Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye is striving to woo the southwestern regions of Jeolla, the traditional liberal stronghold, pinning hopes on the weakening influence of regional loyalties on political support.
No conservative presidential candidate has won 10 percent of support in Gwangju or North and South Jeolla provinces. But recent polls put her support at around 15 percent after she earned it from a number of big-name politicians hailing from the region and emphasized the former liberal government’s “betrayal” to southwestern voters’ overwhelming support.
“I will carry the scars and tears of Honam and be the president who wipes your tears,” Park said in front of a traditional marketplace in Suncheon, South Jeolla Province, Wednesday, using the colloquial term for the Jeolla region. “With all you from Honam I wish to write a new history.
It was her third visit to the Jeolla regions since launching her campaign.
Park was joined by former political heavyweights in the inner circle of Jeolla’s revered leader Kim Dae-jung, including Kim Gyung-jae, one of the late president’s closest allies who calls Suncheon his hometown. Another close ally, Hahn Hwa-gap, who had earned the nickname “Little DJ” announced his support for Park but did not show up at the scheduled campaign stop in Mokpo, the political hometown of Kim Dae-jung.
|Saenuri Party presidential candidate Park Geun-hye addresses the crowd during a campaign rally in Yeosu, South Jeolla Province, Wednesday. (Yonhap News)|
Park highlighted her pledges to turn Gwangju into an international tourist city and to also employ people solely on the basis of merits without regards for their place of origin. She also promised to connect Suncheon and Busan with high-speed railways.
The campaign rhetoric turned on the past failures of former President Roh Moo-hyun to repay the debt owed to the Jeolla region for the overwhelming support he received in the 2002 presidential election. Despite hailing from South Gyeongsang Province, Roh earned 93.3 percent and 91.5 percent of the votes in South and North Jeolla provinces, respectively, in the 2002 election.
“Someone by the name of Roh something played jokes with the affairs of the state and discriminated against Honam,” Kim said in a support speech he gave from a campaign truck at a traditional marketplace in Suncheon, 20 minutes before Park was to show up.
In addressing the candidacy of Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, who had served as presidential chief of staff to Roh and who also hails from South Gyeongsang Province, Kim said that “it would be quite shameful if Honam gave 90 percent support to Moon.”
Park has for long carefully cultivated support from the Jeolla region. In 2004, she paid a visit to Kim Dae-jung and apologized on behalf of her father.
“It felt as if Park Chung-hee had come alive and offered me a handshake of reconciliation,” Kim had recalled of Park’s visit. “I asked her to lead the efforts to diffuse regionalism and to lead the efforts to unite the people.”
But for many of the bystanders, her 15-minute campaign stops appeared to do little to heal the festering wounds. Beyond the rally site, people lining the streets seemed unfazed.
When asked who they would vote for the in the upcoming election, several marketplace merchants waved off the question. One woman who sold fish and oysters at South Gwangju Market, where Park made her appearance, said she would vote for Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party.
Many turned a cold shoulder to Kim Gyung-jae when he denounced the former Roh Moo-hyun administration for discriminating against the Jeolla region while failing to provide specific instances.
In past presidential elections, the Jeolla region has overwhelmingly favored Kim Dae-jung and candidates from the liberal Democratic United Party, which has changed its name several times. The overwhelming support stems from the sense of alienation and discrimination at the uneven regional development.
During the period of compressed industrialization of former President Park Chung-hee in the ’60s and ’70s, the Gyeongsang region emerged as the industrial heartland of South Korea due to its proximity to Japan and the sea routes to the Pacific Ocean, while the Jeolla region, with had been the agricultural engine of the peninsula for hundreds of years owing to its fertile soil, comparatively lagged behind in development.
The repercussions of the uneven development are acutely felt today. According to the National Statistics Office, North and South Gyeongsang provinces accounted for 13.5 percent of the nation’s total gross domestic product in 2007, while North and South Jeolla provinces accounted for just 7.7 percent.
Ironically, the lowest per-capita regional GDP was shared by the representative metropolitan city in each region. The per-capita regional GDP of Daegu in Gyeongsang, the hometown of late President Park, was 13 million won ($120,000) and that of Gwangju in Jeolla, the political home base of late President Kim, was 14.7 million won.
The deep-seated loyalty of the Jeolla region to the Democratic United Party stems from its identification with Kim Dae-jung and the personal hardships he incurred under the successive military regimes whose roots lay in the Gyeongsang region.
In the 1963 presidential election, the support Park Chung-hee received from Jeolla region was crucial to his slim victory over Yun Bo-sun, whose spokesman was Kim Dae-jung. But as Kim emerged in the limelight as the leader of the democracy movement against the ironfisted rule of Park, the Jeolla region’s identification with Kim grew.
In 1973, Kim was kidnapped from a hotel in Tokyo by agents from the Korean Central Intelligence Agency and was nearly thrown into the sea with weights attached to his ankle. Because only a president would have the power to authorize such risky operations in foreign territory, many scholars have argued that President Park was behind the assassination attempt.
In 1980, the May 18 Democracy Movement resulted in paratroopers beating and gunning down hundreds of Gwangju citizens, and Kim was subsequently sentenced to death under the reign of President Chun Doo-hwan. He was later set free, but was forced to flee to the U.S. in 1982.
By Samuel Songhoon Lee (firstname.lastname@example.org)