Challenges for 2013 and beyond
By Tong Kim
In December South Korea will elect a new president who will face legislative constraints and international challenges. Voters elected a new National Assembly in April that is divided somewhat evenly between the conservative Saenuri Party and the two left of center opposition parties, the Democratic United Party (DUP) and the Unified Progressive Party (UPP).
A tug of war between the two opposing camps in the legislature has begun over who should take control of the committees of judiciary affairs and broadcast and communications ― the activities of which may influence the December election. The legislature will not open until this issue is settled.
The DUP wants to chair these two committees with an apparent strategy to hold investigative hearings on politically sensitive issues, including alleged illegal surveillance of supposedly uncooperative citizens by the Lee Myung-bak administration, bribery cases involving President Lee’s close associates, and the inappropriate influence the Lee government has wielded over broadcasting and other forms of media.
The Saenuri Party’s victory in the National Assembly elections was made possible only after Park Geun-hye, a clear front-runner for the coming presidential election, took over the Grand National Party and changed its name and undertook bold reform, distancing itself from the Lee government.
The DUP in the hands of supporters of former President Roh Moo-hyun botched its assured opportunity to dominate the national legislature. Overconfidence, arrogance, and mishaps on the part of the DUP leadership were responsible for the defeat. They also misjudged the voters’ support for the legacy of Roh Moo-hyun.
Recently, the Saenuri Party as well as President Lee, taking advantage of the controversial, illegal selection of two UPP members as proportional representatives, waged attacks on the opposition forces for their permissiveness or tolerance of pro-North Korean attitudes. One DUP member, who implied “North Korean defectors were betrayers,” also added fuel to a revival of an ideological conflict regarding North Korea.
The conservative group seemed to have determined that opening an ideological battle would help gain political points. “Pro-North Koreans” were loosely defined as being more loyal to the North than to the Republic of Korea. Although the country’s Constitution guarantees the freedom of conscience and political thought, the people would not support any politician or political party loyal to the North at the cost of the interests of the South.
Swept up amid these charges, the DUP lost its initiatives to focus on the governing party’s vulnerabilities linked to the unpopular government. It also lost public attention to a national contest to choose its party leader. The DUP reacted by charging that the Saenuri Party was exercising McCarthyism of the Cold War period to divide the people ideologically, causing more harm to the country.
It is not sure which party will benefit from prolonged ideological controversy in December. More people are moving to the center and becoming more interested in finding out which presidential candidate will do a better job to improve their livelihood. Both camps are likely to get back to the basic issues ― a fairer economic system, debt reduction for the government and working families, and creating more jobs as the big election approaches.
The ideological issue is related to North Korea rather than to political or economic philosophy. Democracy has taken root in the South, strong enough to resist any attempts to change it. The question for the next administration is not how to protect democracy but how it should deal with the North, which is unlikely to collapse in the next five years.
External challenges for 2013 include setting the right tone for inter-Korean relations, inventing a new approach to denuclearization, addressing the security issues evolving from the alliance with the United States and establishing balanced regional relationships with the surrounding powers.
A balance between sustained growth and “economic democratization” in the face of international financial uncertainty would be another challenge to meet. Without growth, there would be less to share. The next president will have to continue export expansion that has been the nation’s growth engine.
Without the prospect of an early settlement of the North Korean issue ― either through denuclearization or by way of a renewed peace process, it is essential for South Korea to maintain a robust alliance with the United States. The next administration should perhaps readjust the role of the security alliance to focus more narrowly on the Korean Peninsula.
From its broadened goal of global and regional cooperation, the alliance should go back to its primary purpose of deterring a North Korean attack, and additionally, reinforce combined measures to prevent and respond to possible military provocations by the North.
Costly procurements of upgraded fighter aircraft and other essential weapons, including sensor fused weapons (SFWs), costing billions of dollars, seem to be a necessary price for the South to pay as long as military threats from the North persist.
However, the idea of the South developing its own nuclear weapons or redeploying tactical nukes to the peninsula, and the Lee administration’s interest in extending the ranges of missiles beyond 300 kilometers and increasing the payload above 500 kilograms would not serve the South’s long-term strategic goal.
South Korea needs a continued U.S. presence and security commitment, including its “extended deterrence.” From a short-term perspective, it would be more constructive toward this end for Seoul to take up more of the burden from the present 42 percent to closer to 50 percent that the United States is asking after 2013, rather than investing in more costly arms. What’s your take?
The writer is a visiting research professor at Korea University and a visiting professor at the University of North Korean Studies. He is also an adjunct professor at Johns Hopkins University School of Advanced International Studies. Reach him at email@example.com.