South Koreans hoped US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un would start concrete steps toward “CVID” -- the complete, verifiable and irreversible denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula -- in the historic meeting in Singapore last week. That hope was seemingly dashed in a vague 400-word joint statement, which failed to contain practical measures to attain the goal.
They saw CVID in another major event the following day, the quadrennial regional elections here to pick provincial governors, mayors, local councilors and heads of education boards. The vote brought about the “complete dismantlement” of the conservative parties in this country, verifiably and irreversibly withdrawing public confidence in them.
Many who listened to the extremely vulgar words in a tape attributed to Lee Jae-myung, candidate for Gyeonggi Province governor from the Democratic Party of Korea, and followed reports of a past romantic affair between Lee and an actress expected the gubernatorial poll would go Nam Gyung-pil of the opposition Liberty Korea Party. But Lee, the former Seongnam mayor, easily won by a large margin.
Kim Kyung-soo, a protege of President Moon Jae-in who was in the spotlight for his association with a political blogger under arrest for the alleged rigging of internet posts, grabbed the South Gyeongsang Province governorship after seesawing with Kim Tae-ho of the Liberty Korea Party, a conservative presidential aspirant. The victories of Lee and Kim revealed the power of a pro-government tsunami that forgave individual drawbacks of ruling party candidates.
The election scorecard showed no trace of people’s unease from what happened in Singapore or any blame for the government. Based on the generally recognized voter classification of 30 percent on the right and 30 percent on the left, analysts found the 40 percent in the middle rushed to support the ruling Democratic Party, with the opposition still stuck in the nightmare of the Park Geun-hye maladministration.
In the larger divisions of eight metropolitan cities and nine provinces, the ruling Democratic Party gathered 14, conceding just two to the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and one to an independent. In parliamentary by-elections for 12 districts, the ruling party picked up 11 and the main opposition Liberty Korea Party won one. Overjoyed strategists in Moon’s government and party are reportedly estimating an 80 percent sweep of the 300-seat Assembly if general elections were held last week, and at least a 60 percent win in 2020.
History shows roller-coaster results in regional polls in which voters tend to be less concerned about broader national politics. Twelve years ago, the then ruling Yeolin Uri Party, a predecessor to the current Democratic Party, suffered a devastating defeat in local elections, winning just one of 16 metropolitan and provincial contests. The opposition Hannara Party, now the Liberty Korea Party, conquered all 25 wards in Seoul.
It was the fourth year of the Roh Moo-hyun presidency. Since the democratic reforms in 1987, partisan politics here wove the big picture of 10-year cycles in power transfers, but it produced many complexities because of the continuing influence of regional rivalries. Whichever party wins the presidency, it had to concede provinces and metropolitan cities in the traditionally unfriendly zones either in the southeast or southwest in regional polls.
Seoul remained the neutral capital city, but Busan, Daegu, Ulsan and the North and South Gyeongsang provinces had never accepted candidates from the left, while Gwangju and the North and South Jeolla provinces had been completely closed to rightists, until the June 13 elections. Last week, the Democratic Party captured Busan, Ulsan and South Gyeongsang Province for the first time.
The Institute for Democracy, a think tank for the ruling party, hailed the election result as proving the rise of the Democratic Party as a truly national party finally embraced by people across regional boundaries. On the other hand, the Liberty Korea Party with 113 parliamentary seats now against the Democratic Party’s 130 may be called a regional group, as it only held onto Daegu and North Gyeongsang Province. Regional walls that had protected the party over the past decades fell mercilessly.
Whatever pundits may say, we see that the long, dark shadow of the faults of Park Geun-hye continues to shroud the Korean political community. The single most important factor that drove voters to turn away from conservative candidates and put the red seal on the ruling party’s No. 1 slot in the ballots is the sense of shame from the soap opera played by the former president and her confidant Choi Soon-sil.
Democratic Party ideologues should not forget to mention how Park contributed to the process of shedding regional rivalry in our political culture, though in a negative way. They can cite the case of Gumi city, the native place of Park Chung-hee, which elected a Democratic Party candidate as its mayor last week, ending a long tradition of overwhelming support for conservatives.
Conservative politics in Korea virtually started from Gen. Park’s military coup in 1961, continued in his 18-year rule and extended through the presidencies of Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam, firmly rooted in the Gyeongsang region. Leftist politics grew steadily alongside pro-democracy movements, and Kim Dae-jung won power in 1997 by securing a Jeolla-Chungcheong alliance, helped by an economic crisis.
Kim Dae-jung was succeeded by Roh Moo-hyun, who hailed from the southeast, but people of the region remained loyal to conservatives. Roh pushed a change to the symmetrical structure of Korean politics characterized by the conservative east and liberal west, but the Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye presidencies stalled the process. Park’s impeachment turmoil, ironically, accelerated the transition that led to the surprise of the latest elections.
People will eventually be healed from the impact of the Park-Choi scandal as time passes. The coming two years until the next parliamentary elections in 2020 will be a crucial period to put domestic politics back on the right track, hopefully with the regrouping of parties under fresh banners of a new generation of leaders.
CVID is the people’s verdict on the conservatives in 2018, but those who are now around President Moon had a similar fate a little more than a decade ago. They survived and now bask in a glory that few other parties have experienced. Whoever will take over the Liberty Korea and Bareunmirae parties should never attempt to appeal to people’s regional emotion if they want resurrection from what they are now.
By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He previously worked as managing editor of The Korea Times. -- Ed.