Written by Lorenzo Costantini
Since the late 1980s, with the launch of free and fair elections and the reinstatement of a functioning parliament, South Korea has developed into a full-fledged stable democracy. The country’s president, elected for a five-year term, carries out many major functions and is the official head of state, commander of the armed forces and the highest representative in foreign relations. In December 2012, Park Geun-Hye became the first female to be elected president of the country. She is the daughter of General Park Chung-hee, who ruled South Korea for almost two decades after coming to power after a military coup in 1961. Park has apologised for the human-rights violations which occurred under her father’s regime.
Most of the 300 seats in South Korea’s single chamber are assigned to two big parties which together dominate the political landscape: the conservative Saenuri (New Frontier Party) and the centre-left New Politics Alliance for Democracy (NPAD). Following Park’s successful election to the presidency her Saenuri party initially did quite well, achieving good results in successive elections held in June and July 2014. In the parliament however it holds only a small majority, with 158 of 300 seats. The main opposition NDAP meanwhile holds just 130 seats, much fewer than it was expected to gain.
Park’s Saenuri-backed government is concentrating efforts on an economic development plan called ‘474 Vision’, which it hopes will help it to achieve its three main objectives:: raising GDP growth to 4.0%, increasing the employment rate to 70% and boosting annual per capita income to US $40 000. The strategy is also targeted at smaller, private companies in order to reduce the excessive economic influence of family-controlled conglomerates (such as Hyundai or Samsung), but has been criticised for being too ambitious and lacking focus.
In April 2014, more than 300 people died in a ferry sinking – a tragedy which affected the entire nation. Public authorities were harshly criticised for their inefficiency and mistakes in the aftermath of the catastrophe. In response, Park created two new ministries in order to improve disaster prevention and control. However, the disaster has taken its toll on the president’s popularity. Concerning relations with North Korea, in March 2014 Park gave an important pro-reunification speech in Dresden as part of her ‘Trustpolitik’. Nevertheless, South Korea is concerned about recent nuclear tests and cyber-attacks conducted by its neighbour.
South Korea is also a proactive participant in the activities of well-established organisations in the Asia-Pacific region. It takes part in the ASEAN (Association of Southeast Asian Nations) Plus Three cooperation process alongside China and Japan, with a project for a Regional Comprehensive Economic Partnership (RCEP) which could lead to the creation of a trading bloc encompassing half of the global market. Today ASEAN is already South Korea’s second largest trading partner after China, while South Korea represents ASEAN’s third biggest investment destination. At the 10th ASEM (Asia-Europe Meeting), a forum for dialogue and cooperation between European and Asian countries held in October 2014, President Park presented her ambitious Eurasia initiative. Dubbed the ‘new Silk Road’ project, and stretching across Russia, China and Central Asia to Europe (‘from Busan to London’), it aims to create a huge transport network encompassing both rail and road,, as well as increasing trade and developing new energy infrastructure.
South Korea’s economic success is also fuelled by its popular culture having spread widely across Asia since the early 2000s. The phenomenon, known as the ‘Korean wave’, has contributed to establishing South Korea’s soft power in the region, but has also boosted foreign investment and tourist inflows to the country.