Cablegate: Regionalism: Still a Factor in Korean Elections

Published: Fri 13 Jul 2007 01:05 AM
DE RUEHUL #2096/01 1940105
R 130105Z JUL 07
E.O. 12958: N/A
REF: A. SEOUL 1756
B. SEOUL 1684
C. SEOUL 270
D. SEOUL 1841
E. SEOUL 1711
F. SEOUL 2048
1. (SBU) Korean voters have traditionally voted in regional
blocs for their favored candidate in local and national
elections. In the 2002 presidential elections, Roh Moo-hyun
received over 90 percent support in the southwest Jeolla
Provinces. Despite Roh's campaign pledge to rid politics of
regionalism's "evil influence", it will likely be an
important, if not the dominant, factor in the December 2007
presidential elections. While all of the leading
presidential candidates have eschewed regionalism in public
statements, they continue to draw their political base of
support from their respective regions. Former President Kim
Dae-jung has welcomed a steady flow of progressive candidates
(ref A) seeking his approval and subsequent voter support
from his traditional base in the southwest. Even Roh has
admitted that traditional regional loyalties must be
exploited for the progressives to have any chance in
December. END SUMMARY.
2. (SBU) 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.
3. (SBU) 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."
4. (SBU) 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 (ref B),
was also heavily involved in the election as Uri's top
campaign strategist.
5. (SBU) 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
6. (SBU) 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. The two
major political parties today - the GNP and Uri - are 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.
7. (SBU) 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.
8. (SBU) Experts suggest that it is the middle of the
country where you can find the most balanced community of
voters. A recent 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.
9. (SBU) Uri Party defectors have attempted to use
regionalism to their advantage since the mass defections
began in late January. 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.
10. (SBU) On June 4, 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.
11. (SBU) Former Seoul Mayor and presidential front-runner
Lee Myung-bak asserts that the era of a politician winning 90
plus percent in a given district are gone. In ref E, Lee
told the Ambassador that he only needed to receive 20 percent
of the votes in the Jeolla region in order to assure victory
(he claims he currently has between 25 and 30 percent support
there). 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.
12. (SBU) Former GNP Chairperson Park Geun-hye, who is
steadily making up ground with Lee in the polls (ref F) will
continue to rely on her strong support base in the
southeastern region as she has in the past. She is 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
13. (SBU) In the span of one week in May, 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.
14. (SBU) 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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