election of Lee Myung Bak as president of South Korea echoes a new era of hope for the survival of democracy in that often troubled country. Lee, a member of the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) easily defeated his opponent Chung Dong Young who is a member of the progressive party that had been in power in South Korea since the late 1990's. The size of Lee's victory in the popular vote was significant in itself but the fact that his party and other conservative parties were able to easily dominate the National Assembly elections as well affords Lee the opportunity to push through his party's agenda on the national stage.
What impact Lee may have on the continued development of democracy in South Korea remains to be seen but, in a nation where democratic principles have not always been well supported, the country's movement back to the right is highly significant. The movement is significant because it marks a smooth transition from one political ideology to another without violence or disruption in governmental services. Such a transition is essential for the perpetuation of a democracy and, with a radical transition from a progressive to a conservative platform, South Korea's government has withstood a severe test.
Democracy in South Korea is still a relatively young institution and the past twenty plus years have been marked by student and worker demonstrations. These activities have served to create the impression that the future of democracy in South Korea may be in jeopardy but the election of Lee and the smooth transition accompanying his assumption of power have served to minimize this concern. Democratization of South Korean society has been a difficult process due to the deeply ingrained authoritarian spirit that has existed in Korean culture for centuries. The authoritarian spirit is still strong in neighboring North Korea and the South Korean democracy has had to battle party bosses and the rampant corruption that had characterized South Korean politics prior to the formation of the present governmental system.
South Korea's relationship with the United States has been a strong one since the early 1950's. In South Korea's battle to remain independent from the North Korean regime, South Korea was heavily dependent on the military and financial support of the United States. Too often this reliance and America's support has been interpreted by many South Koreans as being a form of United States' control and there has been an attempt by many factions within South Korea to maintain some semblance of separation between the two nations. This feeling is particularly strong among those in their twenties and among college students and has been the source of heavy protests against the United States within South Korea (Shin, 1996).
This rise in anti-American feelings was credited with the rise of progressivism in South Korea and the election of the Roh Moo Hyun government that preceded Lee's administration. Many experts viewed Hyun's election as a reflection that South Korean society would be pulling away from United States' influence. This possibility concerned many of the older generation within South Korea who believed that such a movement was naive, inexperienced and unrealistic. Such generation believed that the support of the United States was a necessary ingredient for South Korea to maintain not only its national security but also a key to its being able to sustain its economy (Lee, 2004). Interestingly, the expected pulling away did not occur during the Hyun administration despite threats that it might occur. The Hyun administration experienced a series of internal problems, including an impeachment, which minimized its effectiveness, and resulted in few changes in the relationship between the United States and South Korea and, with the election of Lee, the issue of South Korean independence from American influence should be quieted, at least for a while.
Lee's election signals a change in the national attitudes of the South Korean people. The focus in the 2007 national elections changed from concerns regarding nationalism, ideology and democratization shifted toward more pragmatic issues. In the 2007 election, the South Korean electorate was concerned with the state of the economy, creating more jobs, and income disparity. Discussions regarding anti-Americanism were virtually non-existent.