South Korea’s 21st legislative elections will be held on April 15, with the candidates — all mask-clad and avoiding handshakes in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19 — having begun their official campaigns last week.
And amid a more-than-year-long impasse between the two Koreas, it perhaps doesn’t come as a surprise that other issues, such as the government’s management of the coronavirus and the economy, have outranked voter interest in the DPRK.
Nevertheless, most political parties running in the general election have shared detailed plans for their North Korea policy.
To get a grasp on what to expect from next week’s election and how its outcome could impact inter-Korean policy, NK News took a look at the DPRK-related pledges of South Korea’s top political parties, the rise of North Korean defector-politicians, and what to expect from the incoming 21st National Assembly.
PLEDGES ON NORTH KOREA: PEACE ECONOMY AND “ANTI-MOON” POLICIES
Despite the passage of an election reform bill in December last year intended to make the National Assembly more diverse, the two major parties have managed to retain their dominant presence by creating satellite parties for the purpose of winning more proportional representation (PR) seats.
The main competition will likely be between the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and their main opposition, the United Future Party (UFP) — along with the satellite parties of the former, the Civil Together Party (CTP), and the latter, the Future Korea Party (FKP).
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea: “peace economy” and “peaceful prosperity”
The Democratic Party of Korea, currently the largest party in the South Korean National Assembly, has in its manifesto repeated the main policy line pushed by the Moon Jae-in administration over the past few years.
In its eighth of ten key promises, the party has vowed to implement the agreements made by the leaders of North and South Korea during the summits of 2018 and establish the “complete denuclearization of the Korean peninsula and a peace regime.”
The party will push to realize a “new Korean peninsula economy,” it said, referring to the pursuit of inter-Korean economic cooperation, the establishment of a “unification economy special district,” and connecting transportation networks between North and South.
The pledge specifically stated the party’s intention to resume operations at the long-shuttered Mount Kumgang tourism resort and the once-jointly-run Kaesong Industrial Complex.
The Democratic Party also aims to pursue meetings between parliamentary members of North and South Korea, and support inter-Korean cooperation in the spheres of culture, journalism, sports, academia, history, and religion.
Notably, despite the current deadlock in dialogue between Pyongyang and Seoul, the party has vowed to continue its bid for joint hosting of the 2032 Olympic Games.
While also aiming to provide more opportunities for reunions of families separated during the Korean War, the party has said it will work to build both broader social consensus on the need for unification and to resolve inter-Korean humanitarian issues.
Among other things, it has promised to improve support for North Korean defectors living in the South — an issue the current administration has received sharp criticism for following the death of a defector family in August last year.
The South Korean government is yet to provide any state-level cooperation with North Korea regarding the novel coronavirus; however, the ruling party pledge also included the need to “make efforts to enhance the human rights of North Korean residents” and humanitarian aid.
The CTP, the Democratic Party’s satellite party, reiterated similar pledges, additionally promising to reconnect inter-Korean railroads and to exploit mineral resources with the North.
The United Future Party: “scrap the Moon administration’s policies on North Korea”
The main opposition UFP has stated four goals, including “discarding the Moon administration’s policy to relinquish national security” and its purported policy of “tiptoeing around North Korea.”
Its third and fourth aims are to pursue a North Korea policy that can “lead to unification under liberal democracy” and to enhance cybersecurity.
Most notably, the UFP has called for abolishing the September 2018 inter-Korean military agreement and “immediately restoring ROK-U.S. joint military drills.”
In addition, the party vowed to pursue officially extending GSOMIA (the General Security of Military Information Agreement between South Korea and Japan).
It has also promised to enact a law “prohibiting the forced repatriation of North Korean escapees” — South Korea in November last year in an unprecedented move sent back two North Korean escapees accused of murder, citing the alleged lack of “sincerity” in their intention to defect.
The incident raised domestic and international concern about the safety and rights of the two crewmen, after which the defector-turned-politician Thae Yong Ho reportedly decided to run for legislative elections in South Korea to improve legal protection for defectors.
The FKP, the main opposition’s satellite party, has adopted most of the UFP’s pledges, adding that inter-Korean cooperation should not be pursued while the North Korean nuclear threat exists.
It suggests that a “nuclear alliance” between the U.S. and ROK should be sought “as preparation for the nuclear and missile threat from the North.”
The minor parties: Justice Party, People’s Party, Our Republican Party
Minor parties like the left-wing Justice Party and the more centrist People’s Party dedicated smaller sections of their manifestos to North Korea, with the former emphasizing the importance of Seoul playing a “leading” role in achieving denuclearization and a peace regime on the peninsula.
South Korea should request “four-party talks” (likely referring to negotiations between China, the U.S., North and South Korea), one of the Justice Party’s pledges said, adding that U.S.-ROK joint drills should remain halted while dialogue with the North is ongoing.
Meanwhile, the minor opposition People’s Party vowed to create a “NATO-style ROK-U.S. nuclear sharing system.”
This would be in response to the “enhancement of the North’s nuclear weapons, ICBM (intercontinental ballistic missile), and SLBM (submarine-launched ballistic missile) capacities,” the People’s Party stated.
The Our Republican Party, a minor conservative party known as a vanguard of the far-right “Taegukgi Protests” in Seoul, goes further than the UFP, asserting the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration should be nullified along with the September 19 military agreement.
The party aims to draw civic consensus on “democratizing North Korea and uprooting pro-North forces,” it said, stating that the Kim Jong Un regime should be overthrown.
NORTH KOREA: A MINOR ISSUE?
While South Korea’s major political parties have all made pledges regarding North Korea, the issue does not look set to be a major game-changer in the upcoming legislative election.
According to a poll conducted last week from Friday to Saturday on the most important issue in the upcoming election, 43.1% of respondents chose the economy.
The second-highest-ranking issue was COVID-19 (21.5%), followed by “reform of prosecution” (12.7%), according to a poll conducted by Embrain Public and commissioned by the South Korean newspaper Joongang Ilbo.
Inter-Korean relations were noted as most important by only 3.1% of respondents, falling slightly behind “international relations” at 4.0%.
EXPIRING BILLS: INTER-KOREAN COOPERATION AND HUMAN RIGHTS
Another consequence of next week’s election will be the expiration of all the pending bills introduced under the 20th National Assembly that have not been settled for the past four years.
Since the last election in 2016, a total of 24,834 bills have been raised. Among them, 9,195 have been handled and 15,639 bills are pending, according to parliamentary data.
Of the 460 bills received by the Foreign Affairs and Unification Committee, a total of 272 bills are recorded as pending.
One of these bills is on creating special border-area districts for inter-Korean economic cooperation, a so-called “unification” or “peace economy special district law.”
While such bills were first submitted in 2006 during the 17th National Assembly and have been repeatedly until the 20th, they were automatically repealed along with the expiration of each office term.
With South Korean President Moon Jae-in emphasizing his goal to solidify a “peace economy” in multiple speeches including on National Liberation Day in 2019, the 20th National Assembly also saw a bill submitted by ruling Democratic Party lawmakers concerning the idea.
Submitted in late October last year, a bill on the fundamentals of a “peace economy” noted the need of a legal basis for inter-Korean economic cooperation as a way to build trust between the two Koreas for a “permanent peace regime.”
This bill, too, will also likely be automatically repealed, but a ruling Democratic Party win in the April election may see the bill return to the 21st National Assembly.
Other pending and soon-to-be discarded bills include those on inter-Korean exchange and cooperation, the Kaesong Industrial Complex, and protecting the rights of North Korean escapees and settled defectors.
Bills submitted by conservative lawmakers during the 20th National Assembly have also included what the UFP and FKP pledged for the next term, such as the nullification of the September 2018 military agreement.
A bill submitted in June 2019 also suggested revising the 2005 Inter-Korean Relations Development Act, which notes the South Korean government’s responsibilities concerning North-South relations.
The bill argues that ‘pursuing denuclearization’ be added to existing commitments, such as efforts to build peace and invigorating economic cooperation between the two Koreas.
The result of the 21st general election will likely alter the possibility of such bills being submitted again — or the likelihood of their being passed by parliament.
THE RISE OF DEFECTOR POLITICIANS
One contest between the conservative and progressive parties set to gain considerable attention is the battle for the Gangnam A district — a conservative foothold and one of the wealthiest areas in South Korea — between Kim Sung-gon of ruling Democratic Party and former North Korean diplomat Thae Yong Ho.
According to the most recent poll regarding the district, Thae’s approval rating was shown to be considerably higher than Kim’s, at 52.3% and 36.8% respectively, as of Tuesday.
Around half of the respondents who opted for Thae pointed to his party affiliation as the reason for their endorsement, followed by pledges and policies at 20.2%.
16.1% reportedly said that Thae’s ability and resume influenced their choice, according to the poll conducted by Realmeter and commissioned by South Korea’s Newsis.
If elected, Thae will be the first North Korean defector to win a seat in Gangnam, Seoul — and also the first defector to be elected for South Korean parliamentary office representing a district and not by proportional representation.
Thae’s campaign emphasizes how he defected from the North “in search of freedom” that he wishes to hand down to future generations in Korea, focusing on the value of liberty and policies in line with this belief.
His opponent, Kim Sung-gon of the ruling party, has also opted to draw attention to his strength and experience in international relations and national security issues.
Ji Seong-ho, another prominent defector also recruited earlier in the year by Liberty Korea Party (LKP) — now the UFP — is running as the 12th PR candidate for the Future Korea Party.
Also new for this year’s legislative election is a political party created by North Korean defectors: the South-North Unification Party.
Among its ten pledges, the party dedicated six to North Korea- and defector-related issues, including North Korean human rights law.
They aim to enact a “unification preparation law” that would require the president of South Korea to name his or her vice president as someone from the North “to prevent political chaos that will arise when unified.”
While the North Korea issue likely won’t be a game-changer this election, who emerges as the winner stands to have a major impact on inter-Korean relations going forward.
Should the ruling Democratic Party emerge triumphant, President Moon Jae-in will likely see it as a stirring endorsement of his administration’s performance since 2017 and vindication that their policy of rapprochement with the North remains popular — and a sign of future good fortune in 2022 presidential elections.
But a win by the opposition United Future Party could reduce the incumbent to a lame-duck president, potentially scuppering any future inter-Korean cooperation and sending a clear message to Pyongyang about the direction of political winds in the South.
Edited by James Fretwell and Oliver Hotham
South Korea's 21st legislative elections will be held on April 15, with the candidates -- all mask-clad and avoiding handshakes in a bid to prevent the spread of COVID-19 -- having begun their official campaigns last week.
And amid a more-than-year-long impasse between the two Koreas, it perhaps doesn't come as a surprise that other issues, such as the government's management of the coronavirus and the economy, have outranked voter interest in the DPRK.