Last updated on November 29, 2021
With a National Assembly election tomorrow and a presidential election in December, 2012 is a big political year for Korea.
In recent campaigning, politicians have centered their promises on local issues, but have used national issues to motivate voters. This is an interesting contradiction that says much about the state of Korean politics.
Tip O’Neill, the speaker of the House of Representatives under President Reagan became famous for the phrase “all politics is local.” By this, he meant that a politician’s success depends on his or her ability to understand local issues of immediate concern to voters.
The theory explains why cities and states with power legislators have better roads and public facilities. It stands in contrast to the theory that voters use local elections to “send a message” to the president or to change the direction of the nation.
Since the 1980s when Reagan and Tip O’Neill ruled Washington, national issues have increased in importance, causing more frequent changes in control of Congress. The Republican sweep of the House of Representatives in 1994 and 2010 was a response to controversial policies of a Democratic president. The Democratic strength in 2006 and 2008 was a sharp rebuke of the unpopular Bush administration. The U.S. is starting to look more like Korea with each election cycle.
Interestingly, the change parallels the rise of the Internet as a source of information. What is going on? The problem is the economics of scale involved in the production of information. Large localities can support the production of large amounts of information, but small localities have a much smaller production base. The ease of conveying information means that the vast amount of information on national issues drowns out local issues. Over time, people think about national issues more and act on those feelings.
The Internet has certainly affected Korea, particularly the “2040 Generation” of younger voters. Korea has the added burden of a weak local government during years of dictatorship. In 1985, for example, the only elected politicians were members of the National Assembly. Local government officials were all appointed. The 1987 presidential election was the first direct election since 1971. In 1995, local autonomy was reinstituted after a 30-year hiatus and the first local elections were held.
Thirty years without elections for local government is a long time. After several rounds of local elections since 1995, the power of local officials remains weak and local civil servants strong. This explains why the “minwon,” or civil complaint, remains the primary method for citizens to comment on local affairs. The complaint goes the civil servant in charge, rather than elected officials. In a vibrant representative democracy, citizens channel their complaints through elected officials who have control over the bureaucracy.
The National Assembly election tomorrow, then, raises questions about what members of the Assembly can actually do for their constituents. They can, like their counterparts in the era of Tip O’Neill, try to grab pieces of the national budget for projects in their constituency. For many local areas, money from Seoul is a critical source of funding. Such battles require political skill and influence, which in turn, require immense dedication to the job.
A rational (and opportunistic) lawmaker might conclude that it is easier to focus on national issues if that is what motivates voters. In this paradigm, political success depends on the degree of party loyalty and media exposure related to national issues rather than anything local.
Finally, there is endemic regionalism. Many nations are sharply divided by region, many even more so than Korea. The problem for Korea is that regionalism is strongest in the political realm as opposed to, say, culture and language.
This means that elections accentuate differences among regions, leaving large areas of the country with one-party government. Politicians in these areas naturally appeal to national issues by emphasizing their role in and loyalty to the dominant party in their region.
The strong interest in national issues combined with political regionalism in Korea means that “all politics is national.” In an era where national issues dominate the digital world, other nations, even ones with a strong traditional of local government, may be moving in this direction. The trend may have reached its limit, however, as resistance to national political dominance begins to strengthen in many places.
In the end, strong local government gives citizens a greater chance to participate in the political process not just as voters but as engaged citizens who can take their concerns directly to politicians. Until local representative government becomes vital in Korea, political promises about local issues will serve as “linguistic decoration” each vote getting season.