Emerging consensus in ROK
As a new National Assembly is scheduled to open in June, South Koreans are watching how the two major parties ― the Saenuri Party and the Democratic United Party (DUP) ― will choose their presidential candidates for the upcoming December election. The next president will have to be influenced by a consensus among the people.
Since the June democratic uprising of 1987, South Korea has achieved full-fledged democracy albeit with some occasional, arguable setbacks. The evolution of South Korean politics has gone through a persistent pattern of ideological confrontation between left and right and a regional divide between east and west.
The general elections in April created a balanced distribution of seats between the ruling and opposition parties at the national legislature ― with 151 members for the Saenuri Party, 127 for the DUP, 13 for the Unified Progressive Party (UPP) and 5 for the Advanced Unification Party. Under this kind of power distribution and considering the current conditions of South Korea’s political practices, the new president will be required to work with both the ruling and opposition parties.
Interestingly enough, the people tend to vote much less out of ideological or regional motivations than before. They are more interested in an economy that could help their daily life, not an economy that shows growth through big businesses, and in issues that affect their lives more directly.
As a result, policy platforms between the ruling and opposition parties are becoming increasingly similar to please the wishes of the people. Both camps are pursuing “economic democratization” in favor of small businesses against big corporations and promise increased welfare programs. The conservative Saenuri Party is trying to crawl closer to center from the right on the ideological spectrum, while the progressive DUP is inching toward the center from the left.
Even the UPP, which has two contesting factions between the radical left that supports North Korea and the moderate left that supports the welfare of workers, is trying to get rid of its bad image. The pro-North Korean leftists also enjoy constitutional rights of political freedom, although some UPP members have a record of violating the controversial National Security Law.
However, disclosures of illegal election activities by the radical leftist faction during the National Assembly election enraged the people who voted for UPP candidates in the hope that a unified effort among all opposition parties would contribute to a successful transfer of power in December. At this point, it is not clear how the DUP will cooperate with the UPP in the upcoming presidential election.
In the meantime, a neutral to moderate segment of the people is rising. This emerging force will probably determine the next presidential election in the South, although recent polls show the Saenuri Party is clearly ahead of the opposition parties. Once the nomination of candidates is completed, it will likely be a new ball game.
While the presidential campaign will be fought on the issues of how to provide a better quality of life, more jobs, effective price controls, better financial supervision, co-prosperity between big and small business, reduced educational costs and listening more to the people, North Korea still looms large as an campaign issue that people want the next administration to deal with more realistically.
They are interested in peace and security. They support strong deterrence to North Korean provocation, but at the same time, they want improved relations with the North to reduce tension. Most of the people do not approve of the North Korean system and they are deeply concerned about the bad human rights situation there that they hear about more often nowadays.
From a conservative perspective, the North is responsible for the current stalemate in inter-Korean relations, starting with the killing of a South Korean tourist at Mt. Geumgang, and later with the torpedoing of a South Korean Navy ship followed by the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island. This view claims that Lee’s policy has taught the North a lesson that it cannot get away with its provocation without paying a due price.
The progressives hold a different opinion. They believe the killing of the South Korean tourist was an accident, and the two deadly incidents in the West Sea were the result of the Lee administration’s callous, hard-line North Korea policy that scrapped the accomplishments of the previous administrations. They go as far as to claim that the two tragic incidents were self-inflicted by wrong policy.
To neutral, average people, it really does not matter whose fault it is. They are more interested in what should be done about the deteriorated relations between the two nations. And many on both sides ― including the two contending major parties ― believe that the next government should do better to deal with the North than the Lee government.
Most in Seoul agree that first, no inter-Korean dialogue is likely to take place during the remainder of President Lee’s term. Second, the North will not abandon its nuclear weapons in the foreseeable future; third, the North will continue to develop satellite rockets or missiles; fourth, redeployment of tactical American nuclear weapons is not desirable; and fifth, the South should play a more proactive role to resolve the North Korean issue and to chart the future of their own destiny.
We don’t know what exactly North Korea’s intentions are when they say they are exercising their sovereign rights to launch satellites or when they say they have no plan to conduct a third nuclear test. But we know and are concerned about the possibility that their capabilities could be used for military purposes. These and more issues will be placed on the next president’s agenda. 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.