Can Korea’s New President Engage the North? She Says She’ll Try

By Leee Byong Chul 26 December 2012

SEOUL—There was no “Rock the Vote” among liberal voters in South Korea’s national elections last Wednesday, despite the fact that many felt severely betrayed by the sitting Lee Myung-bak government, which analysts will probably rank as the worst in South Korean history, particularly in terms of inter-Korean relations.

South Korean voters handed victory to Park Geun-hye, 60, of the ruling Saenuri Party, the daughter of one-time strongman Park Chung-hee, making South Korea a land of the conservative once again by giving power to the party that has governed for the last five years. (A South Korean president is limited to a single five-year term by the Constitution.)

Dubbed the “Queen of Elections,” Park staked her presidential candidacy on distancing herself from the Lee government, whose overall popularity hovered around 20 percent because of failures in policy and corruption scandals, although she herself explicitly declined to repudiate the government’s overall policy.

To this end, the five-term former lawmaker fished for right-leaning voters by strategically pandering to the slogan “Let’s Live the Good Life,” a reminder that her father once mobilized the New Village Movement in the 1970s. One of the major issues in this election was the chaebol, the industrial behemoths that have grown far too big to fail, and whose business strategies far too often appear to supersede government policy. They were built into corporate giants during her father’s 17-year reign. By identifying obliquely with his policies, she scuttled the liberal majority’s plan to challenge them. The voters declined to change the economy radically in tough times.

Beyond that, the election of Park as South Korea’s first woman president is as dramatic as her own family history. Her mother, Yook Young-soo, was shot to death in an earlier assassination attempt on her father on Aug. 15, 1974. A major general turned president, Park’s father was later assassinated over the dinner table by his intelligence chief in 1979. Park Chung-hee symbolized the country’s rapid economic development, the so-called “Miracle on the Han River,” during his autocratic rule in the wake of a bloodless military coup.

Throughout the campaign, the president-elect hinted that she intended to govern South Korea in the same spirit that marked the miracle long ago. That gesture of an economy policy based on welfare set the tone for her.

The president-elect also has an astonishing talent for simplifying complicated issues accurately, which she likely learned—along with how to interpret and manipulate the political connotations of every issue—from her father, although her opponents claim she argued pointlessly or vaguely with the moderator and her rival during debate over the critical issues. As a pillar of export-oriented modernity, Park Chung-hee was once lionized as the archetype of a modernizing political leadership in military-authoritarian states. At home, he continues to rank first in popularity among the country’s elders, stirring nostalgia as a popular old record does—a corollary to people’s frustration and anger at the outgoing government, which eventually worsened the atmosphere in an ideologically and economically polarized nation.

Research suggests that young voters in their 20s and 30s have unconscious biases that sometimes lead to generational divides over national security. We have come to expect that every five years, especially among liberal and left-leaning poll strategists, the youth vote determines the future of South Korea. That expectation was reversed this time because of their elders’ strong preference for Park. It was the majority of conservative voters who spoke up this time to decide the election.

North Korea’s Unha (Galaxy)-3 launch on Dec.12 was in no way a hot-button issue. It convinced numerous voters on the right to believe that more sanctions should be imposed upon North Korea, whose actions provided fodder for Park’s staunch supporters, many of whom experienced the tragedy of the 1950-53 Korean War, or their immediate families did.

While left-leaning pundits are fond of arguing that a woman president would be a non-starter as long as the North Korean regime continued to threaten national security, moderate voters in the male-dominated country discarded the old thinking. The uncertainty of the Kim Jong-un regime in Pyongyang helped make many South Koreans anxious to respond to the imperatives of the fraught inter-Korean relationship. There is a widespread conviction that South Korea’s national security leadership has been far too amateurish in recent years, as evidenced by the sinking of the South Korean corvette Cheonan with the loss of 46 lives, the shelling on Yeonpyeong islands and the Lee administration’s miscalculated predictions of the North’s latest rocket launch.

So far, there have been expectations that the pro-America president-elect may seek to engage North Korea while taking a firmer stand against that nation’s increasingly assertive claims about its nuclear weapons program. After the victory, Park appeared to move quickly to improve ties with North Korea, which has been using its old tactic tongmibongnam, meaning opening the door to the Americans while shutting it to the South Koreans with a view to driving a wedge between Seoul and Washington.

Park has said she would meet with Kim Jong-un when she takes office. In contrast to the Lee government’s approach to the North— that it would improve relations in exchange for Pyongyang’ promise to dismantle its nuclear facilities—Park’s message may underscore a change in the inter-Korean relationship, appealing to many moderates as a demonstration of her open-mindedness.

The question now is whether the president-elect will seek to engage North Korea economically more than the current government, which drove relations between the two Koreans to their lowest point over recent history. It is in our interests for North Korea to be more stable. Well-focused, long-term assistance in which we are a genuine partner could help the hopeless regime achieve goals such as liaison offices in Pyongyang and Seoul leading to a full diplomatic relationship with South Korea, and, possibly, with the United States, as well as economic incentives. For an inter-Korean dialogue to have any chance of success, the president-elect ought to move quickly to make it clear to the Kim regime that giving up on the nuclear weapons program could lead it to a safer and positive future. One hope is that the president-elect is able to overcome the division of ideology deeply embedded within the two Koreas in the name of her “grand national integration” strategy.

Lee Byong-Chul is a senior fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul.