building that delivers political goods rather than public or private goods such as economic performance. But there are clear trade-offs from such a focus: the political system may be buffered but the parties and the government remain vulnerable to voters’ expectations of performance and subsequent rejection for failing to deliver. The government and opposition may do well to note that, as they struggle with these trade-offs, the democratic health of the country remains at stake.


[1] Mishler and Rose (2001) ; Yap (2013)

[2] Ruscio (1999:651-2); Grimes (2006); Shi (2001: 401). Shi, Tianjian (2001). “Cultural Values and Political Trust: A Comparison of the People’s Republic of China and Taiwan.” Comparative Politics vo 33 no 4: 401-19

[3] Lianjiang Li (2008) ; Marien and Hogen (2011)

South Korea – Local elections and the President

The results of the June 4, 2014, mayoral and gubernatorial elections for South Korea show the opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy with a slight edge of nine of 17 races, with the ruling Saenuri Party taking the remaining eight. Attention has turned to the interpretation of the results: do they constitute a win or lose, and for whom or which party? Without partaking in the horse-race evaluation of the outcomes, I underline two considerations related to Korea’s local elections that are useful for further examination: first, the significance of local elections for term-limited executives; second, what the outcomes indicate of party-building in South Korea.

One important consideration regarding local elections is the significance of local elections for term-limited presidents. Local elections are often used as barometers of public support for the ruling government, notwithstanding the generally low turnout for these elections that may dent interpretation of how the election outcomes relate to public support. For term-limited presidents – such as in South Korea – these mid-term, off-year elections may take on added significance. On the one hand, they may be useful for rallying legislative support for the remainder of the presidential term to complete the presidential- or party-agenda. On the other, they may also open the door for disenchanted party-members to consider full revolt: witness former President Lee Myung-bak’s difficulties particularly in the latter part of his term, when the president’s declining public support reopened the door for current President Park Geun-hye to return to party leadership and reconstitute the Grand National Party into the Saenuri Party. To the extent that public support affects the legislative success of a president – studies show that presidents’ legislative success is highly tied to public satisfaction1 – a low public approval may lead a legislature to be more willing to challenge the president’s policy agenda. Given this consideration, term-limited executives may need to do more to incorporate public demands onto the presidential agenda to fend off such battles.

Another relevant consideration regarding the local elections is: what do the outcomes reveal about party-building in South Korea? A previous blog post discussed the roles for political parties, and those should certainly be used towards understanding the outcomes. In this post, a narrower question is raised: do the local election results signify a role of political parties as vehicles to mobilize support for elections? The answer, it seems, is: No. Instead, the unexpected turn in the outcome – six weeks ago, the ruling party was expected to make a sweep in the local elections because of the then-high popularity of the president – suggests that political parties remain embryonic. That may be the bigger problem and tougher issue to resolve: almost 27 years since embarking on the democratization process, political parties continue to face challenges in their institutionalization.



[1] Wrone and De Marchi 2003 

Calvo (2007)


South Korea – The President and Credible Apologies

A month ago, President Park and her ruling Saenuri Party appeared invulnerable: polls showed her approval ratings in the high 60-70% range. The opposition party alliance, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD) – considered a potent threat when it first coalesced – failed to materialize as a peril to her government. Even the backtracking of her election-pledge to reform the party-nomination process did not dent the president’s popularity. Indeed, rather than pushed onto the defensive regarding the party-nomination reform, President Park’s resolve on maintaining some form of party-nomination forced the NPAD to abandon its campaign for reform and, instead, field party-nominated candidates for the local elections in June. President Park looked set to plough ahead through the rest of the year, with many anticipating a reinforced government-base from an unmatched, if not unprecedented, mid-term election success for a governing party in Korea.

Yet, the President’s fortunes have seen a dramatic reversal: following the ferry disaster on April 16, 2014, that saw more than 300 dead or missing, the President’s approval rating has fallen below 50 percent. Public anger at the government’s slow response and subsequent failure to save the victims – mostly high school students on an organized trip to the resort island of Jeju – has ignited protests, sit-ins, and rallies against the government. Further, it has unleased a storm of criticisms against the media for positive coverage of the incident, and a general backlash against the ruling Saenuri Party so that the previous solid electoral victories are now on the line for the June 4 local elections. Prime Minister Chung Hong-won offered his resignation to accept responsibility for the government’s poor performance, but that did not tamper public anger. Instead, social media and public forums remarked on the lack of an apology from the President. 13 days after the ferry sinking, President Park apologized to the families of the victims during a cabinet meeting. Yet, rather than provide comfort, the apology seemed to ignite more public displeasure with the government. President Park’s second apology only days later fueled further public disfavour. 34 days after the incident, the President apologized again in a televised address as her approval ratings tumble down into the low 40s. Clearly, the public is looking for a credible apology. What does a credible apology comprise?

Studies of credible apologies note that two processes are integral to apologies: (a) increase in monitoring of the government, i.e., review and assessment by committees comprising non-government citizens; and (b) government accountability and responsibility for the incidents.1

Increase in monitoring of the government – through review and assessment – makes clear that the President and her administration have a commitment towards transparency, accountability, and capacity-building. Further, the inclusion of non-government personnel in these committees is directly relevant to the government’s credibility: in particular, it provides integrity to the process and ensures that the government accountability in part (b) does not merely represent scapegoating or efforts to placate the disaffected.2 Government accountability and responsibility means that government officials and representatives are dismissed, replaced, or demoted, or government ministries and agencies are downsized or eliminated. This government accountability, then, acknowledges the impact and devastation on lives and livelihood and demonstrates a commitment to preventing similar devastation.

More than a month after the ferry disaster, the President is taking steps in the direction of credible apologies with the televised national address and the disbanding of the Coast Guard. Importantly, in this renewed effort to rehabilitate public trust, there must be diligence in including private sector in monitoring and reviewing changes so that integrity in the accountability process is ensured. Thus, for instance, it is one thing for the Prime Minister to take responsibility, but another for the resignation to resonate as credible accountability.

Too often, public confidence in the government is relegated as a natural offshoot of work to be accomplished or scuttled to the sidelines for a later date. Hopefully, it is clear that purposeful rebuilding of public confidence through credible apologies is key to short- and long-term stability and success.

[1] The concept of credible apologies draws in part on the strategy of “tit-for-tat with apologies.” See Randall Calvert, “Communications in Institutions: Efficiency in a Repeated Prisoner’s Dilemma with Hidden Information,Yap (2005).

[2] See Yap (2003).

South Korea – Reforming Party Nomination

The impending June 4th local elections for the 17 cities and provinces in South Korea have refocused attention onto the political parties, particularly the nomination process. Party nomination – widely considered to perpetuate nepotism and corruption – was one of the few subjects over which the presidential candidates of the 2012 elections expressed explicit agreement. In particular, then-candidates Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in acknowledged that the closed-door process was a primary source of public disapprobation and distrust and formulated a bipartisan pledge to reform the party nomination process towards greater transparency and accountability. Given the significance of party nomination to candidate selection, including presidential candidates, and the public distrust of political parties, it pays to look at the efforts towards the reform of the party nomination process.

The bipartisan pledge explicitly banned the party nomination practice so that those running for local elections will hold no party affiliation. Following elections, a special interparty parliamentary reform committee was constituted and tasked with recommending political reforms, including the pursuit of the ban. However, time has eroded the determination and resolve of 2012, and the committee’s efforts to push reforms ahead have stalled. In particular, the Saenuri Party is calling for an open primary nomination rather than a complete ban of the party nomination practice, citing the concern that unvetted candidates may be problematic due to their lack of experience or qualification, without the option or prospect of reigning in problems through the party nomination process. Officially, the Saenuri Party is punting on the issue of the ban, referring back to the stalemated special parliamentary reform committee for the final decision. For the impending June 2014 elections, the ruling party has adopted a system that requires candidates be selected by an “electoral college” of each constituency, with the party retaining the right to replace the candidate selected if deemed uncompetitive. Opposition parties are accusing the ruling Saenuri Party of resisting the ban on party nomination and President Park of backtracking on an election pledge.

On its end, the main opposition party, the Democratic Party had announced a package of reforms for the party nomination process that similarly opened up the nomination process to public participation but does not ban party nomination. The reforms had included banning candidacies of those with corruption charges and expelling party members involved with party-nomination bribery. This has since changed with the announcement of the opposition coalition bloc with independent Representative and former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.

Former presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo’s much anticipated party, the New Party, was the only party to hold fast to the ban on party nominations. Ahn is a favorite among independents and while his party was likely to draw some support away from both major parties, it was considered a primary electoral challenge to the support for the opposition Democratic Party. The coalition between Ahn and the opposition Democratic Party has changed the political landscape, and one of the foremost changes announced is the ban on parties’ nomination of candidates for lower-level administration chiefs and councilors.

The announcement of the opposition bloc seems to have caught the ruling Saenuri party offguard. This may mean an acceleration of reforms with the party’s nomination efforts, given that the issue ignites considerable public disapproval.

South Korea – Presidential powers amid opposition boycotts

President Park Geun-hye may have her work cut out for her: the failure of the government to pass a legislative bill for three months between September and December, culminating in the delayed passage of the budget bill for the 11th consecutive year, highlights the effectiveness of the opposition to challenge and even upend the government’s agenda.

The main opposition party – the Democratic Party – had boycotted parliamentary proceedings for 101 days since September over the role of the National Intelligence Service in the 2012 presidential elections. The DP returned briefly to the legislature in November but has continued to periodically boycott the Assembly.

President Park’s response has been two-fold. On the one hand, her government has extended conciliatory gestures towards the opposition. Thus, for instance, the ruling Saenuri party has agreed to opposition demands to install special committees to reform the National Intelligence Service and local elections respectively, in order to return the main opposition party, the Democratic Party, to parliamentary proceedings and out of its boycott of the legislature. The President’s budgetary speech to the National Assembly in November – decked in blue, the Blue House color and also the main opposition party’s official color – also promised compromise with the opposition.

On the other hand, the President has pressed ahead with senior official appointments over the objections of the opposition while her government is looking for ways to temper the National Assembly Advancement law. The Assembly Advancement Law, approved in 2012 and operative this year, requires a three-fifth majority to bring bills from standing committees to the plenary, and limits the Assembly Speaker’s ability to bring a bill to passage to three situations: national disasters, wartime conditions, or with agreement between the ruling and opposition parties. While this has limited the ability of the ruling party to bulldoze the opposition – and, consequently, reduced the physical altercations in the parliament that often followed ruling-opposition party clashes over legislative railroading – the ruling party has also been stymied in its efforts to legislate, as the no-legislation-in-3-months condition illustrates.

If approval ratings provide any indication, President Park’s mixed approach is the way to go. In particular, approval ratings taken a week after the failed three-way talks with leaders of ruling and opposition parties showed the President with over 60 percent approval, and with more respondents blaming the opposition for the legislative stalemate than the President or the President’s party.

The foreign press was quick to label President Park as Korea’s Iron Lady when she was elected in 2012. Perhaps President Park’s two-fold approach is better captured by the Asian open-hand-over-closed-fist approach: trained and able to fight but would prefer not to.