Korean Sociological Image #4: Where do Korean Politicians Come From?

Original Lines of Work, Politicians in Selected=Apologies for the small size, but if you can see the pink and orange blobs for Korean politicians that were originally civil servants or in the military respectively, then you get the idea.

The graph is from this article in the Economist magazine, which asks the question of why professional paths to the top vary so much, but unfortunately only mentions South Korea when it says…

Countries often have marked peculiarities. Egypt likes academics; South Korea, civil servants; Brazil, doctors (see chart 2). Some emerging-market countries are bedeviled by large numbers of criminals, even if this doesn’t usually show up in their ‘Who’s Who’ records.

…yet is no less fascinating for all that. If I reluctantly confine my brief discussion to South Korea here though, then that predominance of civil servants among Korean politicians should be no surprise to anyone familiar with its Twentieth Century history (see here and here), and I’d expect to find much the same in other postwar “developmental states” also, particularly Japan that is their model and the former colonial power of most.

But of course their importance goes back much further than that (see here), as indeed it does in China, which has historically provided Korea with many governmental and political models to emulate. Hence the Economist is quite correct in painting Chinese Communist Party officials with (literally) the same brush also, for despite their modern ideological labels they are in many senses merely performing what are really quite timeless roles.

Other than that, I confess to being surprised at the number of politicians with military backgrounds, even though I’ve written a great deal about the pervasiveness of military culture in Korean daily life. One shouldn’t make too many generalizations from so little information though, and so I’d hesitate to make any links between the low numbers of politicians that were formerly lawyers and Korean legal culture also, although I’m certainly tempted!

(For more posts in the “Korean Sociological Image” series, see here)

7 thoughts on “Korean Sociological Image #4: Where do Korean Politicians Come From?

  1. According to the graph, more Korean politicians come from a military background than from any other career field and the largest share of ex-military compared to the other countries surveyed. This is not surprising considering that South Korea was once a military dictatorship. Notice the large chunk of ex-engineers among China’s politicians. I believe both Hu Jintao and Wen Jiabao are former engineers.


  2. Yes, it was quite…er…surprising of me to be so surprised.

    Here’s what the article has to say about Chinese engineers:

    President Hu, in contrast [to Obama], is a hydraulic engineer (he worked for a state hydropower company). His predecessor, Jiang Zemin, was an electrical engineer, who trained in Moscow at the Stalin Automobile Works. The prime minister, Wen Jiabao, specialised in geological engineering. The senior body of China’s Communist Party is the Politburo’s standing committee. Making up its nine members are eight engineers, and one lawyer. This is not a relic of the past: 2007 saw the appointments of one petroleum and two chemical engineers. The last American president to train as an engineer was Herbert Hoover.

    And later:

    In China, the influence of engineers is partly explained by history and ideology. In a country where education was buffeted by the tempests of Maoism, engineering was a safer field of study than most. In fact, communist regimes of all stripes have long had a weakness for grandiose engineering projects. The Soviet Union, which also produced plenty of engineer-politicians (including Boris Yeltsin), wanted to reverse the northward flow of some great Russian rivers, for example.

    The presence of so many engineer-politicians in China goes hand in hand with a certain way of thinking. An engineer’s job, at least in theory, is to ensure things work, that the bridge stays up or the dam holds. The process by which projects get built is usually secondary. That also seems true of Chinese politics, in which government often rides roughshod over critics. Engineers are supposed to focus on the long term; buildings have no merit if they will collapse after a few years. So it is understandable that an authoritarian country like China, where development is the priority and spending on infrastructure is colossal, should push engineers to the top.


  3. Looking at that small chart, the spread of backgrounds for Korean politicians seems fairly even with only a slight bias for ex-military servicemen.

    As I read it, Korea politicians are made up of approximately:

    15% Academics
    10% Business
    15% Civil Service
    10% Diplomacy
    10% Economics
    7% Law
    20% Military
    13% Other

    With all Korean politicians likely to have served in the army at some stage; realistically, you could say that 100% have a background in the military. But as Songai pointed out this is hardly a revelation.

    Can you find out how many of Korean politicians completed university, where they studied, gender, if they send their own kids to Korean schools, and religion because I feel this chart doesn’t really tell us anything other than what job they used to have before coming a politician.


  4. It was interesting to see that Korea also has a relatively high share of academics, as one might expect from a country with a traditional esteem for education. Korea’s line is also striking for its relatively balanced representation of all the major career fields (with the exception of medicine). Contrast that with the U.S., which is apprently run by lawyers and businessmen (No wonder we’re so screwed up!)

    The relatively high precentage of military people in Korea also may reflect the fact the country has been technically at war for nearly all of its history, and that relations with North Korea (a military rival and nominal enemy) remain an important issue in South Korean elections.


    1. N–All granted, although I think that your criticism of the chart is a little unfair considering that its sole express purpose is indeed to give the career backgrounds of politicians in various countries!

      Still, the countries in the chart were specifically there because of their oddities, and that there is a sizable number of politicians with military backgrounds at all is noticeable, as the others largely (and I dare say most countries not in the chart) lack it. I disagree that you could “realistically” say that 100% of them have a military background though, as although I argue that the conscription system has a pervasive effect on society, doing your 24 months of service or whatever that all men do is not quite the same as going on to have a career in the military, which the orange component signifies.

      Sorry, I don’t personally have the time to find out the further data that you ask for, although I can tell you that, last year, women made up only 13.7% of legislators. See #2 here for more details on that.

      John–I hear you on the being America being screwed up by virtue of being run by lawyers and businesspeople, although it may be getting a bit cliched: the Economist article referred to is quite convincing when it says that a need for lawyers is a result (and indicative) of a democratic system. And the U.S. having a surplus of lawyers a bit of a stereotype also, as although I’ve no idea where I read it first sorry, I recall that definitions are important, and once a universal standard is applied then even Japan has just as many per head of population.


  5. I have to agree with John that Korea does have a high percentage of academics becoming politicians, and this is – in simple terms – because they hold education in high esteem.

    To go into this in a little bit further detail, Korean presidents typically appoint the leading Korean academics in certain fields to do high profile, high importance jobs within the government when they are elected. They typically appoint the leading professors from the top universities. For example, leading economics professors appointed to run the economy.

    In Korea this is seen as important, I would say far more than in the West. For example, British Prime Minister Gordon Brown has a PhD, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has a doctorate in quantum chemistry, Barack Obama has a Juris Doctor (Dr of Law) and Russian President Dmitry Medvedev has a PhD in private law. Clearly, this list could be made longer. The point is that we rarely use these academic titles when referring to our politicians, despite the fact that many have them. In fact, while intelligence may be emphasised among politicians, their being academics rarely is. Perhaps this is because we think academics might lack the practical skills or the ability to ‘do politics’ needed. Korea is different, they feel that the most suitable candidates for important political roles are not veteran politicians but the leading academics in that field (economics, law, etc.). Where I agree with John is that this clearly stems from both an esteem and respect for education but also the traditional Confucian meritocratic system of joining the government or administrative branches, that has only really been slightly altered for the current system.


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