Reflections on South Korean Elections


2012-12-23 by Richard Weitz

In South Korea’s 18th presidential election, held on December 19, Park Geun-hye of the governing Saenuri (New Frontier) Party defeated Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party. Park’s inauguration is scheduled for February 25, when she will succeed President Lee Myung-bak.

Park faces many domestic and foreign challenges.

At home, the results show that the South Korean electorate remains sharply divided by region, ideology, and age. Park has said she will try to bridge this polarization by pursuing more centrist policies than her predecessor. Being an accomplished woman could also help reduce the male-female political divide in the country.

Park Geun-hye is the daughter of late President Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961 to 1979 [Reuters]
Park is the daughter of South Korea’s most important modern dictator, Gneral Park Chung-hee, who ruled from 1961, after a military coup, until 1979, when he was murdered by his intelligence chief. Even so, today’s South Korea is so very different from that era that few fear a return to authoritarian rule—and some voters favorably recalled the amazing economic progress South Korea made under General Park.

Accelerating economic growth again will prove difficult unless the global economy becomes stronger. 

South Korea is struggling with high unemployment since the ROK economy is transitioning from an export-oriented country (85% of the ROK’s GNP comes from exports) that faces formidable Chinese and Indian competition to an economy that is service oriented.

North Korea has been very hostile to the current Lee administration and will, if history is any guide, likely test Park in the next few months to gauge how she will respond to DPRK provocations.

In 2010, the DPRK sank a ROK corvette, revealed a new uranium enrichment facility, and conducted an artillery bombardment of Yeonpyeong Island, located along the intra-Korean border, an act of aggression that represented the first direct attack on ROK territory by the DPRK regularly military since the 1950-53 Korean War. This year, the DPRK launched two long-range missiles.

In a news conference shortly after her election, Park said that “North Korea’s long-range missile launch showed how grave the security reality is that we are faced with.” The next provocation could well be a DPRK nuclear test that would help bolster North Korea’s legitimacy as a nuclear weapons state like India and Pakistan.

North Korea presently rejects ROK and U.S. demands that it eliminate its nuclear weapons as required by the 2005 Six-party agreement. “It is illogical for the U.S. to urge the D.P.R.K. to honor its obligation while it is not complying with what it committed to do in the [Sept. 19, 2005] joint statement,” an unnamed DPRK official told the official DPRK Korean Central News Agency in October. “The statement specifies the U.S. political, military and economic commitments to fundamentally end its hostile policy toward the D.P.R.K. as a chief culprit of the nuclear issue on the Korean Peninsula,” which Pyongyang denies has occurred.

According to the Institute for Science and International Security [ISIS], the DPRK currently has sufficient weapons-grade plutonium to make as many as 18 nuclear warheads.

North Korea also seems prepared to manufacture more fissile material by enriching its own ample supplies of natural uranium. “The use of both [weapon-grade uranium] and plutonium could allow for more total fissile material in a fission device and a higher explosive yield than possible with plutonium alone,” the ISIS analysts wrote. “Weapon-grade uranium would allow for designs involving thermonuclear concepts that could not be achieved with designs only using plutonium.”

Unlike his two immediate predecessors, President Lee joined the United States in insisting that the DPRK end its nuclear weapons program as part of an inter-Korean peace deal.

He also conditioned new ROK aid to a cessation of DPRK provocations and concrete concessions regarding Pyongyang’s nuclear program and other past misdeeds.

Park may prove more flexible on the latter point and de-link humanitarian aid from political issues. On the other hand, she advocated a “trust-based diplomacy” during the campaign that, while vague, implies only gradual and conditional reconciliation provided Pyongyang met its obligations. Her opponent seemed prepared to resume meetings and aid with North Korea without preliminary conditions.

It is unclear if Park shares Lee’s commitment to a “Global Korea,” a policy that substantially raised South Korea’s global profile by hosting high-level events, participating in international peacekeeping, and other achievements. Park has said that South Korea needs a secure environment to achieve sustained economic growth.

That Japan and China have also elected new leaders provides opportunities for Park to reduce ROK tensions with both these countries.

Park has proposed a Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative involving China, Japan, and South Korea, with some U.S. participation. While Beijing will encourage her to moderate the ROK’s position toward North Korea, the new prime minister in Japan, Shinzo Abe, favors a hard-line approach toward Pyongyang. Hopefully Park will not repeat Lee’s visit to the islands that South Korea disputes with Japan, which strained relations with Tokyo.

Park’s election present opportunities and challenges for the United States. Fortunately, when Lee became president in 2008 for a single five-year term, he made improving ROK-U.S. relations a priority. His efforts, along with DPRK reckless belligerence, helped ensure that this year’s elections have seen little if any of the anti-Americanism common in earlier ballots.  

Park will probably continue the pro-U.S. line of the Lee administration, but Washington and Seoul need to develop a better means of deterring DPRK provocations, which is easier said than done. 

They also must ensure a smooth transition to ROK operational command as well as overcome their differences regarding South Korea’s civil nuclear ambitions. Washington is uncomfortable with South Koreans’ interest in developing their capacity to separate plutonium and enrich uranium. At her post-election news conference, Park told the media that, “I will try to work for greater reconciliation, cooperation and peace in North East Asia based on correct perception of history.” 

Securing South Korea’s commitment to join the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) will prove difficult in light of the struggle to negotiate and ratify the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) that entered into force earlier this year. 

It is unclear how much more benefit South Korea would gain from the TPP. Seoul is also worried about Beijing’s likely hostile attitude toward the TPP. China is South Korea’s main trading partner and, despite past experience, many South Koreans hope that China will finally get tough on the North and force it to improve its behavior.

Excerpts from The Korean Herald’s Perspective on the challenges waiting for the President elect in Korea follows:

President-elect Park Geun-hye faces tough challenges in the push for sweeping political and economic reforms amid a slowing economy and deepening partisan divide. 

Her pledge to engage North Korea also faces hurdles as the belligerent neighbor shows no signs of easing tension following its recent rocket launch. 

The 18th presidential election heightened Koreans’ expectations for a fix to confrontational politics, the chaebol-dominated economy and a fragile social security system. 

“The presidential-elect will face tremendous pressure to implement the pledges criticized for lacking viability such as in terms of financing,” politics professor Yun Seong-yi of Kyung Hee University said.

“First and foremost, the winner should devote much time to applaud the competitor.”

The campaign aggravated the political antagonism between conservatives and liberals in a close election.

After her victory was confirmed, president-elect Park called for reconciliation and national unity.

Political reform topped her campaign agenda in response to rising public criticism of partisan fighting, corruption and frequent parliamentary gridlock….

Overseas, the next leader faces a complex web of thorny problems that have often complicated the country’s relations with regional partners. The new leader will also be tasked with expanding Korea’s role in world affairs in line with its middle-power status. 

Foreign affairs and security issues were put on the back burner in a campaign dominated by economic and welfare issues. With Northeast Asia’s security landscape in a fix and globalization sweeping society, however, the new commander-in-chief will be pressured to demonstrate leadership in foreign affairs. 

Among top missions at hand is how to tame North Korea’s relentless nuclear ambitions and saber-rattling. 

The communist regime successfully launched a rocket a week ago, prompting the U.N. Security Council to condemn what it called a cloaked test of long-range ballistic missile technology. Seoul and Washington are now pondering a fresh round of sanctions that would thrust the reclusive country into further isolation. 

Denouncing it as a “provocation,” Park vowed not to waver despite Pyongyang’s repeated attempts to meddle in domestic affairs in the South. 

“The people (of South Korea) will not budge an inch no matter how hard the North struggles to intervene in the presidential election and launch the missile,” she said at a rally in Ulsan last week. 

“This is a provocation to the Republic of Korea and to the international community and the world.” 

Park has boasted of her personal ties with such leaders as Xi Jinping of China and Angela Merkel of Germany, and her ability to manage diplomatic and security matters. Still, the incoming president may have difficulty realizing her promises to mend inter-Korean ties in the face of growing international calls for tougher punishment for the North’s rocket liftoff.

Meanwhile, the increasingly stiff competition between the U.S. and China over regional dominance will call on her to craft smart strategies. 

For Seoul, Washington is the mainstay of national security and deterrence against the North with its strategic refocusing toward Asia. Beijing is already one of the South’s top trade, tourism and investment partners and a key stakeholder in multilateral talks aimed at disarming Pyongyang. 

“South Korea has to dually manage its security, which is grounded in the ROK-U.S. alliance, and its economic well-being, which is dependent on the ROK-China strategic cooperative partnership,” Han Suk-hee, a professor at Yonsei University’s Graduate School of International Studies, wrote recently.

Another big question is how to improve the fractious relationship with Japan, the former occupier of the peninsula. Concerns are rising that the new government of Shinzo Abe, Tokyo’s nationalist premier-in-waiting, will spur a rightward shift in Japan and toughen its line on territorial and historical rows with Korea. 

With public diplomacy emerging as a crucial tool of statecraft, Park will have to shake off her out-of-touch image and engage peoples at home and abroad. 

Her vision for an “era of diplomacy by the people” includes broader opportunities for the Korean youth to take part in development programs, more overseas Korean language schools and support for cultural exports. She has also pledged to scale up official development assistance and house at least five more international organizations here. 

Countries around the world have been stressing “soft power” to promote national interests and elevate national prestige. 

Diplomats are engaged in greater outreach efforts, while inviting other sectors such as culture and sports to create synergy. At the same time, rapidly advancing social media and information technology are aiding agenda-setting and instant communication. 

“The world of traditional power politics was typically about whose military or economy would win. In today’s information age, politics is also about whose ‘story’ wins,” Joseph Nye, a former U.S. assistant secretary of defense and now a professor at Harvard University, said in a 2010 essay…..

By Lee Joo-hee, Cho Chung-un and Shin Hyon-hee 

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