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Korea Chooses ‘Stable Change’

Updated: January 19, 2013 1:14 pm

Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party has won the Korean presidential election held on 19 December. As the first female president in Korean history, she will serve a single five-year term starting 25 February 2013, replacing incumbent President Lee Myung-bak. As most polls had unanimously forecast a tight competition in her favour, her victory by a 3.6 per cent margin was no big surprise.

Throughout the race, Park’s toughest challenge was to deal with the cynicism of the young constituency that created the so-called ‘Ahn Cheol-soo syndrome’. Having lived through Roh Mu-hyun’s liberal government (200308) and Lee Myung-bak’s conservative government (200813), a growing body of Korean voters had become disillusioned with political parties and politicians for their undue partisanship, ideological confrontations, egoism and self-interest. This force formed an invisible non-partisan group and called for ‘new politics’, enticing the independent Ahn, a millionaire anti-computer virus software mogul, to join the race. Until his abrupt resignation as the candidate on 23 November, the polls had shown him at least with nearly equal support to that of Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the opposition United Democratic Party, in a three-way race. Polls had even hinted at the possibility of Ahn beating Park in hypothetical a two way match up without Moon.

The determining factor, however, turned out to be the conservatism of aged voters staunchly anchored around the so-called red-complex (extreme anti-North Korean posture) and nostalgia for the late dictator Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye’s father, who was assassinated in 1979. On the one hand, they dismissed Moon, the heir of the pro-North Korean former president Roh Mu-hyun, as being unreliable. On the other, they anticipated Park would follow in the footsteps of her late father’s economic achievements even at the expense of political democracy. The unexpectedly high turnout of aged conservatives, braving the sub-zero temperature, helped Park turn a narrow lead into a comfortable victory.

For Park, the starting point has to be to address the Lee government’s negative legacy and to revive political and economic democracy. Even as within the framework of Korean democracy, Korea’s political leaders have been highly interventionist. Wide segments of society are subject to interference by the government in the form of ad hoc guidelines that do not require legal passage through the National Assembly. Liberals have criticised the Lee government for trespassing on democratic and human rights by abusing this power under the pretext of partisanship and efficiency. An array of corruption and power abuse scandals involving Lee’s aides and relatives aroused deep anger and concern about the soundness of Korea’s democratic institutions in the electorate. Addressing these concerns swiftly will help Park wipe out the unfavourable image of her as the daughter of a dictator.

‘Economic democratisation’, the slogan she adopted in the presidential race, may set a context in which policy struggles are waged after her inauguration. The sluggish economic growth in the aftermath of the 2008 global crisis has widened the polarisation between the haves and have-nots. An increasing share of middle-class households suffers problems of over-debt, declining real estate prices, unemployment, falling real income and bankruptcy among self-employed businesses, and an ageing population coupled with low birth rates that will require higher levels of welfare spending. In the absence of substantial social welfare networks, curbing the power of the chaebol (business conglomerates such as Samsung, Hyundai and LG) and collecting more revenue from them, along with redirecting more resources toward welfare, will have to remain the economic policy imperatives throughout Park’s term.

Lee’s onerous legacy is present on the northern front, too. The relationship between the two Koreas has slid into a series of downward spirals throughout Lee’s five-year term. Both candidates agreed that dialogues with the North should reopen, but the key to the issue is how. Acknowledging the continuing malfunction of Lee’s hard-lined posture, Park’s camp maintains that it will only act should North Korea honour its commitment to dismantle its nuclear arms program, which seems unlikely. It is also highly unlikely that the new government will pursue the unconditional resumption of the dialogues Moon suggested. Any breakthrough in the stalled relations with the North seems to demand creative thinking and firm action.

The presidential race was a competition that divided the constituency into two highly distinctive groups. A Korean newspaper labelled it ‘an all-out war between the conservatives and the liberals’. Indeed, the gap between the two groups is wide and deep. It is a complex overlap of class segmentation, generational and ideological differences and regional divisions (between the Western and Eastern part of the peninsula), among others. Social analysts are concerned that the gap between the conservatives and the liberals is so wide that there is almost no territory in which a consensus can be forged across the country. Despite this gap, the two contenders promised surprisingly similar policies on most issues. What really matters in Korea at this point is implementation, not ideas or policy plans.

With her party’s majority status in the National Assembly combined with strong presidential power especially at the early stage in office, Park seems to have the perfect chance to implement her electoral commitments successfully, a far tougher mission to fulfil than winning a presidential race. A paradox remains, though. The Korean voters’ choice of the ruling conservative party leader as their next president signals that regardless of the rhetoric about change and reform throughout the campaign, continuity and stability more likely to prevail over the next five years. Realising her policy promises will require huge innovations, reforms and change, especially to attract the consent of the liberal youths, President-elect Park’s task now is to strike a delicate balance between stability and change. That is more easily said than done. (East Asia Forum)

By Kim Keeseok

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