South Korean politics are often characterized as a two-and-a-half party system: the conservatives, the liberals, and a far left fringe of progressives. Yet traditional characterizations of left and right, conservative, liberal and progressive, are only partially useful. In South Korea, conservatives are generally linked to the past, to political, military and economic power dating back to independence, and even before. In addition to history, they also generally have a geographical center of strength, basically much of the country aside from the southwest provinces, the center of the liberal and progressive tendencies. In the early years of South Korea, the liberals and progressives were often tarred with the brush of communism, and anti-communism was often used as an excuse to crack down on labor, students and opposition politicians.
These political divides also relate to the way the country deals with its neighbors and the United States. In looking at North Korea, it is easy to see a single regime, largely consistent since the end of World War II, with a clear worldview. In South Korea, particularly since the end of military rule, foreign policies are as much shaped by individuals as by strategic interests. Those interests are clear across parties: defend against further conflict with North Korea, secure access to resources and markets, and balance national interest with self-determination against the much stronger powers of the South's two great neighbors, China and Japan. But while the imperatives are clear, the paths for pursuing them are flexible. This amplifies the role of political personalities.
In general, the military leaders of South Korea and their conservative civilian successors have sought military, economic and political security through close ties with the United States, reinforcing the U.S. defense alliance as a way to secure South Korean strength. Liberal and progressive leaders, however, have sought more balanced relations with North Korea and greater indigenous defense capabilities. Those parties have also pushed for the return of operational command during times of war. For under the current alliance structure, should war break out on the Korean Peninsula, the South Korean military would fall under operational control of the U.S. military. The conservatives have generally backed big businesses; the liberals and progressives have sought to break the backs of the large, family-run conglomerates known as chaebols
But this is by far an oversimplification
. The differences in foreign policy are not nearly so clear cut. Park Chung Hee sought the development of nuclear weapons for South Korea, but he was dissuaded ultimately by U.S. threats to withdraw troops before he could complete the program, thus potentially leaving the South vulnerable to the North. Roh Tae Woo launched the Nordpolitik program, seeking to work with China and the Soviet Union to slowly develop North Korea and ease toward inter-Korean reconciliation. Kim Young Sam was scheduled to be the first South Korean President to meet with a North Korean leader, but the summit never happened due to the sudden death of North Korea's founding father, Kim Il Sung. And more recently, Park Geun Hye initially reached out to China and Russia despite U.S. consternation. She even went so far as to attend a commemoration of victory over Japan in Beijing, standing on the dais with Russian President Vladimir Putin and Chinese President Xi Jinping at a time when U.S. ties with both were at an ebb.
Domestic Politics Converge with Foreign Policy
The challenge for Seoul as it looks at its regional environment is that in many ways it is in a weak position. With South Korea surrounded by the larger China and Japan (both traditional rivals) and abutting North Korea along the fortified demilitarized zone (DMZ), the defense relationship with the distant United States provides a sense of security that can allow the government to focus on other issues. But it also creates a sense of helplessness, of foreign occupation, and of over-dependence. Simple defense issues like the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile defense system tend to become tied up in domestic politics. Often, the debates barely address the core issue at hand, like missile defense, and focus instead on relations with the United States, China and North Korea — or on older accusations of collusion. The internal political divide in South Korea has not eased since Park’s ouster, but rather intensified. The South Korean Constitution, shaped to avoid the re-emergence of strong-man leadership, only adds to the constant political churn by banning a second term in office and not allowing for a vice president, thus ensuring major policy shifts every five years.
For South Korea, as for the North, the strategic imperatives are clear. Defend against forced reunification, while seeking strength to protect against the overwhelming influence of neighboring powers and the United States. The obvious solution to both, in the long run, is unification, which would eliminate the need to focus so many resources on the immediate defense of a single border and allow a reunified country of some 80 million people — with advanced technology, abundant natural resources, and a critical geographic position — to focus outward. The challenge is not only the differences in policy views internally and widening social rifts, but also the opposing interests of the Koreas’ neighbors. As the United States and North Korea head closer to a showdown over the North’s long-range missile program, it will be extremely important to watch the shifts in Seoul’s policies toward Pyongyang — and how Seoul perceives the increasingly assertive U.S. focus on the North.