These are momentous times in Korea. All of Korea. History is being made before our eyes.
Normally it’s the North which hogs the headlines. True to form, Pyongyang has excelled itself this year already: more missile tests, and the eerily James-Bondesque murder of Kim Jong Nam in Kuala Lumpur, have kept Kim Jong Un on the front pages.
Now South Korea, too, is grabbing its piece of the limelight. Last Friday (March 10) the country’s Constitutional Court unanimously endorsed the National Assembly’s impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Park is now toast: she has been stripped of the presidency, the first time that has ever happened in South Korea’s three decades of democracy. (Though to be honest, she was already a lame duck and heading for the door. ROK presidents get a mere five years in the job. Park’s term began early in 2013, so by next February she’d have been gone in any case.)
In these uncharted waters, the Constitution is broadly clear. Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn, acting President since Park’s impeachment in December, stays on in his caretaker role for a further two months or so. A new President must be elected within 60 days: May 9 seems to be the favored date, and whoever is elected will presumably take office right away. Almost half a year of political and policy limbo is too much already, so the usual two months’ interregnum between being elected and taking up office – like in the U.S. – is sure to be skipped this time.
By mid-May South Korea will have a new leader, with a fresh mandate from voters, to do his best – there are no shes this time, alas – in the five years through May 2022. Who will it be, and what will he do? These questions are easier than usual to answer.
Past ROK elections have often been hard to predict. Voter volatility aside, a first-past-the-post system can throw up unexpected outcomes when multiple candidates run. In 1987 neither of the rival Big Kims of the democracy movement, Young-sam and Dae-jung, would yield to the other. So they both ran, and both lost – to Roh Tae-woo, a coup-making general turned born-again democrat. Serve them right, though in time each would get his turn in the Blue House.
Park is now toast: she has been stripped of the presidency, the first time that has ever happened in South Korea’s three decades of democracy
In Dae-jung’s case that took four attempts, and an alliance with a former nemesis who’d once tried to kill him, Kim Jong-pil. A major financial crisis helped, but the clincher was a row about flat-chestedness. Really. Read more here on why the ROK right-wing split in 1997. If it hadn’t, we’d have had no President Kim Dae-jung, no “Sunshine Policy”, no Nobel Peace Prize. Triumph of democracy, or random luck of the draw? Even Dae-jung fans (I’m one) must admit it was the latter.
Back to the present. In 2017 South Korea’s liberals, learning nothing from history, are split again. But so are the conservatives, their disarray intensified by the whole impeachment trauma. Compounding the Right’s plight is alleged deep involvement of the chaebol (conglomerates) in the “Choi-gate” scandal. Even Samsung’s boss, unprecedentedly, is behind bars: the first hearing in Jay Y Lee’s upcoming trial on corruption charges was held on March 9. This can only reinforce voters’ revulsion from the existing power elite overall, not just Park personally.
A LURCH TO THE LEFT
The conclusion is clear: expect South Korea to now lurch leftwards. Which might well have happened anyway, given past trends. The ROK’s thirty years of democracy divide neatly into three decades. Two conservatives, Roh Tae-woo (1988-93) and Kim Young-sam (1993-98), were followed by two liberals, Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003) and Roh Moo-hyun (2003-08). Then came another pair of conservatives, Lee Myung-bak (2008-13) and Park Geun-hye (2013-17). On that basis, this rather regular pendulum was due to swing left again next time anyway.
Indeed, it already has. Last April, parliamentary elections – these are separate and held every four years – saw the opposition, despite its divisions, dislodge Park’s ruling party (then called Saenuri) to take control of the National Assembly (NA). Three left of center parties together now hold 166 of the Assembly’s 300 seats, while the now divided conservatives have 126. So whoever wins the presidency will have to deal with a liberal-controlled parliament for at least the first three of his five years in the Blue House, until the next NA elections due in April 2020.
No problem, according to opinion polls. The latest, published March 12, puts the Democrats – the main opposition party, also known as Minjoo – way ahead with almost half the electorate (46.4%) supporting it. No one else comes close. The centrist People’s Party has 10.7%, and the far-left Justice Party 3.1%. For the conservatives, the pro-Park Liberty Korea Party is on 9.6% and the splinter Bareun (Righteous) Party 5.6%. A quarter of voters have yet to decide.
So huge a lead suggests the Democrats can hardly lose. Yet in presidential elections, unlike parliamentary ones, voters pick a person, not a party. Here, too, the Right is disadvantaged. On top of all their other woes, they just don’t have any impressive contenders. Ban Ki-moon was their great hope, but the ex-UN Secretary General didn’t last long: in February he quit the race, after sliding poll ratings showed the public weren’t actually that impressed with him.
Basically, Moon wants to bring back the sunshine policy of engaging North Korea
Liberals, by contrast, have several plausible candidates. That could spell trouble if more than one were to run and split the vote. But here again, opinion polls show a striking trend. It used to be a closer race, but lately one contender has pulled way ahead of all others. Moon Jae-in, who in 2012 narrowly lost to Park Geun-hye, looks to be the man whose hour has come.
In a pattern resembling the different parties’ ratings, for weeks Moon’s popularity has topped 30% while hardly anyone else even makes double figures. His closest rival is Ahn Hee-jung, a provincial governor who is younger (51 instead of 64) and is seen as more centrist. Ahn’s support has been bouncing around between 10% and 22%. The latest poll on March 12 gave him 17%, still well behind Moon’s 32%.
Two other once bright stars seem to be fading. Outflanking Moon on the left is the self-styled “Korean Bernie Sanders“: Lee Jae-myung, mayor of Seongnam city south of Seoul. Lee’s blunt combativeness saw his numbers rise last year, but now he lags on 7% – the same score as Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party. Five years ago this educator and doctor turned software magnate was hugely popular, but the gilt has worn off since he got enmired in party politics.
With two conservatives also trailing – Hwang Kyo-ahn (who hasn’t yet said he’ll run) on 9% and Bareun’s Yoo Seung-min on 3% – Moon Jae-in’s lead appears unassailable. Barring some major upset, in mid-May he looks set to return to the Blue House (Cheongwadae), the ROK president’s official residence and office. I say return because, like Park Geun-hye, Moon was there before and knows the place well. She grew up as daughter of the military dictator Park Chung-hee (who ruled from 1961 to 79), and he worked there as chief of staff to president Roh Moo-hyun.
That prior experience at the heart of government has to be a plus. As even his enemies must admit, Moon Jae-in is a known quantity. His policy positions, especially on North Korea, are no secret – but they represent a startling break with the ultra-hardline status quo in Seoul.
BACK TO THE FUTURE
Basically, Moon wants to bring back the sunshine policy of engaging North Korea. Far from sanctioning Pyongyang, in 2012 he proposed an inter-Korean economic union, no less.
His more recent pronouncements hew to a similar line. In December, as NK News reported at the time, Moon told the leading daily Joongang Ilbo that his top priority, if elected, would be to visit North Korea before anywhere else. He also called for the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) to be reopened: a demand he repeated last month, on the one-year anniversary of Park Geun-hye’s abrupt closure of what was the last inter-Korean joint venture still operating.
A subsequent article will drill further into Moon’s neo-sunshine plans, looking at the details and asking how – or indeed whether – this is feasible in the very different climate of 2017. (Two big new five letter words beginning with T, Trump and THAAD, stand in his way.)
But Moon is nothing if not consistent. And this time he looks set to win. Anyone who thought the hawkish western consensus (all stick, no carrot) which has held sway for the past year was here to stay as the definitive last word in policy towards North Korea had better wise up, fast.
Frankly, that was always a naïve view given South Korea’s electoral timetable, even if Park Geun-hye had not been impeached. Sticks alone having signally failed to bring Kim Jong Un to heel, Park’s successor – even if conservative; and certainly if it had been Ban Ki-moon – was all but certain to retry some form of engagement approach.
Moon Jae-in will do that in spades – if he can.
Featured image: https://www.flickr.com/photos/tkazec/30021968224/
Edited by Oliver Hotham
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Featured Image: CheongWaDae_Children_Day_02 by KOREA.NET - Official page of the Republic of Korea on 2013-05-05 10:12:27