In This Article Expand or collapse the "in this article" section Politics of South Korea

  • Introduction
  • General Overviews
  • Journals
  • Biographies and Memoirs of South Korean Presidents
  • Data Sources
  • The Genesis of the Republic of Korea
  • The Korean War
  • Authoritarian Rule
  • Contemporary Political Processes and Institutions
  • Foreign Relations
  • ROK Alliance with the United States

Political Science Politics of South Korea
Victor Cha, Ji-Young Lee
  • LAST REVIEWED: 24 July 2013
  • LAST MODIFIED: 24 July 2013
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780199756223-0110


The Republic of Korea (ROK) or South Korea today is a vibrant democracy, a republic with powers shared between the executive, the legislature, and the judiciary. South Korea’s transition to democracy in 1987 has been described as a long journey through periods of authoritarian rule. To understand the politics of South Korea, it is helpful to keep in mind the following four themes: (1) the question of unification with North Korea, (2) rapid economic development, (3) democratization, and (4) the alliance with the United States. Since the establishment of the Republic of Korea in 1948, how South Koreans view North Korea has been a big factor in South Korean politics. During the Cold War, the authoritarian leaders often used the rivalry with communist North Korea as a means to weaken the opposition against their rule. In the post–Cold War era, Korean nationalism expanded to include the embracing of North Koreans as “brothers” particularly during the presidencies of Kim Dae-Jung and Roh Moo-Hyun. South Korea’s developmental experience between 1962 and 1979 under the Park Chung-Hee government left important legacies that are controversial to this day. On the one hand, South Korea joined the ranks of the “Asian tigers” and became a member state of the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) due to the success of Park’s government-led, strong-state industrialization strategy. On the other hand, Park’s nineteen-year dictatorship meant South Korea’s “political backwardness” despite rapid economic development. The Park regime’s maintenance of the cozy tripartite relationships among government, banks, and big businesses has been seen as partly responsible for the 1997 South Korean currency crisis. The breakdown of the military’s authoritarian rule under Chun Doo-Hwan and South Korea’s subsequent transition to democracy in 1987 opened the room for direct presidential elections, civilian control over the military, and the growth of civil society. The mass movement of university students, intellectuals, an emerging consumer middle class, and other civil society groups was the driving force behind South Korean democratization. Finally, the United States has played an extensive role especially during the early years of South Korean political developments ranging from national security, institution building, economic development, to democratization. America’s prominence in Korea’s phenomenal successes became intertwined with resistance among progressive elements of Korea to Washington’s dominance in its internal and external policies. The open and almost completely unregulated expression of views in South Korea can be seen as a proof of active civil society in a democratized South Korea.

General Overviews

The best works that provide general overviews of South Korean politics can be found in books that address the modern history of the two Koreas. Oberdorfer 2001, Cumings 2005, and Robinson 2007 approach South Korean politics in view of the intertwined relationship between South and North Korean politics and foreign relations. They address some of the most important shared historical experiences such as the Japanese colonialism, the occupation, the division, the Korean War, and the Cold War in general to highlight the origins of South Korean politics. Oberdorfer 2001 in particular does a great job of recounting South Korean domestic politics in conjunction with inter-Korean relations and its relations with the United States. Of the books published on the topic of South Korean politics, Diamond and Kim 2000, and Oh 1999 make the best introductory textbooks for undergraduate courses. Khil 1984 helps understand the basics for the political systems of the two Koreas. Yang 1999 is a comprehensive study of the politics and foreign policy of South Korea, written by a scholar and former ROK ambassador to the United States. Kil and Moon 2001 is a good introduction to South Korean politics that covers major themes including culture, history, institutions, actors, democratization, political economy, and foreign policy.

  • Cumings, Bruce. Korea’s Place in the Sun: A Modern History. New York: Norton, 2005.

    A historical overview of Korean politics intended for a general readership. But Cumings’s use of extensive English and Korean archives make the read useful to scholars as well.

  • Diamond, Larry, and Byung-Kook Kim. Consolidating Democracy in South Korea. Boulder, CO: Lynne Rienner, 2000.

    Provides a social science overview of various aspects of the South Korean political system on the theme of democratic consolidation. The chapters include discussions on party politics, civil society, labor issues, economic development, and electoral politics provided by leading Korea scholars.

  • Khil, Young Whan. Politics and Policies in Divided Korea: Regimes in Conflict. Boulder, CO, and London: Westview, 1984.

    Offers a general overview of the South Korean political system until the early 1980s juxtaposed with the North Korean system in a comparative manner. Useful for grasping a basic background of how the two countries have developed distinctively different political systems.

  • Kil, Soong-hoom, and Chung-in Moon. Understanding Korean Politics: An Introduction. Albany: State University of New York Press, 2001.

    An edited volume that offers a comprehensive overview of South Korean politics. A total of nine chapters discuss political culture and history, institutions, leadership, democratization, political economy, and foreign and unification policies. Can be used as a textbook for undergraduate and graduate courses on Korean politics.

  • Oberdorfer, Don. The Two Koreas: A Contemporary History. New York: Basic Books, 2001.

    A detailed journalistic account on Korean politics. Drawn from some of Oberdorfer’s own reporting in the region (a former Washington Post correspondent in Asia) and with numerous interviews with high-level officials who were directly involved in important critical junctures. Entertaining for the general reader, but also with interesting empirical evidence for the scholar.

  • Oh, John Kie-chiang. Korean Politics: The Quest for Democratization and Economic Development. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1999.

    Provides a good overview of the evolution of South Korean politics chronologically. Uses the lens of the interplay between democratization and economic development. The chapters are a little dense but can be useful for the undergraduate classroom as they pinpoint major themes. Informative and well-organized.

  • Robinson, Michael. Korea’s Twentieth-Century Odyssey: A Short History. Honolulu: University of Hawaii Press, 2007.

    A comprehensive overview of Korea’s modern political history. Offers a very balanced historical interpretation of events and therefore can be used as a college textbook.

  • Yang, Sung-chul. The North and South Korean Political Systems: A Comparative Analysis. Elizabeth, NJ: Hollym, 1999.

    Written by a Kyunghee University professor and former South Korean ambassador to the United States during the Kim Dae-jung presidency, this voluminous work provides a detailed political history of the two systems. Its scope is encyclopedic.

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