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The presidential election: a fascinating race (part 2)

The fascinating race continues!

The latest news from the South Korean presidential election campaign is the potential alliance between the liberal Democratic United Party candidate, Moon Jae-in, and independent candidate Ahn Cheol-soo. This joining of forces would pose a serious threat to conservative candidate Park Geun-hye, who has led in the polls for some time. The two liberal candidates are expected to announce a joint political statement this week. Following that, they will have to decide who will step down and who will run against Park.

As we eagerly await these developments (coming in part 3), lets discuss what the key issues are in this race?

1. National security

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The issue of national security is dominated by the question of how the South Korean government treats its counterparts in North Korea. Is it aggressive towards the North, or does it attempt to cooperate with the communist state? Does it push for closer economic and political ties, or does it push for further sanctions? Does it support or withdraw from joint economic and social projects? These are all timely questions, particularly as the new leader in the North brings potential for change.1 As the next president will earn the title of Commander in Chief of the nation’s military, the issue of North Korea will likely feature in voters’ minds as they head to the booths.

The potential for conflict between these two countries should not be downplayed. In the last few years alone, the North and South (still technically at war) have exchanged numerous lethal engagements. Both sides have large armies, ample military hardware, and big allies. The stakes are high.

Historically, the DUP has pushed for open dialogue and more North-friendly policies. Former president Kim Dae-jung introduced the ‘Sunshine policy’ (햇볕 정책), that led to some level of cooperation between the two nations with joint economic and political results. This didn’t, however, stop the North from advancing its nuclear program and furthering its isolation. The conservative Saenuri Party, on the other hand, has taken a more hard-line approach.

2. The economy

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By many measures, Korea’s economic recovery from the 2008 global crisis has been robust. GDP growth has been relatively good, employment high, government debt low, and inflation under control. However, things aren’t all kimchi and rice cakes. Income inequality has been on the rise, as has the relative poverty rate. Big conglomerates still dominate many industries. These issues are giving the liberal candidates fuel to take on the more business-friendly Saenuri party. Moon has often touted his support for small businesses, and Ahn has regularly called for more support for the nation’s poor.

Few people are considered more influential to Korea’s widely publicized economic miracle than former president, Park Chung-hee. By many he is viewed as the father of Korea’s economic success. He also happens to be the father of conservative candidate Park Geun-hye. This is to her advantage (boosts her economic credentials) and to her detriment (her father’s human rights track record is horrible).

All candidates are running on the politically palatable promise of ‘economic democratisation’.

3. Political reform

South Korean Assembly
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In the legislative election in April this year, the Saenuri party maintained their dominance of the National Assembly, the main legislative arm of government. Of the 300 seats, the Saenuri Party took 149. The chief opposition DUP managed to claim 128, with smaller parties making up the difference. Extrapolating from these results may not reveal the full story. Over 80% of these seats are based on non-proportional representation, i.e. in each district, winner takes all. This means that the popular vote may yield different results. A case in point is the recent U.S. election, where the popular vote was very close while the Electoral College vote was a landslide.

This system may promote efficiency in government, but it also has an inherent bias in favour of large established political parties. This may be one area that independent candidate Ahn wants to reform and, more importantly, one area that he actually could reform, given his popularity. (Note that the president cannot directly change the rules of the National Assembly, but he can introduce bills directly to the floor for a vote).

Perhaps an easier form of political reform is that of campaign finance reform. Last Saturday (10 Nov), independent candidate Ahn promised to use only half of the state-mandated maximum of W56 billion for his campaign. By law, each candidate is authorized to use up to W56 billion in their campaign for things like literature and TV, radio and newspaper advertisements. The state then reimburses each candidate, effectively from taxpayers’ money. Ahn wants this amount to be reduced and has asked his two main opponents to do the same.

In summary

With a lot of drama yet to come, this truly is a fascinating race. Voters will have a lot on their minds as they choose their next president, and so they should. Their decision will shape developments on the Korean peninsula for the next five years, and define the future of the self-proclaimed ‘shrimp amongst whales’… a fairly large shrimp these days.

Other articles in the series:

  1. See In Pyongyang, glimmers of life (Joongang Ilbo, 10 November 2012) for a fascinating account of the first visit by a South Korean media representative since Seoul imposed sanctions on Pyongyang on May 24, 2010, after the sinking of the Cheonan. []

One thought on “The presidential election: a fascinating race (part 2)

  1. Good points. This presidential election will shape the relationship with N.Korea for the next 5 years which is very critical concerning its gradual economic reform since Kim, Jong-il died. The interesting part is whether two liberal cadidates who have same goals but different methods will be merging their campaigns. Today, there was a press conference of Anh Cheol-su hoping urgent talks on merging campaigns with Moon. Yet to be fair, Park Geun-hye is still leading among the candidates, and her pledges still seem to work well.

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