A Party-Centered Defense of Park Geun-hye’s Election and a Primer on Government-Media Relations

By | December 20, 2012 | No Comments

It is hard to fully appreciate the role of the domestic media in the South Korean political process. After all, how many states can claim that any part of its media is more venerable than the state itself? Steven Denney has been trying to bridge the cognitive gap in this field, focusing on the complex relationship between political parties and their media counterparts.


In the second of many SinoNK video features to come, here he is to explain the basics. What then follows is an excerpt from a recent working paper on the subject written by Steven and SinoNK analyst Brian Gleason, the full version of which is also linked here. Download and disseminate with our full blessing! – Christopher Green, Assistant Editor

A Party-Centered Defense of Park Geun-hye’s Election and a Primer on Government-Media Relations

by Steven Denney

Excerpt, from the conclusion:

What are the implications for a political system with weak political parties and a strong press that represents the ideological “goal posts” in society and fills the role of articulating and debating public policy? Though largely unexplored, because it has been all but uncovered, there appears to be a breakdown in, or absence of, the “public sphere.” If the press is understood as an institution responsible for framing issues and constructing social reality, what are the broader policymaking implications?

There are two views on this issue: 1) If the public sphere, controlled and created by “private” organizations (e.g. the press), represents a forum through which rational debate can occur, then newspapers with highly politicized agendas and a teeth to lips relationship with political parties can been seen as distorting this space. As a consequence, very little policy-debate occurs; 2) Alternatively, the “party-press parallel” can be understood as a boundary-setting mechanism. The conservative media defines one extreme, while the progressive media defines the polar opposite. Rather than hindering public debate, it simply defines the boundaries wherein debate can take place by other means.

Whether a bona fide public sphere exists may not, however, be the principal issue at stake regarding the state of South Korea’s democracy and government-society relations, which even more so than government-media relations, is the most important relationship in a democracy. Though newspapers may effectively communicate the conservative or progressive position on a given issue, the press is not the political body responsible for making policy; that responsibility, despite its lack of institutionalization, still belongs to political parties. And until political parties are able to establish themselves as ideologically differentiated and permanent political bodies, South Korea’s democracy is likely to remain unconsolidated and the government’s responsiveness to the peoples’ collective grievances institutionally hindered. It may so happen that when South Korean political parties become institutionalized (it is best to be optimistic regarding such matters), the role of the press will be forced to change. However, given events surrounding the selection of a candidate for the Democratic United Party (DUP) during the recent presidential election period, it seems that party institutionalization is unlikely to happen anytime soon and the press’ traditional role as ideological goal posts is to remain.

Suggested citation: Steven Denney and Brian Gleason, Strong Press, Contentious Government: A Primer on Post-Transition South Korean Democracy, SinoNK Working Paper, SinoNK [online], December 2012. [click to download pdf]

Further Reading:

Ethan Scheiner, Democracy Without Competition in Japan: Opposition Failure in One-Party Dominant State (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2006), esp. Chapter 9.

So Young Lee, “Regionalism as a Source of Ambivalence in Korea,” Korea Observer 40:4 (Winter 2009): 671-699.

Yusaku Horiuchi and Seungjoo Lee, “The Presidency, Regionalism and Distributive Politics in South Korea,” Comparative Political Studies 41:6 (June 2008): 861-882.

Yoonkyung Lee, “Democracy Without Parties?: Political Parties and Social Movements for Democratic Representation in Korea,” Korea Observer 40:1 (Spring 2009): 27-52.

Yong Cheol Kim and June Woo Kim, “South Korean Democracy in the Digital Age: The Candlelight Protests and the Internet,” Korea Observer 40:1 (2009): 53-83.

Steven Denney, “Personality Politics Stifle Korean Democracy,” Asia Times, October 30, 2012, http://www.atimes.com/atimes/Korea/NJ30Dg01.html.

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