Curse of Korea’s Regionalism
Korea Times Columnist
Like many things in society, ``regionalism" is a two-edged sword: It gives each region its own unique brand and recognition that can be, and often is, used for its own fame and prosperity.
It is the dream of all locals and provincials to be well known for something that can become a landmark and quick reference.
The Leaning Tower of Pisa of Italy, Mount Rushmore of the United States, and Ansung, Jinju, Cheonan, Sogwipo and many other places in Korea may be examples of local fame and well-known references. If an aphorism referring to a locale like "Ansung-machoom" (fit like Ansung) is well known or famous, and songs are attributed to their regions, such as "Jinju-ra Cholli-gil," "Cheonan-Samgeo-ri" and "Sogwipo-Chilship-ni," it's their local dream come true.
Just now Korea is plagued more by the other side of the double-edged sword than the positive side of fame and fortune with the region. It is the localism, cronyism, nepotism, factionalism and corruption, all mutually-enforcing and variously-connected, that are characteristic of a Korean fixation with regions, not tourist landmarks or easy geographic recognitions.
One of the ironies of the Korean peninsula, and indeed one of the lesser known inner conflicts in Korea that is felt daily, is that the division on the Korean peninsula is not so much that between North Korea and South Korea as that between east and west.
Unfortunately divided by a mountain range between the two regions, South Korea has more animosity between the eastern section of Korea and the western section, the Seoul region being evenly split and often becoming the tie-breaker in elections, than between North and South.
Consider these facts recently made public about regionalism: Of the 1,475 government officials of Grade 4 or higher in all 14 regions and special cities and provinces, excluding Seoul and Gyeonggido, over 80 percent of them graduated from their local high schools and have maintained their exclusive local ties ever since their bureaucratic careers began, many of them in the 1990s.
Of those, Jeollanam-do, including its special city Gwangju, close to 100 percent of its Grade 4 or higher officials are graduates of local high schools. Unlike Seoul, where the rate is 36 percent, meaning 74 percent of those officials are from somewhere else, these region-based officials grow up with and maintain their regional connections in the manner of feudalism, as a professor observed, ``that paves the way for secretive 'star-chamber-style' administration and personnel selection open only to the locals and provincials, making them totally inapt in global perspective and competition."
This is also the result, and cause, of bad regionalism whose animosity and antagonism toward other areas characterize elections of the worst localism: each region voting almost exclusively for its favorite sons. It is so bad that one of Seoul's editorialists is even thinking about the American-style federalism to save Korea from the disease of its regionalism.
"It's a terrifying prospect," the editorial writer says, that a region casts 70-90 percent of its votes for a favorite-son candidate. The sense of distrust and victimization mentality toward outsiders is almost like an incurable cancer.
It is public knowledge, but hushed up like a national secret, that if we know someone's region of origin, we can correctly guess his political views. Equally recognized but hushed up is the fact that this regional determinism is true not only in politics, but also in all varieties of conflict involving economics, society and culture.
Three presidential elections ago, to illustrate this regional determinism most dramatically, 95 percent of eastern votes went to a candidate from the eastern provinces, while 95 percent of western votes went to a candidate from the western provinces in which Kim Dae-jung won in a razor-thin margin.
In the election following that, 95 percent of western votes went to Roh Moo-hyun while 75 percent of eastern votes went to the eastern candidate. Roh hailed from an eastern province but represented the party based in a western province, hence the 30-percent crossover votes. In the last election, two candidates from east and west, respectively, did as expected with their base regions going to their own candidates.
Many honest attempts made during the Roh administration to weaken the factionalism generated by regional distinctions failed. Even today, regional origins are so important that Cabinet and other government appointments must consider the birthplace of the candidates first to satisfy the regionalism-first demand.
Below the regional imperatives stand other restrictive circles like high school and college associations, religious affiliations, and other exclusive memberships that must also be considered.
In all these conflicting demands, the least recognizable are the ideological and policy implications represented by the candidate. To his credit, the late President Roh tried to go with the political-ideological factor in choosing his officials in order to override the regional imperative, calling it a ``code appointment," but ended up merely promoting political comrade-ism and dogmatism.
Regionalism in Korea is deeply rooted in its ancient enclaves fortified by immobility and clansmanship. Koreans tend to prefer those candidates with whom they can make some personalized connections: They would want to know what region the candidate is from; what school he went to; under whose well-recognized tutelage he served in apprenticeship, and so on, before they ask about his political or ideological views.
In common with most other tribal societies, Koreans rarely choose an ``outsider-stranger-candidate," the one with whom they cannot make any private connections, only because he is from Harvard or is a known policy genius. The present government created a sensation recently by appointing a German-born Korean citizen to head the state tourism agency.
In the United States, by contrast, an average American moves once every four years, moving being defined as crossing the county line. Although the favorite-son concept does exist, especially in the south where mobility is less obvious, America's constant mobility makes feudalistic regionalism difficult to be maintained, certainly not to the level of 70-90 percent.
In our recent memory stands the humiliation of presidential candidate Al Gore who could not carry his own home state Tennessee. This would be unthinkable in Korea.
Ancient regionalism, just like virulent nationalism, is considered an anathema to internationalism and global citizenship, to which Korea ardently aspires. Good nations work to reduce regional differences and particularistic animosities. It is one of the lasting sources of shame for many Koreans who lament that in this age of high-tech communication and world free trade, Korea should be so regionally fixated. Its task in this regard is enormous: how to overcome regional fixation while maintaining, even promoting, regional distinctions for their local fame and economic fortune.
The writer can be reached at email@example.com