December 14th, 2012
10:43 AM ET

South Korea: A presidential election primer

By Scott Snyder, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: Scott Snyder is senior fellow for Korea Studies at the Council on Foreign Relations and editor of ‘The U.S.-ROK Alliance:  Meeting New Security Challenges.’ The views expressed are his own.

South Korea’s campaign for the December 19 presidential elections formally launched late last month. The field of major candidates was set two days prior to the filing deadline when independent candidate and business entrepreneur Ahn Chulsoo announced that he would concede in his campaign for a unified candidacy among liberals to Democratic Unity Party (DUP) nominee Moon Jae-in, who served as chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun. This announcement paved the way for a two-way race between ruling Saenuri party candidate Park Geun-hye and the DUP’s Moon.

Ahn Chulsoo’s withdrawal had an immediate impact on the framing of the race. Although Ahn is a novice politician and an idealist who wants to effect major political reforms, his selection as the single major candidate opposing Park would have framed the main theme of the election as a candidate of the past (Park is a political veteran who has been on the stage since she occupied the Blue House together with her father in the 1970s) versus the candidate of the future (an IT entrepreneur with the potential ability to clean both computer and political viruses). Moon needs active participation from Ahn’s youthful supporters if he is to be truly competitive with Park, who entered the formal campaign period as the putative frontrunner.

But now the past (Park Chunghee’s 1970s vs Roh Moo-hyun’s 2000s) serves as a backdrop for converging campaigns that have drawn stark differences over two primary issues. They are how to deal with economic inequality within South Korean society (Moon opposes South Korean conglomerate control of assets through cross-shareholding while Park does not), and degrees of engagement with North Korea (Park wants dialogue with North Korea, but her overall plan for engagement remains conditions-based while Moon favors a transformative approach that promotes inter-Korean economic ties as an instrument for engaging North Korea comprehensively).

With few policy issues ripe for debate, the deciding factor in South Korea’s election campaign will be image, and more specifically, Park Geun-hye’s image. Park is distinct from that of every other leading politician in South Korea, both by gender and by genealogy. It’s notable that Park is a female politician who has survived for decades in Korea’s gritty world of male-dominated politics. Her father gave her a political pedigree and the unique experience of having served as de facto first lady following her mother’s assassination in 1972.  Her association with her father’s authoritarian regime has been exploited as a potential political vulnerability, especially among activists like Mr. Moon who cut their political teeth demonstrating against her father’s rule.

As a politician and leader in her party, Park has tasted both victory and defeat. Her concession to Lee Myung-bak in the Grand National Party’s 2007 primary contest was a gracious observance of the democratic process, even though she was outflanked in support from within the party by Lee’s higher approval ratings among the broader public. When she led her party to victory in April 2012 National Assembly elections, Korean headlines dubbed her the “queen of elections.”

These headlines reveal both the origins and the limits of Park’s appeal: she is only equivalent in Korea to political royalty that remains in Korea’s rowdy democracy.  She has burnished her image through her personal circumstances. Since Park never married, she can claim no greater love than for her country. It may be her endurance as a political leader, combined with a carefully cultivated public reputation for keeping political promises, that may be her greatest asset. But does she have the executive experience to effectively and inclusively govern South Korea’s fractious politics, or will the reserved and capable Moon be better positioned to lead South Korea toward the future?

This is the question that Korean voters must ponder as South Korea’s campaign season comes to a climax.  Polls show the South Korean public closely divided, with Park having greater support among those over fifty, while Moon has strong support among younger voters in their twenties and thirties. The determining vote goes to South Korea’s bulging forties cohort, a generation that played a critical role as student activists in South Korea’s transition from authoritarianism to democracy. But this generational cohort also has the greatest stake in economic stability as the breadwinners who must care for their children and their elders, and it is the generation that will determine both Park’s and South Korea’s political future.

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Topics: South Korea

soundoff (23 Responses)
  1. Ryun

    Roh Mu Hyun and Kim Dae Jung, both hand picked by the younger generation of Koreans. The subject of history was completely deprived from education under their presidency and both walked out of their service with millions of dollars. National pride was based on a soccer game, not on the knowledge of the peninsula's history or culture. Younger generations see Park as being evil and see Moon as the next great thing... Moon will be another young generation vote to pick yet another money thief that will retire with millions in his pocket. Amazing, how kids never learn. Is it that hard to do some research? Is it that hard to recognize a hero from a phony? Hysteria and hype must stop, critical thinking and researching should be carefully evaluated... I'm young myself, but I do my research.

    December 15, 2012 at 1:02 am | Reply
    • J

      I'm young myself and I have done my fair share of research as well; I cannot help but disagree with you on your frivolous assumption that Moon will leave his presidency with his pockets full. He has served as a human rights lawyer for 22 years, never having accepted any offers to work at more high-paying law firms. Does he really seem like a hungry money guy to you?
      Sometimes, you find yourself having to pick the "less evil" in politics. If so, what about Park herself then? That woman has received loads of money from Chun when Park Chung Hee passed away. And has she paid taxes for that? No. Has she paid taxes as a South Korean citizen just like others? No. It seems like perhaps it would be best for you to pause and do some more research on possible reasons why South Koreans just won't live better lives under Park. And if you can't find an answer, I'll tell you: she has never been on of 'us.' She has always been one of 'them.'

      December 15, 2012 at 7:39 pm | Reply
      • Ryun

        20s and 30s voted for KimDaeJung, RohMuHyun and LeeMyungBak. Really good pick there. Biased research was done in the past and look what happened. Weren't you guys so sure they were clean before too? Doesn't it seem even a little odd why South Korea picked the wrong guy three times in a row? Maybe fourth time is the charm? If Moon wins let's see how well he does. He'd be the fourth president to win because of the 20s and 30s vote. Just remember, South Korea is surrounded by two communist countries to the east and north and an ultrantionalist country to the east. You want a softie to lead? putting millions of South Korean dollars to the North only for them to break the truce again? Take your pick.

        December 17, 2012 at 7:02 pm |
    • Sung

      You are totally brain washed. History of corruption belongs to Park and cronies.

      December 17, 2012 at 11:26 am | Reply
      • Ryun

        That explains your reason. Oh wait, maybe be more specific? It's 2012, might want to come at me with a thing called "reason"

        December 17, 2012 at 7:20 pm |
      • N.Choi

        Ryun – I believe you are totally insinformed or biased. You said you are young did some research, but you need more than that. If you have not (1) leaved in Korea (2) as a Korean (3) in 70's, 80's, or 90's, I advise you to stay away from this election because you are not qualified to participate in this discussion.

        December 18, 2012 at 3:20 pm |
    • N.Choi

      Ryun, you are spreading false, incorrect, and frauduent fake propaganda. Again, you are not qualified to post your opinion here. Just evaporate.

      December 18, 2012 at 3:24 pm | Reply
  2. Steven C

    It is hard to believe for some Koreans still respect the legarcy of the dictatorship by Park Jung Hee. They should get some devidends from Jung-Soo Scholarship Foundation. The problem lies on the ignorant and obedient minds of some Korean generation. They need to grow and overcome. It all starts from educations. Why are you so afraid to elect the right person as a president of S. Korea? Is it true that you want to ignore the existing injustice to maintain your estabilshments?

    December 16, 2012 at 12:03 am | Reply
    • Ryun

      I don't get why young Korean generations always believe history with "if" and "what ifs" instead of how it happened. The end result is Korea's industrialization boomed and was an economic powerhouse because of his 18 yr rule. Why is it so hard to acknowledge that exactly HAPPENED during Park Chung Hee's long term. Who should have been president then? KimDaeJung? The guy who openly opposed everything Park Chung Hee did? Kim was the reason DaeWoo went down the toilet, First Bank of Korea was doomed and Korean Air was financially hit for no reason. KimDaeJung was against Park building highways in South Korea. Park wanted South Korea to be an economic and industrial boom and went with the construction of highways all throughout Korea despite the opposition. Where are the acknowledgement of the pros that he did? Like seriously, just because he killed anti-South Koreans you would see him as a villain? Then why even see Yun Gae So Moun as a hero? He killed his own king, fought the invading Chinese and maintained Baekje and Shinla from advancing. He took the role of the absolute power man just to defend his country and killed many in the political seat as well. Explain that.

      December 17, 2012 at 7:18 pm | Reply
  3. justice for all

    The MB Government of the South Korea will announce some big news before the Presidential Election Day. It is something to do with the North Korea. They will try to get some credit from the Korean swing voters. They will do sanything to elect to Park Geun Hae to save MB's @$$. They probably paid astronomical figure to pay this North Korean guy to defect to Korea. He has nothing to loose. He gets killed if he he stay where he was at.
    It would be stupid for Koreans to support him to agitate the already bad tension. MB and many people including DA's and Guk Jung Won will go to jail for the crimes they commited against their people. US has no problem dealing withany new leader for S. Korea.

    December 16, 2012 at 12:20 am | Reply
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Economic inequality, lack of jobs and relations with the North are all on the agenda of this year's presidential elections in South Korea.

    December 17, 2012 at 3:46 am | Reply
    • j. von hettlingen

      Among those preparing to vote this time are around 20,000 North Korean defectors, who will be given the opportunity for the first time to choose their leader in the South.

      December 17, 2012 at 3:47 am | Reply
  5. Paul

    Whether you label the late president Park as a evil dictator or not, I do know one thing for sure. He had a great vision that no other politician called themselves as democratic fighters. Do you really think S. Korea could rise from the ashes after the Korean war and becomes world's top10 economic power in lesser than 50 years without the late president Park's strong leadership? Although I did not liked his dictatorship, to be fair, I admit that the successful economic developments he accomplished without any money and resources were the greatest assets we inherited from his leadership. No short sighted politicians like Jun Du Han, Rho Tae Woo, Kim Young Sam, Kim Dae Jung and their successors had that kind of vision and love of the nation the late president Park had. If we was a greedy evil dictator, why would Jun Du Han gave about half million dollars to Park Kun Hae? He gave that money to her because she didn't have wealth the other presidents took while they were in power. Just compare him with those other dictators around the world? The late president Park left us industrial foundation and wealth so that people now can talk about democracy. When you're really hungry, you never talk about democracy. You just do what ever it take to get your bread. Freedom and human rights...yeah...all those are important, but after you have enough bread to fill in your stomach first. Youngsters in these days just don't know what's the meaning of hungry and don't appreciate what their parents had to go through to get them here. I lived through time and I know the pains and sufferings of people who lived in those times. I'm one of the victims, but I now know that it was the necessary sacrifices of that era. The Patience is the vulture, only if I had realize that sooner, my life would have been much better. So folks, just be patient. History will eventually reveal who is a true hero.

    December 17, 2012 at 10:13 pm | Reply
    • SM

      Oh please. If anything, Park FUELED regionalism in South Korea by guiding industrial development in Gyeongsang province and left agricultural Jeolla in neglection to feed themselves. Sure, what Park did may have developed industries within SK but did it really offer bread to everyone equally? Who are you trying to fool. The only reason you are saying that freedom and human rights are "important" but only after one fills his or her stomach is because you have been living in a democratized society and has never had the need to cry for such ideals. If you don't think youngsters these days know what it means to be hungry, perhaps you should look into the phrase "880,000 generation"

      December 18, 2012 at 2:53 pm | Reply

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