Elections Loom in South Korea

South Korea will hold local elections all across the country on June 2 to pick mayors, governors and council members. Since the elections are scheduled about halfway through the National Assembly's four-year term, they are regarded by many voters as a chance to pass judgment on the president and legislators.

The last two local elections, which took place while progressive presidents were in power, gave overwhelming victories to the conservative Grand National Party headed by the current president, Lee Myung-bak. Before the sinking of the Korean Navy patrol boat Cheonan, political watchers believed that mid-term timing of the local elections, coupled with the looming anniversary of the suicide death of former president Roh Moo-hyun, gave the main opposition Democratic Party a shot at having a similar sweep at the polls.

Now, however, the Democrats fear they will be swept under by a so-called "North Korean Wave" caused by the sinking and the loss of 46 lives. The ship went down on March 26 in the Yellow Sea, just south of the disputed Northern Limit Line near Baengnyeong Island. The Democrats have questioned the results of the investigation into the sinking. An international team turned up a chunk of a torpedo with North Korean serial numbers on it. The North has indignantly denied it had anything to do with the sinking. President Lee has taken a tough line on the sinking, saying in an address to the nation Monday that South Korea "will not tolerate any provocative act by the North and will maintain the principle of proactive deterrence. If our territorial waters, airspace or territory are militarily violated, we will immediately exercise our right of self-defense."

The Korea Times' Lee Tae-hoon suggests that the election will largely depend on whom voters blame the most for the sinking:

"Past records show that North Korea's security threats against Seoul rally support for conservatives, as seen from the downing of Korean Air flight 858 in November 1987," Lee writes. "The tragedy which took place only two weeks before the presidential election helped Roh Tae-woo, then presidential candidate for the ruling party, secure victory.

"However, some campaign watchers say it is still uncertain whether the North's involvement in the sinking of the frigate Cheonan on March 26 will strengthen the position of the governing Grand National Party (GNP) in the upcoming polls. They say the findings of the investigation into the naval incident have also revealed a security loophole in President Lee Myung-bak's administration."

The Democrats' line of attack, outlined in the Korea Times piece, is a legitimate concern and something that the public should talk about, even though national security is not something that your local town council will spend much time dealing with.

What is not a legitimate line of attack is seeking to blame Seoul for the sinking and the deaths. Of course, nothing will stop former Presidential candidate Chung Dong-young, who recently rejoined the Democrats after leaving the party earlier, from demonstrating once again that he is the biggest buffoon in Korean politics today:

"The root cause of this incident lies in the fact that the West Sea, which had been heading toward becoming a sea of peace over the 10 years prior to this administration, has now devolved into a sea of tension, antagonism and hatred," said Chung, now the Democratic Party election countermeasures commission co-chairman, on Friday. "The fundamental solution is the building of a peace regime on the Korean Peninsula."

In case you are not familiar with Chung, he is not some backbencher or local party hack, but one of the leading members of the Democratic Party, the Democrats' presidential nominee in 2007, and Minister of Unification under Roh Moo-hyun.

Polls I have seen have the popularity of the parties tightening somewhat over the past couple of weeks but Grand National Party candidates are still ahead in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi Province. As those are the largest "swing areas" (those which have a history of changing their party support), the Democrats still have some catching up to do.

Andy Jackson blogs as "Flying Yangban" for Asian Correspondent, with which Asia Sentinel has a content-sharing agreement.