South Korea’s Elections

Hardline Conservatism with a Liberal Smile.

December 21, 2012 (Nile Bowie) – The
ever-changing political landscapes of the Korean Peninsula never fail
to offer stark contrasts. To the north, a somber December is spent
mourning the forefathers of the communist dynasty under the helm of a
boy-king and his advisers. To the south, voters have elected the
nation’s first female president, the daughter of South Korea’s iconic
former leader, Park Chung-hee. While their circumstances and rise to
power cannot be more dissimilar, both Kim Jong-un and Park Geun-hye both
derive some degree of public support through channeling the nostalgia
of their parent’s legacies. In South Korea, one of the world’s most
rapidly ageing societies, Park relied heavily on the elderly for her
support base, who associate her with the economic prosperity brought in
under her father’s rule, in much the same way as northerners regard the
times of Kim il-Sung. As the new president prepares to take office in
February 2013, many among South Korea’s left leaning youth see Park
Geun-hye as an enabler of status quo conservatism veiled behind a thin
liberal facade.

is widely credited with resuscitating legitimacy back into the ruling
Saenuri party, which has garnered record-setting disapproval ratings
under incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. Money laundering scandals, tax
evasion, and accusations of embezzlement have followed the outgoing
President Lee, who has come down hard on dissenters by jailing activists
and artists who have criticized his rule. Lee is most responsible for
dismantling Seoul’s liberal approach to North Korea as seen through the
“Sunshine Policy” of previous administrations, at the cost of nearly
reigniting the Korean war after a series of provocative live fire
exchanges in disputed territorial waters in 2010 that saw the North
shell the South’s Yeonpyeong island, and the sinking of a South Korean
naval vessel. Despite running on the conservative ticket, Park has
steered clear of openly advocating Lee’s hardline policies toward
Pyongyang in her campaign rhetoric. Although an unpredictable North
Korea looms just 70km from Seoul, domestic economic issues are the most
immediate focus of the South Korean voter.

Leading a “Chaebol Republic”

An odious brand of crony-corporatism has prevailed in the South Korean economy, spearheaded by the chaebol,
large-scale conglomerates like Hyundai, LG, and Samsung. While these
recognizable brands have indeed brought much wealth and opportunity to
the southern half of the peninsula, Koreans on the lower end of the
economic food chain feel neglected by the nation’s mega-corporations and
the wealthy political elite behind these companies. Prior to taking
office, President Lee ran the Hyundai Engineering and Construction
conglomerate, and has pardoned the chairs of Samsung and Hyundai Motors
from jail time over convictions of fraud. Park’s opponent, the liberal
Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, has accused the country’s
conglomerate-dominated economic model of being the main contributing
factor to economic inequality, in addition to crediting Park’s father
with developing the corporatist economic model still prevalent today.

The defeated Moon Jae-in spoke of increasing taxation on the wealthy
and providing small businesses with economic protection from the chaebol.
President Lee’s passing of a free-trade agreement with the United
States enraged many working class people and farmers who fear the
flooding of Korean markets with cheap foreign agricultural products.
Moon publicly voiced his disapproval of the trade regime and vowed to
re-negotiate it; this position resonated well with young leftists, but
popular disdain for establishment parties like Moon’s Democratic United
Party proved to be a major obstacle for the left. Park, on the other
hand, has toed the party line of President Lee by championing economic
and diplomatic ties with Washington, while resisting calls for taxing
the chaebol in fear of hampering their growth. Park has played
more of a centrist role than one would expect from a conservative ticket
by advocating college tuition cuts, maternity assistance, free school
lunches, and other social welfare programs, but has come under fire for
being unable to answer basic questions about minimum wage figures during
a debate, prompting tough statements from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions:

is terribly discouraging when a person who wants to become president
does not even know the country’s minimum wage, which is a minimal right
for survival and the first step toward a welfare state.”

Park’s “Trustpolitik” & Inter-Korean relations

The failures of Lee Myung-bak’s loathed tenure are none more
apparent than in the field of inter-Korean relations. As Kim Jong-un
consolidates power in Pyongyang and toys with introducing seedlings of
economic reform, it is high time for a change in frequency from the Blue
House in Seoul toward more amenable relations between the two Koreas.
Although Park has publically stood clear of Lee’s tough stance, a closer
look at her foreign policy signifies more acquiesce than divergence
from the status quo. In a 2011 article published by Park in the Council
on Foreign Relation’s Foreign Affairs website titled, “A New Kind of Korea,”
the incoming president talks of adopting a policy of “trustpolitik,”
aimed at developing a minimum level of trust between the two Koreas.
Just as it exists under the current leadership of President Lee, the
cornerstone of Park’s policy revolves around Pyongyang abandoning its
nuclear program and de-weaponizing, or suffering the consequences.

Park is setting herself up to fail, and having herself visited
Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Jong il, one would assume she would be
less naïve on the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the
importance it holds to North Koreans. After the death of Kim il-Sung in
1994, his son oversaw general economic mismanagement and a series of
natural disasters that led to widespread starvation. To legitimize his
tenure, Kim Jong-il introduced Songun politics, a military-first policy
aimed at appeasing the military and building up national defenses. The
attainment of a “nuclear deterrent” has been trumpeted as a major
accomplishment in domestic North Korean propaganda, despite very little
concrete evidence known about these weapons, their capability, or the
status of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.

It is unrealistic to expect Pyongyang to give up its nuclear
program, primarily because achieving the status of a nuclear state
(despite whether or not they actually have achieved that status) is Kim
Jong-il’s main “accomplishment.” The upper echelons of leadership in the
Korean Worker’s Party surely hold dear the lessons of Gaddafi after
dismantling Libya’s nuclear program. Pyongyang continues to pursue
provocative missile tests and belligerent rhetoric because they view
this as a means of ensuring their security, the fact that the Pyongyang
power-dynasty has moved into a third generation is proof enough that
this policy has worked for them. Park has spoke of taking a
middle-of-the-road approach, and buttressed an inter-Korean dialogue
with Kim Jong-un. These are goals that represent a more practical shift,
but if Park’s policy rests solely on being open to Pyongyang only if they
disarm, the incoming administration will find itself mired in President
Lee’s legacy of tension. In line with the militarism of her
conservative party, Park has spoken of plans to create an East Asian military alliance and appears willing to continue the hardline against Pyongyang:

states must slow down their accelerating arms buildup, reduce military
tensions, and establish a cooperative security regime that would
complement existing bilateral agreements and help resolve persistent
tensions in the region.”

Korea must first demonstrate, through a robust and credible deterrent
posture, that it will no longer tolerate North Korea’s increasingly
violent provocations. It must show Pyongyang that the North will pay a
heavy price for its military and nuclear threats. This approach is not
new, but in order to change the current situation, it must be enforced
more vigorously than in the past.”

contrast to Park, Moon Jae-in’s Democratic United Party has touted a
return to the “Sunshine Policy,” and has advocated restarting
unconditional aid to Pyongyang. The conservative political elite in
Seoul fails to realize that relations with North Korea can more
effectively be cooled not by pursuing hardline policies and provocative
military drills, but by bolstering inter-Korean economic ties, tourism,
and exchange. Kim Jong-un can only begin to dismantle the military-first
policy by offering some alternative whereby he maintains his legitimacy
– that could potentially be by increasing economic opportunity, raising
standards of living, and developing North Korea’s economy. Seoul would
be in a much better position to negotiate if they had a hand in mutually
beneficial economic development with the North. Park’s ambitions of
creating a “cooperative security regime” with Asian states (presuming
North Korea is excluded) will certainly not help convince Pyongyang to
disarm. An “Asian NATO” is counterproductive and would only make
Pyongyang more unpredictable – as long as Seoul’s ballistic missiles are
capable of hitting any part of North Korea, expecting Pyongyang to
commit political suicide by disarming is simply not realistic.


The incoming South Korean administration
has lots of problems on its hands; managing an ageing population with
some of the world’s lowest birth rates, tackling increasing prostitution
rates, high suicide rates and other social ills, and coping with an
economic slowdown in China, the nation’s biggest export market. South
Korea’s economic development has lifted millions out of poverty and into
the economic space of high-income earners in the span of a few decades.
It would be foolish for Park to pursue the foreign policy of her
predecessor and risk bringing about a reignited Korean war and all that
would come with it; enormous civilian casualty rates, an unprecedented
refugee crisis, and a major handicap on the South Korean economy. All
signs point to Park Geun-hye continuing along the same economic
trajectory as the incumbent President Lee, perhaps with a greater
emphasis on social welfare programs. The next five years will be
critical for inter-Korean relations. In attempting to emerge from her
father’s shadow, one would hope that she could address the faults in the
economic system her father helped create by reducing the income
disparity, and also learn from his mistakes by allowing free and open
political dissent and total freedom of expression.

Nile Bowie is an independent political commentator and photographer based in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. He can be reached at