[The Korea Herald] How effective are the police?

In April 2012, the brutal murder of a women in her 20s brought shame upon Korea’s police force. After receiving a call for help from the woman who had been kidnapped and locked inside a house in Suwon, about an hour’s drive from Seoul, the police failed to locate her location in time to save her. The outrage directed at the police over the case inspired this look at the overall record of the Korean National Police Agency. — John

By John Power and Kim Young-won

April has been a devastating month for the public image of the Korean National Police Agency. The bungled police response at the start of the month to an emergency call from a kidnap victim who was later murdered sparked public outrage. Public ire was further stoked with the revelation that the police in Suwon had attempted to cover up the extent of their incompetence with “brazen lies,” as described by KNPA commissioner general Cho Hyun-oh.

Criticism of police performance has come also from the very top. Last week, President Lee Myung-bak called for drastic police reform in the wake of the Suwon murder and revelations that officers in Seoul took bribes from room salon operators to turn a blind eye to prostitution.

These and other knocks to the reputation of the force have raised fundamental questions about the performance of the KNPA generally.

Lee Yoon-ho, a professor of police administration at Dongguk University, identifies the lack of promotional opportunities for the average officer as a source of inertia within the force.

“The lower-level police officers in Korea … they do not have enough motivation to be a good police officer because they know there will be not much chance for them to get promoted to higher ranks as they work because they are so many ways to become a police officer in Korea,” said Lee.

The key reason lower-ranked officers struggle to rise through the ranks, Lee said, is that most of the higher positions are filled with fresh graduates of the Korean National Police University in Yongin. The university produces about 120 graduates each year who start out at the lieutenant level. Rank-and-file officers instead must pass a written test, physical and an interview.

Major overhaul

In the Suwon case, much attention was paid to the 112 emergency operator’s poor handling of the victim’s call. Here too, Lee sees systemic problems.

“The dispatchers are not getting the appropriate education and training before they are dispatched to 112,” said Lee.

“Also, they do not have any experience as crime investigators because they are part of the security division rather than the investigations division so they are not familiar with the crime scene or crime investigation at all.”

Shortly after the murder, the KNPA announced it would deploy experienced officers to the emergency line, while Cho vowed a “major overhaul.”

Korean National Police Agency commissioner general Cho Hyun-o apologizes for the police response in the Suwon murder case at a press conference in Seoul in April. (Yonhap News)

A spokesman for the KNPA told The Korea Herald that it plans to increase the training period of operators. He said, however, that neither the timeframe nor the period had been decided and that Korea’s infrastructure for operator training is much less developed than the U.S., where operators undergo one year’s training.

A further impediment to effective policing is public mistrust, according to Dae-Hoon Kwak, an assistant professor at the Department of Criminal Justice Sciences at Illinois State University.

“Although the Korean National Police Agency has consistently tried to change its public image which is shown as an arm of the oppressive government, there has been little improvement in terms of public perception and public support,” Kwak said.

“Moreover, under the current government, these efforts have been gradually diminishing. Also, a couple years ago, South Koreans held candlelight vigils protesting beef import deal with U.S. At that time, the police force abused their power and authority and lots of civilians were arrested and detained because of their voluntary participation for the peaceful protest … I think this is a really serious problem, especially in the community policing era where police are working with citizens in order to respond to various social problems.”

The current training period of eight months is also relatively short by international comparisons, according to Kwak, but a far bigger problem is the recruitment process.

“A written exam ― including constitution law, criminal law, criminal procedural law, history, English and policing ― is the most crucial part of the hiring process rather than physical ability and employment aptitude. I think physical ability and vocational aptitude are more important aspects to be a successful police officer. Especially nowadays, police officers are required to perform a variety of daily tasks from helping citizens to fighting criminals.”

Lee of Dongguk University reinforced this view.

“You are commissioned first and then get education and training. You don’t need to have the police brain, you don’t need to have the police heart ― passion, you don’t need that. All that you need is to pass the exam,” he said.

Official data

Despite all the criticism directed at the police, official data paints a rather more positive picture. In fact, according to its own statistics, the KNPA is possibly one of the most effective police forces in the world. Its clearance rate, the portion of reported crimes for which charges are brought, for serious crime was 82.2 percent in 2009, far above the U.S., U.K. and Japan with 21.6, 25.6 and 30.2, respectively. Kwak cautioned, however, that the methods used by the KNPA in compiling their statistics, including the use of outdated definitions for investigative departments and crimes, cast doubt on their credibility. Clearance rate definitions can also vary by jurisdiction.

Even that considered, recent crime figures, it could be argued, also speak well of police effectiveness.

“In 2010, an estimated 1,860,687 crimes occurred nationwide, a decrease of 11 percent from the 2009 estimate,” said Kwak. “When considering 10-year trends, the 2010 crime total was 4 percent below the 2001 level. Based on these statistics, it can be concluded that the KNPA has done a decent job to decrease the total crime over the last decade. However, it should be noted that crime rates in other countries have declined as well.”

The effectiveness of the force has also increased significantly in recent years, according to Kwak Dae-Gyung, another professor of police administration at Dongguk University.

As an example, he points to the adoption and tweaking of the Computer Statistics system, or Compstat, first used by the New York City Police Department. Under the system, reports of crime and arrests are inputted into a computer database each week and analyzed to identify established and emerging crime patterns. While research on its precise effect on crime is scarce, its implement in New York and other U.S. cities such as Minneapolis coincided with reductions in crime.

“The Korean system is quite different from the New York system but … now the Korean police agency can utilize computer technology and communication technology,” Kwak said.

Political independence

In another import from the U.S., Korean police also adopted wider patrol areas in recent years, Kwak said, making for a more efficient use of manpower. More fundamentally, he believes that newer recruits are substantially more competent and suited to the job than many of their older colleagues. He points in particular to the mass hiring of officers with little in the way of training for the 1988 Seoul Olympics, many of whom are in the higher ranks of the force today.

“I think the atmosphere among new police officers is quiet different … At that time, the Korean police agency needed many police officers to cover this national event. At the time, the KNPA hired around 10,000 or 20,000 people … there were many police officers who were not qualified at that time.”

The KNPA spokesman pointed to actions in recent years such as the reorganizing of middle rank officers and hiring more personnel, as well as securing additional funds for investigations and new patrol cars and uniforms.

A number of laws have been strengthened, too, he said, including in the areas of apprehending people under the influence who disturb the peace and collection of information about missing children. Regarding discipline in the force, roughly 1,000 officers, less than 1 percent of the almost 130,000 officers including conscripts in the country, receive some form of sanction each year for transgressions ranging from the minor to the serious.

He noted that the training period for officers was increased from six months to eight last year, while the duration of fieldwork went from four weeks to six. In 2010, new programs were established training officers in investigating, fingerprinting and answering emergency calls.

Dongguk University’s Kwak, who believes the police statistics speak for the effectiveness of the force generally, sees no issue with the current training period of officers. But he does have concerns about political independence.

“Political considerations usually come first when the Korea police office decides on situations because the Korean police system is a centralized, national system. High-ranking police officers are quite sensitive and they try to attune to the opinions of big-power politicians.”

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[The Korea Herald] Are multicultural schools a problem waiting to happen?

Korea, a country with little history of immigration, is rapidly becoming more racially and culturally diverse. With society coming to terms with how to ensure social harmony and successful integration of immigrants, the idea of specific schools for so-called “multicultural children” has been one approach taken by the government. Such schools have sparked national debate about integration, segregation and future national identity. — John.

By John Power

Korea’s children are ethically and culturally diverse as never before. There were more than 151,000 children of mixed ethnicity in the country last year, a more than 350 percent rise since 2007.

With many arriving from overseas in their teens, language and cultural barriers are a challenge to succeeding in school. About 30 percent of children with a foreign parent are outside the school system entirely, according to the Ministry of Education, Science and Technology.

Against this backdrop, the Education Ministry in March opened high schools in Seoul and Jaecheon, North Chungcheong, for such children. Seoul Dasom High School has 48 students who grew up overseas and have a foreign parent. While the school currently caters to children raised abroad, it plans to accept those born in Korea to a foreign parent in the near future.

“… There are students who came to Korea after a certain period in their home country, and therefore, have difficulties in adjusting to general schools in Korea,” an Education Ministry spokesperson told Voice in a statement.

“To help these students, Dasom Schools opened in Seoul and North Chungcheong Province in March 2012. The Dasom School is a public school for students from different ethnic backgrounds and provides language, cultural and technical education. Its diploma is recognized as a high school diploma. Next year, another Dasom school will open in Incheon. As such, the government of Korea is assisting multicultural students to grow into healthy citizens. It is also providing various support to help them become global talents by nourishing bilingual potential and enhancing multicultural sensitivity.”

But some fear that such schools could do more to entrench divisions than mend them. Popular blogger Robert Koehler, a 15-year resident married to a Mongolian woman here, shares such concerns.

“I’d be concerned that they’re putting themselves at a disadvantage in Korea by not attending normal schools and that by associating only with students of mixed racial backgrounds, it would impede their development as members of Korean society. As a taxpayer, I’d also ask why the government was spending money so that Korean nationals can learn pride in being non-Korean. If individual families want to instill pride in a certain foreign cultural heritage, fine ― I imagine my family (which is) German/Irish-American and Mongolian will. But that’s not something the state should be doing,” he said.

The government has opened a number of schools for multi-ethnic children such as those pictured above at an event at the Korea Food Research Institute at Sookmyung University in Seoul. (Yonhap News)

Koehler, who has no kids “yet,” also wonders whether grouping multiethnic children together could engender racial resentment.

“Put multicultural kids all together, add a few ideologically sympathetic teachers, and dollars to donuts you’ll turn the classroom into a cesspool of identity and grievance politics. And Korean-Korean parents and their kids will nurse grievances because the ‘foreign’ kids are being treated ‘special.’”

Park Kyung-tae, a sociology professor at Seoul’s Sungkonghoe University who specializes in multiculturalism, also has doubts.

“Although the facility is good, it has only symbolic meaning that Korean society is doing a good job to include those multicultural kids. But that is a very, very small number and special cases only,” he said.

He believes all schools should be multicultural in so far as having diverse student bodies and educational support for students struggling to fit in.

Skeptical voices have even arisen within the government itself.

Last year, in a statement to The Korea Herald, the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which also deals with multicultural matters, expressed its opposition to so-called multicultural schools.

“The establishment of a separate school, class and after school activities for children with multicultural backgrounds is not viewed as an appropriate measure for the children of multicultural families,” it said.

At the time, the Education Ministry insisted the school policy had been pursued with the endorsement of the Gender Minister, something expressly denied by the latter.

A spokeswoman for the Gender Ministry reiterated its earlier position on Thursday, saying it was against separate schools because “(students) have to adjust to this society because their nationality is Korean.”

She expressed surprise that the Education Ministry had claimed to have pursued the school policy with her ministry’s agreement, saying she would “check with the Ministry of Education.”

The Education Ministry declined last week to answer questions about the number of such schools it ultimately intended to establish, but stressed that the schools were for only a small proportion of students.

“The government of Korea seeks an ‘integrated education,’ in which students from different ethnic backgrounds are allowed to choose which elementary, middle, or high school to go to. Accordingly, most ‘multicultural students’ are enrolled in general schools,” it said.

In addition to the specialized schools, the ministry has also introduced a number of six-month preparatory programs in the Korean language and culture to ready students for entry into regular classes. It plans to have 26 of these programs in place within the year.

Seong Sang-hwan, of the Education Ministry-funded National Center for Multicultural Education, appreciates the concerns regarding division. But he believes such schools are a necessary, if temporary, measure.

“These kids, they have trouble in regular Korean schools because regular schools, they are not ready to accept these kids. These schools should be regarded as some kind of stepping stone to transfer to regular schools …We have to watch these schools closely but at the moment I think this move is OK. I think it is acceptable,” Seong said.

Seong believes that the success of immigrants greatly depends on their own efforts to integrate into their new community, a view informed by his own experience as an immigrant first to the U.S. and then to Germany.

“I think the incoming immigrants, they have to participate in the school life, or school activities, social activities and so on. In this way you are accepted more and more … if you stay aloof from the mainstream then you are very unhappy and you don’t get to know people there. And you don’t get to know the friends of your kids and so. I think that’s very tragic,” he said.

He relates the story of a Chinese immigrant he met as part of field research for his center. Her mother-in-law had forbidden her from attending Korean classes, preferring her to stay at home.

“This Chinese woman could not speak Korean that well. As soon as she was allowed to attend regular official Korean classes offered by the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family … she was exposed to this new environment and she started picking up excellent Korean very quickly. And then she was offered a Chinese teaching position as well,” Seong said.

Kangwon University professor Han Geon-soo, who supports temporary “segregation” classes before integration, said other countries’ experiences of immigration provide little insight for Korea, owning to its distinct characteristics.

“Basically, it should be ‘salad bowl’ but what is important is the contents and quality of ‘salad bowl,’” he said.

[The Korea Herald] Has populism taken over politics?

Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, candidates reliably made big promises to the electorate. Accordingly, related concerns about political populism became a major topic of debate within and outside of the political sphere. — John.

By John Power

It’s a charge both the ruling and opposition parties have faced since election season began: Unrealistic campaign promises, with little regard for how to pay for them or their long-term consequences, point to one thing ― populism.

Last month, a group of business organizations including the Federation of Korean Industries released a joint statement cautioning against reckless pledges at election time.

“Campaign pledges should be tailored to reflect the current economic environment facing the country and the government’s fiscal capabilities,” the statement warned.

The Saenuri Party’s list of pledges for the April 11 election includes additional spending of 89 trillion won ($79 billion) on welfare, health and education over the next five years. The opposition Democratic United Party is pledging 164.7 trillion won in similar spending over the same time frame.

A recent “conservative” estimate by the Finance Ministry put the cost of implementing all the two main parties’ pledges at 268 trillion won, considerably above either party’s own estimate.

Other pledges accused of being populist include both parties’ commitment to build an airport in the southeast of the country, the DUP’s vow to abandon nuclear energy and the Saenuri Party’s to quadruple the monthly wage given to military conscripts.

Both the Saenuri Party, headed by Park Geun-hye (upper photo), and the Democratic United Party, headed by Han Myeong-sook (bottom), have been accused of populism in their election promises. (The Korea Herald)

Challenging such perceived electoral pandering with gusto, the Maeil Business, a vernacular daily, even published the so-called Maekyung Populism Index as part of its “monitoring mission against populist policies.”

International attention, too, has honed in on the issue, with a March 7 Wall Street Journal editorial praising Finance Minister Bahk Jae-wan for having “the guts to stand up to such economic populism.”

Unsurprisingly, the political establishment has rejected the charges.

“See what the Lee (Myung-bak) government has done as it attacks ‘populism’ on one hand and calls for financial stability on the other? The government and the ruling party cut taxes by around 100 trillion won in the past five years for the rich, spent 30 trillion won on the Four River Project. It is nonsense that they are supporting financial stability,” Park Joo-sun, a lawmaker from the Democratic United Party, told Voice.

Kim Jong-in, a member of the Saenuri Party’s leadership council, in February similarly hit back, calling the Finance Ministry’s intervention in the debate inappropriate and “unprecedented.”

There is a difference, politicians may argue, between reckless populism and listening to the will of the people. Accordingly, what all parties have stressed in this election cycle is a desire for “new” politics that reconnects with the public.

Karl Friedhoff, a program officer at the Asan Institute of Policy Studies, said that the timing of the sudden drive to ramp up spending inevitably leaves parties open to accusations of populism.

“The timing of it all is the real give away. Nothing in society has changed all that drastically. There were always the poor. There were always the rich. And every year, for the past decade at least, Korea has reached a new level of affluence. So, why this push all of a sudden?” he said.

But pledges to, for example, increase welfare spending shouldn’t automatically be labeled populist, especially, Friedhoff said, as they reflect very real public demand.

“Korea has a weak safety net, that is not in question. Moreover, according to the Asan Institute’s survey, the issue of redistribution has been the second most important, after job creation, for the past twelve months. The issue of redistribution and the economy are clearly linked. There are three measurements for the economy. The first is absolute … The second is relative … The final way is the one less talked about: perceived growth.

“So, people hear that the Korean economy is growing. But when we ask them in our survey about how they feel about their own personal economic well-being, a majority perceive their own economic well-being to be getting worse. And that has been true since we started the poll in January 2011.”

Cho Heung-seek, a politician science professor at Seoul National University, said that populism in Korea politics is nothing new, but is characterized by some distinctly local features.

“I don’t think populism has become a defining feature of this election campaign, rather, I think populism has always existed at election time in Korea … I think Korean politics tends to utilize characteristics that Korean people are rich in emotion,” said Cho.

Korean politics’ entrenched regionalism, too, plays a part, especially when it comes to grand projects such as the plan to build a new airport in the southeast of the country.

“Although Korean politics’ regionalism has gone down in recent years, I think regionalism is still the problem for encouraging big projects in certain areas for political gain,” said Cho.

The revived airport plan, previously an election pledge of President Lee Myung-bak before it was scrapped on economic feasibility grounds in March last year, has an estimated price tag of at least 9.8. trillion won. At present, 11 out of the country’s 14 local airports are loss-makers.

But if populist rhetoric is nothing new, Moon Seung-sook, a Korean-born-and-raised sociology professor at Vassar University in New York State, sees this election as noteworthy for how the debate on populism has been framed.

“The current national assembly election is very much affected by the resignation of Oh Se-hoon, former mayor of Seoul, who ignited the showdown between the ruling party and the opposition party concerning the free school lunch program. The debate was framed as a contest between irresponsible populism and practical considerations by Oh,” said Moon.

Moon, however, doesn’t see populist tendencies as being especially representative of Korean politics, so much as reflecting the failures of representative democracy generally.

“I don’t think Korean politics is particularly susceptible to populism. I see it as a symptom of mass democracy which has failed to deliver democracy and social justice at a deeper and more substantial level. That is, populism is a rhetorical substitute for the real,” she said.

She adds, however, that Koreans may be more sensitive to disparities in wealth than citizens of other countries, giving impetus to party plans to raise taxes on the wealthy and curb chaebol power.

“I see such emphasis as an example of populism in contemporary mass democracy, which we also see a lot here in U.S. politics. If I look hard into the Korean culture and history, Koreans may be more sensitive to inequality and status differences ― than Americans for example ― because of relatively strong nationalism and belief in homogenous ethnicity ― especially among older generations.”

During the campaign for last October’s Seoul mayoral by-election, conservative candidate Na Kyung-won of the Grand National Party, the former name of the Saenuri Party, faced criticism over what were later revealed to be false accusations of lavish spending on skin care. President Lee came in for similarly-themed attacks when his granddaughter was photographed wearing an expensive Moncler band jacket during a family outing with the president.

Widespread dissatisfaction with established politics has surely been fuel for the populist impulse. But such antipathy could find an outlet divorced from party politics entirely, believes Friedhoff. He sees youth disillusionment in particular as potentially transformative ― even more so in the event of a conservative electoral victory.

“Their dissatisfaction is real and it doesn’t really have any outlet. Where that energy will be directed is difficult to say. But, I think if the (Saenuri Party) is somehow able to win a narrow majority, the disappointment and frustration of the youth is going to be more than anyone expected. And again, how that frustration will express itself is anyone’s guess. … It could be in an outward form, i.e. protests. Or it could be a more internal movement, where those in their twenties just see no way to have their voice heard, and effectively give up on the democratic process.”

[The Korea Herald] Can Korea break the two-party mold?

Numerous smaller political parties have come and gone in Korea, which in recent years has tended toward what is essentially a two-party system. Ahead of the 2012 National Assembly elections, a number of minor players, including the then new Korea Vision Party, hoped to make their mark on the political landscape. The results of the election, however, mostly reinforced the status quo, with the conservative Saenuri Party retaining its majority, and the liberal Democratic Party taking most of the remaining seats. The remaining handful went to the left-wing Unified Progressive Party and Progressive Justice Party and a small number of independents.  — John.

By John Power

Korea, like so many democracies, broadly fits the definition of a two-party system made up of liberal and conservative camps.

Yet its two-party mold remains young and fragile compared to countries such as the U.S., where power has passed between the same two parties without interruption for more than 150 years. Korean parties rarely last more than a few years before a name change, merger or outright dissolution, while the National Assembly typically accommodates a number of small parties aside from the big two.

In the country’s first free presidential election in 1987, not two, but three major parties vied for Korean politics’ top job. The conservative Democratic Justice Party’s Roh Tae-woo clinched victory, benefiting from a spilt in the liberal vote between the Reunification Democratic Party’s Kim Young-sam and Party for Peace and Democracy’s Kim Dae-jung. Kim Jong-pil, the founder of the Korean Central Intelligence Agency, the precursor to the National Intelligence Service, came a distant fourth on the conservative opposition New Democratic Republican Party ticket. For the next election in 1992, Kim Young-sam merged his party with Roh’s ruling bloc, creating a clearer two-party spilt and ultimately winning Kim the Blue House. Parliamentary elections, since 2000 in particular, have tended toward reinforcing the presence of two major parties and a number of bit players.

Park Se-il speaks at a press conference for the recently formed Korea Vision Party last month. Park’s party hopes to shake up the two-party status quo. (Yonhap News)

“The first reason is the political parties are largely based on regionalism, Jeolla regionalism and Honam regionalism,” Kyung Hee University politics professor Yun Seong-yi told Voice.

“So unless the regionalism breaks down, there is not much chance to have a multi-party system in Korea. We also have a sharp competition or clash between the liberals and the conservatives nowadays. People want to have two distinctive ideological parties.”

The election system, which sees 246 out of 299 seats chosen in single seat constituencies favoring bigger parties, is also a factor.

“Generally speaking, single-member constituencies tend to bring about two-party systems,” noted Hong Deuk-pyo, a political science professor at Incheon’s Inha University.

The upcoming April 11 general election, as a clash between the recently renamed Saenuri Party and Democratic United Party, would appear to continue the two-party mold. What could be a game-changer, however, is the pre-election alliance of the DUP with the minor Unified Progressive Party. With the two big parties expected to take 130-145 seats each, the far-left UPP could become kingmaker in the next Assembly, even if it only wins the roughly15 seats predicted by opinion polls.

“After the election the UPP and DUP will cooperate to pass laws, but case by case,” said Hong. “It is obvious that the UPP and DUP are going to keep their pace by checking the Saenuri Party in the National Assembly along with searching for ways for cooperation to win the upcoming presidential election.”

Another challenger to the two-party status quo is the recently formed center-right Korea Vision Party, headed by former Saenuri Party member and Hansun Foundation chief Park Se-il.

“We were established in order to break that chain (of power moving between two major parties),” said Park’s deputy chief of staff Lee Sang-baek. “Both parties have been based in certain regions, as you know. For instance, the Saenuri Party is very strong in the Gyeongsang area whereas DUP is very comfortable and strong in Jeolla. But instead of regionalism, KVP hopes to create values that we believe in. Instead of a region, we want to be Korea-based party based on our ideology.”

Lee, whose party is fielding 27 single-seat constituency and eight proportional representation candidates, accepts that is “very difficult to break that barrier” and make an impact as a third party. But he sees the party’s electoral bid as “a good and meaningful experiment.”

Nor is the party concerned about the possibility of splitting the ― in this case conservative ― vote and handing power to the other side, the curse of so many third-party bids in two-party set-ups.

“I don’t think we are splitting the conservative vote,” said Lee. “Basically we are creating a new definition of conservative in this society. That why the KVP is trying to come into play, come in to provide more reasonable and reform-minded conservative policies.”

Yang Seung-ham, a political science professor at Yonsei University in Seoul, said that Koreans’ lack of a unifying ideology leaves the door open to third or fourth parties.

“At present, Korean political positions are diversified according to region, income, age and ideology. The major parties are not enough to embrace the complicated differences. And 40 to 50 percent of Korean voters do not identify themselves with any political party due to political apathy and indifference. Therefore, there is always room for a third or fourth party,” he said.

But much depends on the presence of a major figure to rally around, said Yang. Korean politics has long been personality-driven: Park Geun-hye maintains considerable allure and influence despite her reputation for reticence on policy issues, while former presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun each founded the parties that carried them to power and continue to be revered in liberal circles.

“Unlike the 1987 election, a third party may not present their own candidate this time because they don’t have a prominent figure to compete with the two major party candidates,” said Yang. “Only in the case that professor Ahn Cheol-soo runs for the presidency, then there will be more than two major figures. Or a person with the support of professor Ahn might become a third major figure in the upcoming presidential election.”

Yun attributes the penchant of Korea’s “2.5-party system” for personality politics in part to the tendency of parties to distinguish themselves by region rather than ideology, making it “much easier to base (them) on their political leaders and personalities.”

This, argues Hong, restricts voter choice, raising the need for a third, “moderate” party to act as a broker between the two “polarized” major parties.

As Gregory Henderson mentioned, politics of vortex have been one of the distinct characteristics of Korean politics since 1948,” said Hong. “Political parties have served as political machines for the prominent political elites in their striving for the presidential job. … Grouping around powerful figures is one of the negative factors that restricts voters’ options, but their choice affects party alignment.”

The emergence of a full-blown multi-party system, while increasing voter choice, would make coalition governments more of a norm, potentially increasing political instability. Their perceived instability has made the Korean public wary of such arrangements, according to Yang.

“Political coalitions are unstable in nature. It is particularly so in Korea, because dialogue, discussion, persuasion, negotiation, cooperation and tolerance are the concepts to be more developed in Korean politics. A coalition is more like a marriage of convenience for political purposes,” he said.

This makes the entrenchment, rather than weakening, of the two-party system more likely in the future.

“I think Korea will move toward the two-party system in the future as Korean democracy matures gradually,” said Yang. “At the moment the Korean political parties are not based on policy orientation but are catch-all parties. The political parties are the verge of the democratization process.”

By John Power (john.power@heraldcorp.com)