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Title: How do issues in contemporary South Korea politics continue to be shaped by Korea’s history?



Overview of issues in contemporary South Korean politics. 2

Overview of Korea’s modern history. 5

Influence of Korea’s history on contemporary politics. 6

Trends in Korea’s democratization process. 9

Conclusion. 10

References. 10


Overview of issues in contemporary South Korean politics

In the contemporary South Korean society, political issues are greatly being influenced by the country’s history. One of the main issues that tend to trigger political undercurrents is reunification with North Korea (Levin & Han, 2003). For centuries, North Korea and South Korea used to exist as one nation. However, after the World War II, ideological differences greatly contributed to the splitting up of the country into North and South. The North formed close ties with communism while the South leaned towards capitalism.

The issue of democratization has also been used to draw clear-cut differences between South Korea and North Korea. South Korea set off on a path of democratization after splitting from North Korea. In contrast, North Korea continued promoting the path of communism. Today, South Korea is widely seen to have made more significant progress in terms of the democratization process than North Korea. Sometimes the comparison is extended to cover economic aspects, whereby, once again, South Korea seems to have made greater achievements than North Korea.

The contemporary issues in Korean politics are also greatly shaped by its relations with its Japan, its former imperial master. These two countries share a modern history, which happens to be unnerving in many ways (Nak-chung, 2005). This is not surprising given the fact that this history was characterized by South Korea’s domination by Japanese imperialism. Nevertheless, the relationship is different from the one existing between most African countries and their former European colonial masters (Nak-chung, 2005). In some ways, it may be compared to that of England and Ireland as opposed to that between Senegal and France (Nak-chung, 2005).

Today, South Korea is a representation of one of the most crucial cases of countries that started moving towards democratization during the mid-1970s (Cumings, 2005). Since then, South Korea has made a lot of progress in economic and political fronts. Many large foreign investments have been channeled into the country. South Korea also occupies a geographical position of great significance by virtue of being close to two powerful neighbors, Japan and China.

The political significance of South Korea to the U.S. and Japan becomes more profound given the political problems being experienced by North Korea (Kil, 2005). Japan and the U.S. are better off establishing friendly relations with the stable economy of South Korea as a way of dealing with the threats posed by North Korea (Levin & Han, 2003). In recent years, North Korea has been affected by deep economic and political problems. To maintain its relevance in regional and global politics, the country has resulted to the development of nuclear capabilities. These capabilities pose a serious threat to Japan and the United States. One of the ways through which these countries have been seeking to dissolve this threat is by forging close political and economic ties with South Korea, further isolating North Korea.

Even in the heat of the political debate on democratization, the issue of unification has refused to go away. Levin & Han (2003) observe that the interests of the West are best served by a stable and democratic South Korea. In such a situation, the South stands a better chance of undertaking the highly challenging process of reunification with the North. By establishing an effective democracy in South Korea, the West hopes to dispel the notion that liberal institutions cannot function effectively in the context of the Asian culture.

According to Lee (2007), the greatest strides towards democracy in South Korea were made during the 1998 elections. Between this time and the turn of the twenty first century, South Korea has survived a major economic crisis. It has also survived a switch of power from rightist to leftist politicians. So far, democracy continues to thrive.

Many commentators would say that sufficient gains have been made with regard to the democratization process in South Korea (Park, 2006). This may not be entirely true given the shallowness of political structures and institutions in the country. As a Confucian society, this shallowness may be viewed as a heritage of the country’s history (Park, 2006). The people of South Korea may still be dissatisfied with the range of policy choices made available by the country’s democratic institutions (Park, 2006). The dissatisfaction may be inherent in the country’s inability to make significant gains in efforts to push for the reunification process to a fruitful conclusion.

The gains may not be much considering the immense turbulence experienced in the country since the establishment of democracy in the electoral process in 1987. The political stalemate and tumultuous events that followed this change of political environment disrupted the country’s industrial stability (Diamond, 2000). The disruptions were mainly attributed to disorganization within the country’s party system. When the rule of the country’s first civilian president ended, many commentators found it difficult to equate the gains made in South Korean democracy to those of third-wave democracies in the South of Europe (Diamond, 2000). South Korea seemed to have failed to achieve far-reaching progress in cementing its democracy.

Overview of Korea’s modern history

One of the main elements of Korea’s modern history is the country’s colonial heritage. In the conventional sense of the word, colonialism led to the establishment of nation-states where none used to exist. People with different backgrounds were brought together to form new nation-states. However, this was not the case with the entry of Japan into Korea. Prior to 1910, Korea used to exist as one nation, a situation that extended far back into many centuries. In fact, the Korea’s national boundaries were recognized long before those of European countries. Korea also held a tradition of a sense of pride because of its proximity to China. The country even held a perception of superiority (or at least equal status) toward Japan.

When Japan went into South Korea, it did not need to create new boundaries; it only needed to undertake a wide-reaching substitution process (Morris-Suzuki, 2009). It only needed to replace South Korean systems with Japanese systems with a view to entrench Japanese imperialism. Structures of colonial-style coordination were hurriedly imposed on the South Korean people. Today’s political events in the country continue to resonate with the history of imperialism that was acquired during the era of domination by Japan.

During the colonial era, Confucian classics  were replaced by a Japanese system of education (Kihl, 2005). Japanese business practices were introduced to replace the traditional entrepreneurial spirit of the Korean people (Kihl, 2005). According to Kihl (2005), the Korea people have never been thankful to Japan for making these substitutions. This reality continues to play out in the issues that are being addressed in South Korean politics today. Korea’s national dignity took a severe blow during this period. Many South Koreans still think that the Japanese rule humiliated and insulted their sense of cultural pride in a very significant way, This is in fact one of the reasons why the country’s historians have shied away from writing much about the country’s modern history especially during the first half of the twentieth century.

External influence on Korean affairs started occurring as far back as during the 1890s (Morris-Suzuki, 2009). Japan and Russia were the main contenders. Japan was keen to introduce reforms in Korea but it had to fight China first. Russia was also interested in influencing affairs in South Korea. In defining their respective interests in the Asian nation, Japan and Moscow had to engage in negotiations (Morris-Suzuki, 2009). These negotiations were followed by a surprise attack by Japan, after which Moscow ended up recognizing Japan’s dominance in Korea. After the peace agreement of 1905, Japan continues to operate “freely” in Korea (Morris-Suzuki, 2009). This was mainly because it had secured the support of the United States and Britain.

The circumstances prevailing during the colonial era led to an overwhelming Western support of the efforts that Japan was making to “modernize” Korea (Oberdorfer, 2001). Korea appeared too weak to launch any meaningful counteroffensive against the annexation process. Japan had already embarked on  meteoric rise to regional and global dominance. By 1905, Japan had started imposing its rule on Korea. It had started dissolving the Korean military, alienating long-serving supreme leaders, running the country’s telegraphic services, and installing leaders who ruled at the behest of Japanese authorities.

Influence of Korea’s history on contemporary politics

Korea’s history continues to influence politics in the country in a dramatic way. Japanese colonizers changed the way South Koreans think about their culture, politics, economy, and their role in global politics. According to Oberdorfer (2001), Japan engaged in what may be referred to as “administrative colonialism”. This form of colonialism is different from the one that European countries imposed on African countries.

Japan lost its grip on Korea in 1945 as the World War II ended. Korea was left with a bitter colonial experience. In some ways, it brought about development, while in others it created backwardness. On the political front, the role of the state was forever changed. Traditional Korean leaders were replaced with new ones who acted as puppets of Japanese imperial administrators. Some Koreans were compelled by circumstances to collaborate with Japan. The culture of emperors was replaced with one that focused almost entirely on planning and administration.

Although Japan led to the creation of new markets and industries, it was also deeply intolerant of political dissidents. Koreans were empowered economically but were prohibited from making any meaningful contribution to the country’s political process. This mix of contrasts continues to define the life of most South Koreans as far as economic and political fortunes are concerned. This explains why massive economic progress has continued to take place in the post-war South Korea even as politics continue to be dominated by authoritarian rulers and the military.

Major developments continued being experienced in the agricultural sector during the Japanese rule in the 1920s. One may draw a parallel between this phenomenon and the industrial gains made in the post-war South Korea. In both cases, economic progress was being made in an environment of political oppression. Economic growth was being reported at a time when no significant political progress was being made. During the 1920s and 1930s, the rate of economic growth in Korea was so massive that it surpassed that of Japan itself (Oberdorfer, 2001).

Japanese administrators were efficient in their process of hiring numerous officials and posting them to rural areas to supervise agricultural activities. Banking functions were being efficiently carried out through the Bank of Korea. Seoul, the country’s capital, was established as the nerve center of the Japanese colonial bureaucracy. Large corporations set up bases in this city, thereby contributing immensely to the country’s economic development. However, the judiciary established a culture in which Koreas were being subjected to racial discrimination. In essence, the gains made on the economic front were in deep contrast to political gains.

In some ways, the atrocities committed by Japan fade away when contrasted with the economic gains made. The conventional view in South Korea is that the economic benefits made in the country ended up going to Japan. To many countries of the West, Japanese annexation brought about modernization. In contrast, many Koreans hold the view that the annexation amounted to colonialism. This way of thinking continues to influence the decisions that South Korean leaders make today in their interactions with both Japan and the West. Such an influence is evident in the efforts that these leaders continue to make in efforts to achieve the goal of reunification with North Korea.

The influence of the colonial history on contemporary politics in South Korea also becomes evident when one looks at changes were made to the Choson dynasty (Dudden, 2006). Japanese rulers were keen not to destroy elements of aristocracy that constituted one of the defining features of this dynasty (Dudden, 2006). Japan sought to benefits from the centuries-old heritage of the aristocracy.  In the present time, this aristocracy continues to exert a profound influence on South Korean politics. The old elite were retained because it would continue playing a critical role of keeping peasants under their control (Dudden, 2006).

The agrarian policies that marginalized peasants during the colonial era have never died away completely. They continue to stir a heated debate on the need for more efforts towards greater political representation in South Korea. At the same time, opponents of military policies tend to highlight instances of suffering under similar circumstances during the Japanese rule. In this way, the colonial experience seems to provide the country’s leadership with new lessons on which policies are best for the country and which ones are not.

Trends in Korea’s democratization process

Today, the Korean nationalism continues to be influenced by colonialism. The influence of the new crop of leaders that were introduced by Japanese colonialists has never fully disappeared from the country’s political landscape. The same case applies to the new wave of political consciousness that swept across the country following the annexation.

Moreover, the way the Japanese military responded to the Korean uprising that was spearheaded by the March First Movement is in many ways related to the way dictatorial post-war regimes responded to calls for democratization in the country. During the March First Movement uprising, Japan quickly realized that its push for colonial rule was outdated and unacceptable to the modern world. The country slowly started preparing South Korea for independence in a distant past. Similarly, during the 1970s and early 1980s, South Korean authoritarian leaders realized that a wave of democratization was sweeping across the world, and that it was a matter of time before democracy became fully entrenched in South Korea. This ultimately happened when the first democratic national elections were held. Just like in the case of the colonial era, calls for wide-reaching political change were spearheaded by moderate and radical left-wing politicians.

The democratization process in South Korea should be viewed against the backdrop of the mix of contrasts between economic progress and political setbacks. It should also be viewed in the context of striking similarities between right-left political antagonism of the colonial era and that of the post-war era. In both cases, left-wing politicians were pushing for far-reaching political changes while right-wing politicians were only willing to allow these changes to happen in a distant future (Moon, 2000). During the colonial era, the most sought-after change was the attainment of the Korean independence. In contrast, post-colonial political agitation was aimed at consolidating democratization in the country.


Many of the political issues that the people of South Korea are confronted with today are related to the country’s history. This paper has assessed the influence of the country’s colonial history and experiences on the contemporary political discourse. The annexation of the country by North Korea forever changed the socioeconomic, political, cultural heritage of the nation of Korea. For centuries, Korea existed as a united nation. Today, the issue of unification with North Korea is a landmark political issue in South Korea. It is evident that that South Korea’s politics will continue being influenced by the country’s colonial history. The greatest influence of this history will be felt in discourse on the democratization process and reunification with North Korea.



Cumings, B. (2005). Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History (Updated). London: WW Norton & Company.

Diamond, L. (2000). Consolidating Democracy in South Korea. Chicago, IL: Chicago University Press.

Dudden, A. (2006). Japan’s colonization of Korea: Discourse and power. London: Heinemann.

Kihl, Y. (2005). Transforming Korean politics: Democracy, reform, and culture. New York: Blackwell Publishing.

Kil, S. (2005). Transforming Korean politics: Democracy, reform, and culture. Boston: Harvard University Press.

Lee, N. (2007). The making of Minjung: Democracy and the politics of representation in South Korea Understanding Korean politics: An introduction. London: Longman.

Levin, N. & Han, Y. (2003). Sunshine in Korea: The South Korean debate over policies toward North Korea. Washington DC: Free Press.

Moon, K. (2000). Strangers in the midst of globalization: Migrant workers and Korean nationalism Korea’s globalization. Princeton: Princeton University Press.

Morris-Suzuki, T. (2009). Refugees, Abductees, ‘Returnees’: Human Rights in Japan-North Korea Relations. Asia Pacific Journal, 2(6), 129-155.

Nak-chung, P. (2005). South Korea: Unification and the Democratic Challenge. London: Routledge.

Oberdorfer, D. (2001). The two Koreas: A contemporary history. New York: Basic Books.

Park, C. (2006). Do Asian Values Deter Popular Support for Democracy in South Korea? Asian Survey, 46(3), 341-361.

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