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Assignment: New Times Old Habits

Assignment: New Times Old Habits

Assignment: New Times Old Habits


Who Rules? New Times, Old Habits

Korea’s political traditions are authoritarian. North Korea has been Communist-ruled since World War II, while South Korea, a close ally of the United States, is anti-communist and theoretically a “republic” (see Figure 8.3). The official name “Republic of South Korea” was, in effect, the mask of a pro-Western police state for half a century. Then, in 1997, the impossible happened: Kim Dae Jung was elected president—the first opposition candidate ever to win (or be allowed to win) the country’s highest office. Kim was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize in 2000 for his efforts to improve relations between the two Koreas.

South Korea’s institutional reforms are tenuous, as Kim Dae Jung’s successor, Roh Moo Hyun, found out when opposition parties that dominated a raucous National Assembly impeached him in 2004. After a sixty-three-day hiatus, the Korean Constitutional Court threw out the impeachment and reinstated Roh, thus ending a perilous political crisis in one of East Asia’s pivotal states.

Business executive and former mayor Lee Myung-bak won the December 2007 presidential election, but five years later his approval rating had plummeted to an abysmal 30%. Rising food and gas prices, high education and housing costs, inadequate job opportunities for university graduates, and a weak social safety net were among the primary sources of public disenchantment with the government.

Despite the initial predictions of a landslide victory for the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) in the 2012 national elections, the ruling conservative Saenuri Party staged an upset, winning 152 seats, enough for a clear majority in the 300-member national assembly (the DUP won 127 seats).

Park Geun-hye, the daughter of General Park Chung-hee (South Korea’s ruler from 1961 to 1979) was credited with engineering a major makeover of the conservative party in the run-up to the 2012 parliamentary elections. Her reward was to become her party’s (successful) presidential candidate.