South Korea's election paradox
December 18th, 2012
10:10 AM ET

South Korea's election paradox

By John Delury, Special to CNN

Editor’s note: John Delury is an assistant professor at Yonsei University Graduate School of International Studies and a senior fellow for the Asia Society Center on U.S.-China Relations. The views expressed are his own.

South Korean voters are about to choose a new president to lead their country for the next five years. It has been a hotly contested campaign, with opinion polls too close to call and voter turnout expected to be upwards of 80 percent. The race has come down to a dead heat between the liberal candidate, Moon Jae-in, and his conservative opponent, Park Geun-hye, and it’s unclear who will win.

But one thing most people do agree on is that, of all the issues that have been fiercely debated, one topic that is seen as marginal to the outcome is what to do about North Korea.
This might strike outsiders as strange – after all, North Korea just conducted a surprisingly successful satellite launch (the joke in Seoul now is that if the Koreas ever reunify, at least the South will get a viable space program). Given the heightened tensions on the Peninsula, which erupted a couple years back in naval clashes and artillery fusillades along their dividing line in the West Sea – and considering that North Korea’s nuclear program is barreling ahead, now with a second, uranium path to the bomb – how could North-South relations not be the key issue in the race?

Part of the answer has to do with campaign strategy. The conservative candidate worked hard to distance herself from the incumbent conservative president (Lee Myung-bak), whose hard-line North Korea policy is unpopular with all but the true believers on the right. This was smart politics – by narrowing the distance with her liberal rival, she neutralized the North Korea question and inoculated herself against the charge that inter-Korean relations would continue to deteriorate were she elected.

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The other half of the answer has to do with electoral politics. Independent, swing voters – the ones that the liberal and conservative camps are now battling for – are not terribly interested in North Korea. They are skeptical that engagement will lead to peace, and they are equally if not more skeptical that a hawkish approach will do any better. More importantly, though, they simply don’t care that much. Many of these undecided voters found themselves inspired by the charismatic reformer Ahn Cheol-soo, who electrified Korean politics with his brief run for the presidency, only to drop out and throw his support behind the liberal Moon. Tellingly, Ahn never spoke with the same kind of passion and vision about inter-Korean relations as he did about domestic issues in the South. Moon and Park are scrambling to pick up any stray Ahn supporters, and they won’t win those votes by talking about Pyongyang.

We are left, then, with an interesting paradox. The outcome of this election, which at this point has little to do with North Korea policy, is likely to have a profound effect on inter-Korean relations and on the fate of the Peninsula.

The new leadership in Pyongyang under Kim Jong Un has signaled an interest in improving inter-Korean relations, and making a strategic shift of its own from prioritizing military spending to prioritizing economic development. If the next government in Seoul makes a bold, strategic decision to re-engage the North, there is good reason to expect that inter-Korean dynamics can improve markedly, reviving everything from humanitarian aid and development assistance, to family reunions and cultural exchanges, to economic cooperation and political dialogue.

If Kim Jong Un is going to engineer a shift from “military-first” to “It’s the economy, stupid,” he is going to need Seoul's encouragement – and he doesn’t have five years to wait. It is up to the stronger power to unclench its fist first, so that the leader of the weaker state can outstretch his hand. Which of the two Koreas is the stronger? Consider this fact – South Korea's annual defense spending is roughly the size of the entire North Korean economy.

But what about the nukes? If Seoul, Washington and Beijing coordinate resumed engagement with Pyongyang smartly, there should be a way to build gradual denuclearization into the process of improving political and economic relations. That, after all, is the only conceivable way North Korea will give up its nuclear deterrent.

By contrast, if the next South Korean president continues the current policy that makes engagement contingent on North Korean denuclearization, or treats it as the reward for Pyongyang’s good behavior, then we can expect more clashes in the West Sea and DMZ, more missile and nuclear tests, more fissile material and proliferation risks. North Korean people will continue to go hungry, and the two Koreas will continue to grow further apart.

Although North Korea has little to do with who wins the South Korean election, the winner of the presidential contest will have much to do over the next five years to put the Korean Peninsula back on a path to peace, reconciliation and prosperity.

Post by:
Topics: North Korea • South Korea

soundoff (19 Responses)
  1. Cameron

    The North will never give up their nukes. It is the only bargaining chip they have and it is the reason that everyone else pays attention to them. Without nuclear weapons they are just a small regional power in a big bad world. A shrimp amongst the whales as they say.

    December 18, 2012 at 3:39 pm |
  2. abcd

    Who says the north will engage and put the economy first?
    So your argument is invalid. Its not that the North does not have 5 years to wait, they just want to keep their empire going on for as long as possible, and keep their own people hostages

    December 18, 2012 at 9:36 pm |
  3. Name*Joan

    i guess this article is quite interesting but naive on the issue pertaining to north korea.
    as the above two comments pointed out, the north is not going to renounce their nuclear weapons and maintain them as their last resort. and if it is true that the north is trying to put the economy first as the writer of this article argues, how can you explain about the latest rocket launch and the costly renovation of kim jungil statues across the reclusive country? you know what? the renovation money was so huge that it could eliminate malnutrition throughout north korea. the people of the north go hungry not because of the south' current policy againt the north but because of the north' current leadership against their people.

    December 19, 2012 at 1:47 am |
    • Ragatata

      I think that a distinction must be made between Korean interests and foreign interests. You repeat Western rhetoric. Why not leave Koreans to decide for themselves? The China-US influence on the Korean peninsula that has distorted Korean thought must be brought to end.

      December 19, 2012 at 1:59 am |
  4. j. von hettlingen

    Is South Korea to have its first female president? As daughter of former autocrat and military strongman Park Chung-hee, Park Geun-hye has faced criticism over his legacy, as has Moon Jai in over his close ties to late President Roh Moo-hyun.
    Although the two are rivals in this election campaign, both focus on social issues, pledging to introduce new policies aimed at supporting mothers and boosting South Korea's low birthrate. Economic issues like finding employment for young people, increasing social welfare spending, tackling income inequality and dealing with concerns over the dominance of big business in the form of family-run giant conglomerate have dominated the election build-up.

    December 19, 2012 at 8:24 am |
    • Matt K.

      It was important for Park to be elected not because of all the social/economic issues. At the end of the day, a lot of their policies on those issues were similar. It was the issue with N.Korea that mattered. If Moon were to get elected, all the communists/pro-north korea people would've gained power like they did back when Roh was in power. Moon was the cheif of staff during that presidency and they were ready to denounce some of South's territorial rights and give unconditional aids to the north. And what did that get us? North throwing tantrums by attacking us and starting up their nuke program. We sure are glad it wasn't Moon that got elected. Also as mentioned above, when you say "economy first" policy, are you talking about N. Korea? Too naive...

      December 19, 2012 at 1:55 pm |

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