By Choi Ha-young
North Korea-related issues no longer affect elections in South Korea, analysts said Monday.
Traditionally, in this divided nation still locked in the Cold War, the North's provocations ahead of elections have been a drag on liberal candidates. However, this is no longer true here, they said.
Leading presidential contender Moon Jae-in, a liberal from the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), is maintaining a solid lead in opinion polls despite North Korea's continuous provocations. One in two Koreans supports the DPK and its candidates have swept the upper ranks of popularity polls.
"Political and legal judgments of the conservative president's wrongdoings caused a reversal of Park's legacies, including a hostile slogan against Pyongyang," said Yoon Tae-gon, the senior political analyst at The Moa Agenda & Strategy.
Widespread anger against Park's failures is palpable on public opinion as well. According to a local poll released by Realmeter on Thursday, 35.2 percent of respondents said full-fledged societal reform is the top task for the next government. Interestingly, an equal percentage of people answered that economic recovery is a priority.
Amid swirling diplomatic tension on the Korean Peninsula, only 12.7 percent of respondents prioritized security and diplomacy.
Rep. Yoo Seong-min of the minor conservative Bareun Party called for deploying more Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) batteries here, following the death of Kim Jong-nam on Feb. 13. However, his approval rating has made meager progress, standing at 3.8 percent on Monday, according to Realmeter, only 0.7 percent point higher compared to the previous week.
Liberty Korea Party (LKP) floor leader Chung Woo-taik expected Moon's vague stance on THAAD would unnerve people. However, the U.S.-made anti-missile system, which is being installed following former President Park's decision, is bewildering the former ruling party. It has added to the burden on the nation's economy by alienating Beijing, Seoul's biggest trading partner.
Surely, concerns over national security are Moon's weak point and he is trying to quell this. He has highlighted that he served in the Special Forces specializing in explosives. He even said, "I received a presidential citation from former President Chun Doo-hwan," during a televised debate, Sunday.
By this remark, Moon drew fire from other liberals, for boasting about the award given by the military dictator who directed massacres in Gwangju in 1980.
"Basically, this is a reasonable strategy considering many conservative candidates didn't perform their military service," said Im Hyug-baeg, a professor emeritus of Korean University. "However, it may arouse controversy, if excessive. This time, Moon's approval rating will not be decided by North Korean factors."
Im pointed out the influence of ideology is becoming faint in the country's electoral landscape. In 1986, President Chun fabricated a scenario that North Korea was building a dam to flood the South. The deception later came to light, but voters don't fall for such narratives anymore.
"Logically, the death of Kim Jong-un's brother Jong-nam is irrelevant to South Korean politics," Im said. "Now, voters are not deceived by a conservative administration and far-right media reports."
In addition to Im's view, Yoon pointed out the repetitive status around the peninsula. "People are accustomed to Pyongyang's provocations and don't respond to them," he said. "Even if conservative politicians urge hard-line solutions, citizens figure out that's an impossible option."
This trend was also seen in the general election last April. On April 8, five days before the vote, 13 North Korean defectors arrived in Seoul spawning anxiety over possible collapse of the totalitarian regime. However, the DPK won the election, becoming the largest party in the National Assembly.
"To overcome the distorted impact of North Korea on South Korean politics, both conservatives and liberals should recognize the few options for inter-Korean policies due to the influence of the U.S. and China. They should propose practical policies," Yoon said.