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Korea - Regionalism

Of all the countries on the continent of Asia, Korea is the most culturally and ethnically homogeneous. This is indubitably of great importance. It gave Korea a comparative advantage and helped speed the process of Korean growth. This homogeneity obviated the need to create a sense of national unity among disparate groups, and such unity was in general reinforced by the perceived threat from North Korea. In contrast with other societies, there was no necessity to redress previous patterns of discrimination against minorities if the nation were to grow relatively equitably. It allowed the country to move ahead without political or social adjustment to the vested interests of a small ethnic elite, or at the expense of culturally differentiated groups. Education was able to pervade the nation easily without the road blocks of separate languages or significantly different dialects (Cheju Island is something of an exception, and south provincial accents ate quite marked).

Though the official language in Korea is standard Korean based on the Seoul dialect, various dialects are spoken in different parts of the country. Dialects are classified by region. There are roughly six regional dialects in Korea.

  • Northeastern dialect: Used in North and South Hamgyeong, and Yanggang Provinces in North Korea
  • Northwestern dialect: Used in North and South Pyeongan, and Jagang Provinces, and northern part of Hwanghae Province in North Korea
  • Southeastern dialect: Used in North and South Gyeongsang Provinces and surrounding areas
  • Southwestern dialect: Used in North and South Jeolla Provinces
  • Jeju dialect: Used in Jeju Island and adjacent islands
  • Central dialect: Used in Gyeonggi, North and South Chungcheong, and Gangwon Provinces in South Korea and most of Hwanghae Province in North Korea.

Residual regional identification, however, has found expression in political, economic, and social alliances and factionalism that are still quite relevant today. Historically, the area of South Korea was divided into two of the three Korean Kingdoms (until 658 AD), and these in turn reflected earlier clan or ethnic loyalties. The Kingdom of Silla occupied the Kyongsang provinces in the southeast and the adjacent region to their north, while Paekche was located in the Cholla Provinces in the southwestern part of the country, and the provinces to their north along the western coast. These states, and the third, Koguryo, in what is now North Korea, were finally unified under the Great Silla Dynasty (668 to 918). The first king of the following Koryo Dynasty (919 to 1392) left a written legacy that is still quoted today. It described the popular provincial characteristics of the populations of each region. These stereotypes, whatever they lack in validity, are still inportant in popular conceptions.

Some historians trace regionalism in Korea to the Three Kingdom period, two thousand years ago, when Goguryeo represented the DPRK, Baekje standing for Honam (Southwest Jeolla Provinces) and Silla for Yeongnam (Southeast Gyeongsang Provinces). Many blame the late president Park Chung-hee for modern-day regionalism in Korea due to his centrally-planned economic measures that heavily favored the Gyeongsan Provinces. Coming from Gumi in North Gyeongsang Province, Park actively turned the voters in his home region of Yeongnam against his dissident archrival, Kim Dae-jung, in the 1971 presidential elections. Demographically, Honam has 5,021,548 people and Yeongnam has 12,701,303 people, representing 10.6 percent and 26.9 percent respectively of the entire population.

The actual numbers are more balanced because there are many more Honam people living away from home than there are from Yeongnam. For the past 30 years, these two regions have strongly supported the "homegrown" candidate with less regard for the candidate's policy goals. This loyalty extends to those voters from the Honam or Yeongnam region living in Seoul or other regions. In addition to uneven economic development, those from the "right" area (Yeongnam) were favored with cabinet positions or other influential posts.

The most significant aspect of this characterization was the disparaging comments about the peoples of Paekche (the Cholla Provinces). They have since that period continued to feel somewhat outside the mainstream of Korean upper class life. In the more contemporary period,this problem of regionalism had political ramifications. An important center of opposition to Syngman Rhee was in the Cholla provinces, and the efforts by Rhee early in the life of the Korean Republic to push land reform through the National Assembly (with compensation only equal to one and one-half times the annual yield, and then in government bonds) was as much an effort to eliminate the economic base of power of much of his opposition as to achieve equity, destroy a North Korean political propaganda weapon, or to conform to suggestions of the Americans. These were based on the Japanese land reform model instituted by the American military occupation there. Thus Rhee succeeded, with miniscule compensation to landlords in bonds that soon became worthless, in destroying the opportunity for rural financial mobilization on the part of his opposition.

The Chollas provided the geographic base of opposition to President Park Chung Hee, much as it had done to Rhee. Kim Dae Jung, Park's opponent in the 1971 election, who was later kidnapped in Japan by the Koreans and jailed thereafter, was from South Cholla. His arrest and incarceration was one of the causes for the 1980 uprising, the bloody massacre in Kwangju, the capital of South Cholla Province. Thus the Chollas were also a source of concern to the Chun Doo-whan government.

With political opposition came economic discrimination. Although studies have succeeded in destroying the myth of the over representation of the Kyongsang provinces in the higher levels of the economic elite, at the mid-levels their status is less clear. The Kyongsang provinces have been clearly favored, in part because of their natura1 endowment of port facilities (Pusan, Pohanq, Masan, etc.). The industrial development of such cities as Taegu, Pohang (steel), Ulsan (oil refinery), and Maaan (export production enclave), are in striking contrast to the Chollas. This is evident to even the casual observer, aas is the absence of balanced economic investment in the Chollas in such fields as highway comtruction. Itis significant that President Park came from North Kyongsang, that the coterie of high ranking military officers surrounding President Chun Doo-whan, and President Chun himself, were also from the Kyongsang area. A quiet joke in Seoul was that the Greater Silla Dynasty had been revived.

The Park Chung-hee administration concentrated development efforts in the southeast in the 1960s and 70s, with projects such as the construction of the Seoul-Busan highway, the creation of an industrial complex in Ulsan, and the location of POSCO (the world's second largest integrated steel mill) at Pohang. Even the owners of the handful of factories that were built in Honam hailed from Yeongnam. Chaebols, or family-owned conglomerates, hailing from Yeongnam were also favored with more generous tax, foreign exchange and licensing benefits. As a result, the population in Jeolla Provinces experienced a chronic decrease in the 1970s, while that of Gyeongsang province rose sharply. On the personnel front, Cabinet Ministers and Vice Ministers since the Chun Doo-hwan administration who hail from Yeongnam accounted for 37 percent, while those from Honam accounted for only 19 percent. Particularly during the Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam administrations, the percentages of Youngnam ministers were 43 percent, 41 percent and 40.7 percent, respectively. This era of regional favoritism led many to brand the practice of regional favoritism as "evil" and a "curse."

Several of the key players in the regionalism debate surrounding the upcoming presidential election were at the center of the same debate during the spring 2004 parliamentary elections. GNP candidate Park Geun-hye was selected as the party chair in March 2004, and she immediately commenced a campaign effort in Daegu and the Gyeongsang Provinces (Park's home region) in preparation for the April parliamentary elections. Then Uri Chairman Chung Dong-young said, "Park should not stir up regionalism and use it in her favor. I hope the April 15 elections will be a turning point of the country's election history by breaking regionalism." Kim Han-gill, leader of a group of Uri defectors who became the Moderate Unified Democrats, was also heavily involved in the election as Uri's top campaign strategist.

The April 2004 elections did not live up to the expectations, as representatives were chosen closely along regional lines. Angered by the opposition's attempts to impeach Roh in April 2004 just before the National Assembly elections, Uri voters responded strongly in the southwest and around Seoul, while the GNP received solid support only in the southeast. Given the limited time that Park had to rally her party, she relied heavily on support from her traditional regional base while the ruling party used anger at the opposition camp and their own regional ties to garner support.

Undoubtedly, regionalism persists, although an argument can be made that it is less severe now than in the recent past. For example, the 2002 presidential elections were also marked by a generational divide. Younger voters turned out in force to support Roh Moo-hyun while older voters tended to support his rival, Lee Hoi-chang. By 2007 the two major political parties - the GNP and Uri - were at the opposing ends of the political spectrum, accurately labeled conservative and liberal. The population density in Seoul also continues to increase with no sign of a downturn; further taking voters out of politically charged regions and into the more neutral voting arena of metropolitan Seoul.

Still, a significant number of voters from Honam and Yeongnam tend to continue voting along regional lines, even after moving to Seoul. A poll right after the April 2004 general election shows that, although just 27 percent of voters nationwide voted for parties from the same region as they hail from, the figure sharply rose for those from Honam (53.6 percent) and Yeongnam (45.3 percent) regions. The older the voters, the more they tended to vote based on regional loyalty. Voters in their 40s, 50s, and over were more likely than those in their 20s and 30s to vote according to regional ties.

Experts suggest that it is the middle of the country is where the most balanced community of voters is found. A 2007 news article in the conservative Donga Ilbo newspaper suggested that Korea is looking for a voting district that could act like New Hampshire and be a barometer for how the rest of the nation is likely to vote. The experts suggested that Goesan County in North Choongchung province has the best track record of voting for presidential candidates who were ultimately successful in being elected. The article further suggested that there are also several locations in the Seoul Metropolitan area that have successfully predicted election outcomes.

Uri Party defectors attempted to use regionalism to their advantage since the mass defections began in late January 2007. Many hoped the Jeolla native and former PM Goh Kun could gain broad national support in addition to strong support in the southwest, but Goh dropped out of the presidential race in January. Next, progressives hoped former Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan could lead the creation of a Jeolla-Choongchung regional party, but this also failed to materialize. Most pundits note that Chung was not attractive as a candidate, but had simply had the right regional background, which ultimately proved insufficient to make a run at the presidency. Later, they attempted to broker a deal with the Choongchung-based People First Party (PFP), but it is unclear if the PFP will join the progressives or the conservatives.

On 04 June 2007, the Democratic Party (DP) concluded negotiations with Uri defectors led by Rep. Kim Han-gill to join forces as the third-largest voting bloc in the National Assembly with 34 members (ref B). The DP remains synonymous with former President Kim Dae-jung and his strong support base in the Jeolla Provinces. Given this large and important group of voters, several individuals and groups within the progressive camp were actively courting the DP. The new combined party, called the Moderate United Democrats (MUD), claims to be anti-Roh and anti-GNP (ref D). President Roh spoke out against the formation of a regional-based coalition, saying such a coalition meant a return to old-fashioned regionalism-based politics. Roh continues to criticize any regional-based coalition, but in May publicly stated that if a broad, progressive coalition had to be formed, he would not stand in its way.

Former Seoul Mayor and presidential front-runner Lee Myung-bak asserted that the era of a politician winning 90 plus percent in a given district are gone. Lee only needed to receive 20 percent of the votes in the Jeolla region in order to assure victory. This is probably wishful thinking because most of Lee's support in the Jeolla region will vanish as soon as a unified liberal candidate emerges.

Former GNP Chairperson Park Geun-hye, who is steadily making up ground with Lee in the polls continued to rely on her strong support base in the southeastern region as she has in the past. She was even less likely than Lee to pick up additional votes in the Jeolla region given her perceived weaker economic platform and because of the lingering resentment in the region toward former president/dictator Park Chung-hee (1961-1979), her father.

In the span of one week in May 2007, former president Kim Dae-Jung met separately with three of the leading center-left candidates: Sohn Hak-kyu, Chung Dong-young and Kim Han gill. While the former president is said to be working to unify the various candidates, the candidates themselves sought Kim's endorsement and subsequent voter support from the Jeolla provinces where Kim maintains a loyal following. In response to Kim's meetings and related public statements, GNP Chairman Kang Jae-sup said, "It does not make sense that a person who has claimed to be a victim of regionalism is now actively promoting it." Kim has said publicly that he advises the liberals to present a unified candidate who can compete strongly against the winner of the GNP primary.

Like the elephant in the living room, regionalism is an obvious truth that South Korean politicians like to pretend to ignore. Most Koreans are ashamed that there should be such a divide between the east and west. True, a good argument can be made that regionalism is becoming less pervasive as voters become more concerned with policy issues rather than regional issues and as the population continues to migrate away from the outlying provinces and into Seoul. But all evidence shows that the divide is still very wide. A particularly daunting statistic is that in the 2002 presidential election, Roh Moo-hyun, who does not come from the Jeolla region, won 93 percent of Jeolla votes, just 1 percent less than Kim Dae-jung won in 1997. All this support was because Roh was the non-GNP (or non-Yeongnam) candidate.

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Page last modified: 13-11-2016 18:57:58 ZULU