Political candidates supportive of resuming engagement with North Korea appear set to benefit from Ban Ki-moon’s Wednesday drop-out of the presidential campaign, observers familiar with the peninsula told NK News on Thursday.
In the short-term, therefore, it appears North Korea may refrain from pursuing tactics against the South which could undermine support for progressive candidates like Moon Jae-in, the left-leaning front runner.
“No conservative or centrist candidate will benefit permanently from Ban’s withdrawal from the race,” said Dr. Go Myung-Hyun of Seoul’s Asan Institute on Thursday. “None of the remaining candidates opposing Moon has the level of name recognition and political stature that Ban had.
“There will be a #2 because there has to be, but the polling gap between Moon and him will still be very large,” he added.
This means if South Korea’s Constitutional Court decides to end Park Geun-hye’s presidency in the coming weeks and trigger an election, conservative candidates opposed to engagement with North Korea will have a much more difficult time in winning public support.
“Conservatives now have about a month to find a candidate around whom to rally, but the infighting is unlikely to stop,” said T.K. Park, who has blogged extensively about the ongoing political crisis in South Korea. “They were in a bind before, but they are really in the pits now.”
PROGRESSIVES AND PYONGYANG
All of South Korea’s progressive candidates currently favor policies involving some degree of engagement with North Korea and closer ties with China, factors that – to the benefit of Pyongyang – could contribute to policy confusion with Trump’s emerging Washington administration.
Of all progressive candidates, however, Moon has shown the most interest to date in re-engaging with the North, announcing various incentives and even going as far as pledging he’d visit Pyongyang before Washington should he become president.
“Moon’s promise to reopen Kaesong and his opposition to THAAD are going to drive a huge wedge between ROK and the U.S., which North Korea would enjoy watching,” said Dr. Go.”(As a result), North Korea prefers Moon over other candidates.”
But another observer said that in order to gain sufficient support following Ban’s departure, Moon may have to moderate some of his positions on the North, at least as they relate to security.
“To those in the center and moderate right, (Moon) can appeal to them by keeping a centrist line on North Korea and be strong on national security, THAAD, etc,” said Daniel Pinkston, a professor at Troy University’s Seoul campus.
“He can make limited initiatives,” Pinkston continued, “but unconditional aid, unconditionally reopening Kaesong…I think these are (now) out of the question.”
Still, because left-leaning candidates have all shown interest in engaging the North, observers said Pyongyang is likely to demonstrate short-term restraint in its actions towards Seoul, in order to avoid pivoting support towards conservatives.
“I would think given the unpredictable state of U.S. foreign policy at the moment combined with Moon – probably their preferred candidate – they would do well to keep an understated South-facing policy,” said Dr. Andray Abrahamian of Macquarie University, though noting China and U.S. issues could impact decision-making.
“An attack on South Korea would probably kill Moon’s chances for good,” added Dr. Go, noting any short-term North Korean ICBM launch or nuclear detonation to test the Trump administration could likely be excused by progressive candidates as being aimed at Washington, therefore not having much impact on their chances.
A key variable remains, however, in whether or not an election will soon even be called. “Some of this will turn on the decision of the court on Park’s impeachment,” said Pinkston.
“If she is exonerated and the election is held in December, the conservatives will have more time,” he continued, however warning “they will be going against the public blowback and connection–real or perceived–to Park Geun-hye.”
But should the vote soon goes ahead, the lack of campaign preparation time any new candidate will have to invest is going to complicate things for the conservatives, said Daniel Tudor, a long-time observer of South Korean politics.
“The election is now ‘Moon Vs Whoever’, and nobody else is prepared like Moon, who already has a big organization around him and has been working on his election bid for many months already,” he said. “Conservatives will naturally feel helpless and horrified as Ban has taken up all their airtime and now they have to start over again.”
But the removal of Ban could paradoxically complicate Moon’s rise. “Within the Democratic Party (DP), we may see heightened competition now,” he said. “The hype around Lee Jae-myung is (always was) overdone, but Ahn Hee-jung is a more viable rival to Moon,” he added, referring to other left-leaning candidates.
“However, I’d still be very, very surprised if anyone other than Moon became the DP candidate, and ultimately I’d be pretty surprised if anyone other than Moon became president.”
Main picture: UN Photos
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