Saenuri's rebrand a victory of
sorts By Aidan Foster-Carter
Here's a paradox. North Korea is furtive
and opaque, South Korea vibrant and transparent.
Yet my sense - and a quick bit of counting - is
that this newspaper's excellent Korea page tends
to contain more articles about the former than the
latter. I wonder why that should be?
that I suspect any conspiracy; far from it. My
guess is, it's just market forces. The Korea that
pundits choose to write about, and the one that
whets the general reader's appetite, tends to be
the enigmatic (not to say nasty) North more than
the dynamic and virtuous South.
means, we must try to read the muddy tea-leaves in
Pyongyang. (And none better than Andrei Lankov to
do so, as in several typically brilliant articles
in these columns of late.)
much of interest goes on the other side of the
Demilitarized Zone (DMZ)
as well - and in plain sight too, with nothing to
hide, unlike the murk of the North. It would be a
shame if people miss out on this, or don't care.
Not least because South Korea is ultimately a far
more engaging and important place in all kinds of
ways, almost all of them positive.
what is North Korea but a bloody nuisance? I chose
my words carefully, and wrote them even before
Pyongyang's latest mad rant: threatening to rain
artillery shells on most of Seoul's media, and
even giving the latitude and longitude coordinates
to show they mean it. Only they got the numbers
wrong, as Evan Ramstad points out at the Wall
Street Journal .
again So let's redress the inter-Korean
balance. On April 3, I wrote here about South
Korea's then upcoming parliamentary election. 
The new National Assembly, elected on
April 11, began its four-year term on May 30. The
first actual plenary session had been set for June
5, but it didn't happen due to a boycott by the
main opposition liberal Democratic United Party
(DUP) - which can't agree with the ruling
conservative Saenuri party which of them should
chair which parliamentary committees.
Yogi Berra would say, this is deja vu all over
again. The same thing happened four years ago at
the start of the last parliament. In 2008, it took
three months before an agreement was reached and
the assembly could actually assemble to do what it
is paid to do. South Korean electors and
tax-payers will take a dim view if anything like
that happens again this time.
So while the
parties are sparring, let's catch up on an
eventful two months since last I wrote. This
article looks mainly at the election results. I
will bring the story up to date in a second
Pundit goof shock: the right
holds on First, a confession. Like most
everyone else, I called April's election wrong.
With President Lee Myung-bak well past his sell-by
date, and unloved for many reasons - Don Kirk
wrote on this web site about one such beef, pun
intended  - it looked a sure thing that his
ruling conservative party (formerly the Grand
National Party or GNP, but recently rebranded as
Saenuri, meaning new frontier) would lose its slim
That in turn would add to Lee's
woes, as he counts the weeks until his tenure is
up. He has under nine months left now, and in
practice it's less still. By law, he can't run
again, and his successor, who'll be elected on
December 19, will in effect call the shots from
that day on - even though they won't formally take
office till two months later, on February 25,
That's what Lee himself did in early
2008. His bossy transition team strewed new
initiatives like confetti, putting the wind up
everyone. Voters who had elected Lee by a
landslide began to have second thoughts.
Parliamentary elections are on a four-year cycle,
whereas the president serves five years; so last
time around the two elections happened in the
opposite order. In April 2008's parliamentary
elections the GNP gained a majority, but by no
means as resounding as the one that had swept Lee
Myung-bak into the Blue House less than five
But back to this April.
Like I said, we all got it wrong. When the dust
cleared and the votes were all counted, miracle of
miracles - against all predictions, Saenuri still
had a majority, if a narrow one. It ended up with
152 seats in the 300-member assembly, to the DUP's
Not many MPs A word about
the system. The Republic of Korea (ROK) gets by
with fewer lawmakers than most countries. It is
unicameral, meaning a single chamber rather than
two as in the United States, Britain, Japan,
France and numerous other countries. Fifty million
South Koreans are represented by just 300 members
of parliament (MPs): less than half as many as in
my own country, the UK, which has only a slightly
larger population (60 million). For that matter, a
mere 24 million North Koreans have no fewer than
687 pretend-lawmakers, who turn up for one day a
year to say: Yes, Leader!
In the UK, every
MP represents a geographical constituency. So do
most (246) South Korean MPs, but not all. Voters
tick two boxes: one for an individual candidate in
their constituency, the other for a party. The
latter votes are counted on a nationwide basis,
and the remaining 54 Assembly seats are allocated
proportionally to the aggregate vote each party
Thus Saenuri's 152 seats - 15 fewer
than it had before - comprise 127 constituencies
plus 25 from the national vote. The DUP won 106
constituencies and 21 on the PR list. Its total of
127 seats was a gain of 46 on the 81 it had
before. A good result, but quite not good enough.
Two smaller parties experienced
contrasting outcomes. The hard-left Unified
Progressive Party (UPP), with whom the DUP had an
electoral pact, won 13 seats (7 + 6), up from
five. By contrast, the right-wing Liberty Forward
Party (LFP) was reduced from 18 to five (3 + 2).
The same fate befell independents: there were 25
formerly, but only three in the new assembly.
First-past-the-post misleads As
often, a first-past-the-post voting system didn't
accurately convey the strength of public support
for different parties, especially smaller ones.
For the two main parties it did work pretty well.
Nationwide, Saenuri got 9.3 million votes to the
DUP's 7.8 million, or 42.8% and 36.5% of the
electorate respectively: quite similar to their
tally of seats (152 to 127).
But the UPP
might feel hard done by. Nationwide, one in 10
South Koreans (10.3%) voted for the hard left.
That's a remarkable fact, even if many now regret
their choice as the UPP turns out to be corrupt
and is imploding: a sorry, sordid tale for another
time. Under a fully PR or transferable vote
system, the UPP might have gained as many as 30
seats rather than 13. And the LFP, with 690,000
national votes (3.2%), would have 10, not just
Moreover, as the left-leaning Seoul
daily Hankyoreh noted in an interesting
micro-analysis - four more tiny left-wing parties,
such as the Greens, got no MPs but together took
2.4% of the vote.  So what? So a lot. The
article was headlined: "December presidential
election up in the air". Totting up all the party
votes, including assorted small fry - those on the
right, including the breakaway K Party, won no
seats but gained a sizeable 4.8% of the vote - and
the left-right race overall was very close:
Conservatives had 50.87% to progressives' 49.13.
Saenuri may have clung on this time, but in the
presidential race they cannot be complacent.
The east is red, if you
insist Indeed, what Saenuri needs to do now
is clear from the geography. In a word: they need
to raise their game in Seoul. Any map of the
election results - Wikipedia has an excellent one
- is very striking, even though it uses the
bizarrely counter-intuitive US political
color-coding.  (Since when were conservatives
Reds? But to be fair, Saenuri recently adopted red
as its own color.)
On this basis, in South
Korea the east is red. A solid two-thirds of the
country - by area, if not population - voted
Saenuri; whereas in the western third far fewer
did. To no surprise, in the conservatives'
traditional heartland, the populous southeastern
Gyeongsang provinces, Saenuri took 64 out of 67
First-past-the-post played its part
here too: the DUP won 40% of the vote in Busan,
South Korea's second city and major port - yet
this yielded only two seats. Meanwhile Saenuri had
a clean sweep in the thinly populated mountainous
Gangwon province in the northeast, which had
mostly voted liberal last time.
Conversely, as ever the traditionally
oppositional Jeolla provinces in the southwest
voted solidly left of center: mainly for the DUP
(28 seats), plus three UPP and two independents.
With the southwest and southeast
essentially fixed in their loyalties, elections
are won or lost in the northern half of South
Korea. Besides Gangwon, which has only nine seats,
this means two main areas. One is greater Seoul -
the capital and surrounding Gyeonggi province,
which together are home to no less than 40% of the
population. The other is Chungcheong, a pair of
provinces to the south of Seoul and north of
Jeolla (you could say Korea's mid-west).
Greater Seoul boosts the
opposition Chungcheong had been the LFP's
base, but the latter now looks a spent force with
only three seats against 12 to Saenuri and 10 for
the DUP. Gyeonggi, including the port city of
Incheon, with a weighty 64 seats saw the DUP
defeat Saenuri by 35 to 27; the UPP won two.
Only in Seoul did the opposition triumph
resoundingly, by 30 seats to 16 and two for the
UPP. Even here there was a north-south divide, as
a breakout map on the same Wikipedia page shows.
The wealthy Gangnam district - the name means
south of the river (Han) - predictably voted
conservative, while the rest of the capital city
mostly returned progressive candidates.
Barely half (54.3%) of the electorate
actually voted. Although up from 8.2% last time,
this was fewer than expected or than the DUP
hoped. It looks as if younger voters, who tend to
support the left but are less reliable at turning
out to vote, stayed away or just enjoyed the
Conversely, the DUP's
strong showing in Seoul might in part be because
according to one exit poll - there are obviously
no official data - a higher proportion of the 20s
and 30s age cohorts cast their votes in the
capital than elsewhere in the country.
how did Saenuri pull off this surprise victory?
And what does it portend for the big one,
December's presidential election? That will be the
subject of another article. Don't go away!
Aidan Foster-Carter is honorary
senior research fellow in sociology and modern
Korea at Leeds University, and a freelance
consultant, writer and broadcaster on Korean
affairs. He has visited South Korea some 25 times
in the past 30 years, starting in 1982.