The Korea Herald


[Us and Them] Why does Korea have such a deep political divide?

Historical, ideological, generational and digital factors play role in division, experts say

By Shin Ji-hye

Published : Nov. 8, 2021 - 15:18

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Political conflict in South Korea reaches sharp and sometimes violent extremes, with politicians on either side of the aisle accusing each other of “ruining” the country and bringing unrecoverable disaster.

The left-right clash often reaches down to the individual level, with families and friends divided, and branding each other naive.

Korea’s short history of democracy and how it has shaped personal experiences are a source of tension between generations. But some experts say some factors, such as the legacy of the Cold War and social media, make the conflict appear bigger than it is.

“First of all, Korea fundamentally has a short history of fully experiencing democracy and thus is still unaccustomed to coordinating opinions through conversation,” said Eom Kyeong-young, head of private research center Zeitgeist Institute.

It has been less than 35 years since the June uprising brought democracy to Korea in 1987. And local politicians are used to framing issues as all-or-nothing power struggles rather than seeking compromise, mediation or persuasion, he said.

Conservatives and progressives clash in all democracies, but it is particularly acute in Korea.

According to a Pew Research Center poll released last month, Korea -- along with the US -- ranked first in political conflict among 17 developed countries. It also topped the list in a June survey of 28 countries by King’s College London.

A local government survey in 2019 revealed that Koreans viewed political affiliation as the source of the most severe social conflict -- above class, gender, ethnicity and wealth. Another poll by the Seoul Institute in April showed Seoulites chose political friction as the most serious source of conflict.

Contrasting historical perspectives are one reason the divide is so sharp. Korea has experienced drastic changes over the past century -- from Japanese colonization and the Korean War to democratization, industrialization and digitalization. Such rapid changes led to political conflicts between people with different personal experiences.

Seniors remember the days of colonization and the Korean War, and former President Park Chung-hee, who helped rebuild the nation. Middle-aged people see Park in the context of his dictatorship, and have shared experiences of protesting against another authoritarian former president, Chun Doo-hwan, and participating in the democratization movement.

“Political conflicts usually occur between those age groups,” Eom said.

Younger Koreans are more unrestrained in their political identities. Although younger generations traditionally tend to be progressive, many voted for conservatives in last year’s by-elections.

Eom believes that as more young people participate in politics over time, political tension will gradually ease.

Surveys show the divide in a clear split across generations.

A 2020 survey by the Korea Institute of Public Administration showed that those aged 60 and above showed 33.3 percent identify as neutral and 41.95 as quite conservative. For those aged between 40 and 59, the figures are 49.9 percent neutral and 24.4 percent quite liberal.

But this also reveals that the overwhelming majority see themselves as moderates.

So why are conflicts so severe, when a third to a half of respondents in the relevant age groups identify as politically neutral?

Ryu Seok-jin, a professor at Sogang University’s Graduate School of Public Policy questioned whether fighting for progressive and conservative causes is the real agenda.

“I don’t think so,” he said.

“Under the names of progressives and conservatives, they chant to get to achieve what they want -- whether it is the privileges they are enjoying now or something they want to change.

“And politicians take advantage (of the situation) as if they are trying to realize universal values.”

In this situation, political identities become labels that denote a side of an argument, rather than ideology -- and a convenient way to attack opponents.

Some Koreans call left-wingers “ppalgaengi,” a word that began as a term for communists, while others use the term “sugukkoltong” to disparage conservatives.

“(This) can still appeal to the public because Korea still lives in the legacy of the Cold War, is at war and is a divided country (along the DMZ),” Ryu said.

Online communities and social media also play a role in making tension appear bigger than it is, according to professor Yun Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University’s political science department.

“Even though various surveys show 35-40 percent of Koreans tend to be politically neutral, the online venue makes you think that most Koreans are either extremely progressive or conservatives. This is because a few extreme people are vocal and dominant in social media or news comments,” he said.

“Online, people see only what they want to see. They seek and read the information that reinforces their belief, leading to an echo-chamber effect,” he said.

The effect refers to situations in which participants in online discussions find their opinions constantly echoed back, reinforcing their belief system due to the declining exposure to others’ views.

“This makes one excessive voice bigger and bigger,” Yun said. “The more information you get from social media, the more likely you are to have more extreme thoughts. People who read articles on Naver rarely use Daum and vice versa,” Yun said.

Conservative-leaning Koreans tend to consume news articles mainly on the Naver news platform while progressive-leaning ones disproportionally use Daum.

Lee Chang-keun, a professor at Yonsei University, said in a book titled “Opinion Polarization in Korea: Patterns and Mechanisms” that social media users are more active in political participation in real life.

People who used social media were more likely to participate in the 2016 candlelight demonstrations, although the protest was not carried out only by the progressive camp, Lee said. This also is the same for conservative people aged 60 and older. They tend to participate in more extreme protest activities such as taegeukgi rallies.

“The reason public opinion and politics in Korea seem to be very divided is due to the active public opinion formation activities and the political participation of people with extreme ideological tendencies rather than the actual polarization of ideological preferences,” Lee said.

The concept of “us” is a strong force in Korean culture, and to be counted as “one of us” in any group comes with privileges big and small within its boundaries. However, for those who fall outside the boundaries of “normal,” life in Korea is riddled with hurdles and sometimes open hatred. In a series of articles, we take a closer look at the biases that exist in Korea, and the lives of those branded as “them” by mainstream society. -- Ed.