Liberal Ruling Party Loses Majority in South Korea

By Patrick Goodenough | July 7, 2008 | 8:16 PM EDT

Pacific Rim Bureau ( - A weekend election in South Korea is seen as a setback for liberals who want a foreign policy more sympathetic to North Korea. South Korea's ruling Uri Party lost its overall majority in parliament.

Uri lost five seats to the conservative Grand National Party (GNP) opposition and a sixth seat to an independent.

Five of the six seats up for grabs had previously been held by Uri lawmakers who were forced to resign for violating election laws. In another blow, one of the electoral districts Uri lost is in President Roh Moo-hyun's hometown.

In general elections a year ago, Uri seized control of the National Assembly, tripling its representation and winning 152 seats in the 299-member legislature. The GNP lost 16 seats to end up with 121.

After the weekend by-election, however, Uri holds 146 seats to the GNP's 125. Minor parties and independents hold the remaining 28 seats between them.

Together with its absolute majority, Uri has lost the ability to push through legislation without support from outside.

Among the most contentious measures it had proposed was the abolition of security legislation that for half a century identified North Korea as the South's "main enemy," prohibited pro-Pyongyang organizations, and outlawed the dissemination of North Korean propaganda.

Critics of the National Security Law say it stifled free speech, and they note it was abused by previous military regimes in Seoul.

One of the law's 25 clauses, article seven, outlaws any actions that benefit North Korea by praising, encouraging, or siding with it - or by conspiring in any such acts.

The rights group Amnesty International says article seven has been "used arbitrarily to indict people who have tried to exercise their basic rights to freedom of expression and association."

But court rulings have disagreed with that assessment, and conservative supporters of the anti-communist law say while it could be improved through amendments, it still is needed because North Korea has never renounced threats to overrun the South by force.

Uri had said last month it would make repealing the National Security Law one of four legislative priorities in the assembly's spring session.

Uri and Roh have sought to remove the Cold War-era legislation as a concession to North Korea -- which is strongly opposed to it -- as part of a broader policy to improve inter-Korean relations.

North Korea is engaged in a 40-month standoff with the international community over its nuclear weapons programs. South Korea, Japan, China and Russia have joined the U.S. in six-party talks with North Korea in a bid to resolve the dispute.

South Korean conservatives have accused their government of being overly willing to make concessions to the North.

The by-election results will strengthen the hand of GNP leader Park Geun-hye, whose credibility had been questioned by some GNP lawmakers.

Park, the daughter of authoritarian 1960s-70s President Park Chung-hee, now looks like a stronger candidate to represent the opposition in the next presidential election campaign, in 2007.

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Patrick Goodenough
Patrick Goodenough
Spencer Journalism Fellow