Can South Korea’s Lee Complete His Revolution?

Against a backdrop of worsening political tensions on the Korean Peninsula, South Korean voters go to the polls for general elections April 9. President Lee Myung-bak hopes that the polls will allow his conservative Grand National Party to complete the revolution from the right that he began with his sweeping presidential victory in December.

At stake are the 299 seats in the National Assembly and if this week’s polls are any indication, Lee’s agenda to ease a host of restrictions on Korean conglomerates, including changes to the tax laws and allowing giant companies to own a bigger share of commercial banks, will have an easy time of it in the new Assembly.

With voters worried about economic conditions, Lee’s promise of a return to the heady days of Korean growth seem to be overwhelmingly in favor. If the battered liberal bloc, which governed the country for ten years, fails to win at least 100 seats, the way will also be clear for Lee to amend the constitution.

Grand National Party candidates are leading in 145 districts, while the leading liberal group, the United Democratic Party, is favored in just 71, according to an analysis of several polls published in the JoongAng Ilbo, a Seoul newspaper. The newspaper cited polls conducted by itself and YTN, a television network. It also cited Media Research and Korea Research, two large polling firms in the country.

In addition to the lead for its candidates, the GNP could also likely draw eventual support from several breakaway factions inside the rightist party who have left largely because they are even more conservative than Lee, who styles himself a “new right” leader who eschews traditional ideology in favor of his pro-big business agenda. The main opposition to Lee from the right is symbolized by his chief party rival, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of late dictator Park Chung Hee, who was assassinated in 1979 by his own intelligence chief after 19 years of hardball rule that began with a military coup.

So far, the most substantial campaigning, if you want to call it that, of the Assembly race seems to have been conducted over North Korea. After a decade of being wooed and rewarded in exchange for engagement with Seoul, Pyongyang has been stung by a series of tough – if largely symbolic – steps taken by Lee’s government since it was installed in late February.

In recent weeks, the Seoul government has voted in favor of a resolution at the UN Human Rights Council in Geneva extending the term of the UN’s special rapporteur on human rights in North Korea – his liberal predecessor Roh Moo-hyun abstained on virtually every such vote. In addition, the new chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff in Korea said on March 26 that the South would consider taking pre-emptive measures if North Korea’s nuclear capability proved to be a threat.

“We would identify possible locations of nuclear weapons and make a precise attack in advance,” Gen Kim Tae-young told a National Assembly committee when asked what he would do if North Korea were to develop the capability and intent to attack the South with nuclear weapons.

Pyongyang responded by demanding a written apology and calling Lee a “sycophant,” “traitor” and “confrontational maniac,” in North Korea’s first attack on a South Korean president by name since 1993. “South Korea’s conservative clique is preparing for war against North Korea and is making a fuss about human rights issues,” North Korea’s state mouthpiece, the Korea Central News Agency, said yesterday, citing a Rodong Sinmun newspaper editorial. The actions and comments demonstrate “how far Lee Myung-bak’s confrontational lunacy has gone.”

Rebuffing calls for an apology, Lee’s government responded with a letter of its own: “It is inappropriate for you [North Korea] to subjectively interpret our official’s comments and take issue with them,” said a Defense Ministry letter sent on April 2, according to press reports. “Your subjective criticism and tension-creating actions are not helping peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula, so stop them immediately.”

The letter was delivered by Major General Kwon Oh-sung, South Korea’s chief military negotiator, to his North Korean counterpart, Maj. General Kim Yong-chol. The Defense Ministry made the letter public.

Last week, North Korea test-fired missiles in the sea west of the peninsula and also expelled 11 South Korea officials from the Kaesong Industrial Complex in North Korea, an inter-Korean factory zone and important source of foreign exchange for the North. That project was established following the first summit meeting between the two Koreas in 2000, when former President Kim Dae-jung’s “sunshine policy” finally succeeded in breaking the ice with Kim Jong-il, the North dictator.

While operations in the Kaesong zone were not disrupted and joint tourism functions are also continuing, the ratcheting up of tensions seems to be a calculated gamble on Lee’s part.

North Korea is unlikely to adjust its behavior in response to resolutions or veiled threats. But neither is it likely to spur any kind of real confrontation. Beset by troubles from the hawks inside his own party, Lee, a former Hyundai executive, may be gambling that by talking tough on North Korea, he can convince skeptics that he is a “real” conservative ahead of elections, thus clearing the way to reunite his party behind his main objective – economic growth and helping Korea’s chaebol.

By contrast, North Korea’s saber-rattling seems to be a proxy bid to shore up South Korean voters’ support for the more conciliatory approach on North Korea offered by liberal politicians.

It’s a risky gamble for all sides as the currently stalled six-party talks on North Korea’s nuclear program have shown progress in months. While South Korean officials predict the North will return to the table with Seoul – along with Washington, Tokyo, Moscow and Beijing – and eventually conclude a deal, if the process comes undone, years of progress could be wiped out. The eventuality would also be a blow to President George W. Bush, for whom peaceful progress on North Korea has been one of the few diplomatic victories of his bleak tenure.

For experts in Seoul, it is a guessing game. “The missile firing and other moves are classic routine practices given the North’s past history,” said a senior researcher at the Korea Institute for National Unification who was quoted anonymously in the JoongAng Daily. “We need to take a more stern posture in order not to be swayed by such tactics.” The paper said the expert believes the nuclear talks will continue. Former officials with long experience dealing with North Korea’s erratic government are more worried.

Former Unification Minister Jeong Se-hyun, who served under both Kim Dae-jung and Roh, urged the South Korean government to take it easy, saying that a confrontational stance could harm the country. “If the government continues producing hawkish remarks and fails to properly respond to the North’s actions, we will eventually go back to the old days of confrontation and tension,” Jeong told a Seoul radio station on Monday. “What good would we get by going back to the old days in this day and age when South-North relations have a great impact on Korea's international credit rating?”