In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea

The forthcoming article “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Koreaby Ji Yeon Hong, Sunkyoung Park, and Hyunjoo Yang is summarized by the authors below. 

A common perception of democratization is that it is a fresh start for a country’s politics. Nonetheless, an increasing volume of scholarly work has shown that democratization is not as fresh a start as is often assumed. Authoritarian legacies prevail and persist in many places, sometimes long after democratic consolidation. So, why do citizens support authoritarian successor parties or politicians with a direct connection to a country’s authoritarian past? In this paper, we show that large-scale distributive policies implemented under dictatorships may have persistent effects that linger long after democratization.  

We draw evidence from the New Village Movement (Saemaul Undong in Korean) that took place in South Korea in the 1970s. It was a nationwide rural development program that was initiated and implemented by then-dictator Park Chung-hee. We analyze government subsidies to villages under this program and regional voting patterns in recent elections, finding that the program has had a long-term effect on election outcomes. In a highly polarized election in 2012, Park Chung-hee’s daughter, Park Geun-hye, was democratically elected president. Villagers who benefitted from greater government subsidies in the 1970s were more likely to vote for Park Geun-hye in the election. 

Our further analysis of the mechanisms behind this effect reveal that the beneficiary voters did not support the dictator’s daughter because the program benefited them in the long run, either economically or non-economically. Using night-time satellite imagery as a proxy for economic activity, we find that villages that received greater subsidies actually have less economic activity today. In addition, the level of social capital in these villages does not differ from that of other rural villages. Instead, our analysis shows that the beneficiary villagers have a strong psychological affinity for the former dictator. Their support for him has not wavered despite several decades having passed since his regime. 

Our study sheds new light on the potential long-term effects of distributive policies under authoritarianism. Authoritarian leaders have considerable discretion in the distribution of economic resources. Often, their distributive programs target groups that are less privileged in terms of region, ethnicity, or class in the hopes of gaining their political support. Although democratization grants political rights to all citizens, these marginalized groups may experience economic and social disadvantages in a new democracy, and this has been the case for most rural residents of South Korea. These voters may thus show strong support for a former dictator who implemented a distributive policy that favored them, and in turn for a political party or politician that inherits the dictator’s legacy. 

About the Authors: Ji Yeon Hong is an Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Michigan, Sunkyoung Park is an Associate Professor of Political Science at Incheon National University, and Hyunjoo Yang is an Associate Professor of Economics at Sogang University. Their research “In Strongman We Trust: The Political Legacy of the New Village Movement in South Korea” is now available in Early View and will appear in a forthcoming issue of the American Journal of Political Science.

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The American Journal of Political Science (AJPS) is the flagship journal of the Midwest Political Science Association and is published by Wiley.

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