South Korea's Changing Politics

With South Korean President Lee Myung-bak’s approval ratings waning amid a stagnant domestic and global economy, it increasingly looks like the governing Grand National Party could be pushed out of the presidency in national elections despite the formidable presence of the daughter of the assassinated former President Park Chung-hee as the GNP’s candidate.

The 70-year-old Lee is being condemned by both the left and the right for a long series of misfires going clear back to the beginning of his term, when he faced massive protests over his decision to allow US beef imports into the country. That was followed by what is perceived to be his mishandling of relations with North Korea and by a long series of scandals that have forced the resignations of several cronies.

In addition, Lee is blamed for rising inflation, particularly in housing prices, joblessness, the high cost of university education, and other national ailments. Faced with an uphill campaign for reelection in parliamentary general elections next year, even members of his own party want to see him leave in office with no more troubles.

Voters increasingly seem to be discarding conventional party p0litics outright. The selection of the independent candidate Park Won-soon on Oct. 26 as Seoul’s new mayor has created a groundswell to entice Ahn Cheol-soo, also a moderate reformist and a Wharton School graduate who has no political affiliation, to climb aboard as the most formidable potential adversary to take on the Grand National Party. Ahn today is the hottest thing in Korean politics.

The GNP has one major artillery piece. That is the popular Park Geun-hye, the GNP’s odds-on favorite for the presidential elections. Now in her fourth parliamentary term, Geun-hye, 59, is the daughter of the late Park Chung-hee, whose presidential career ended violently in 1979 when he was assassinated by his own security chief. Until the October election, she was considered the most influential politician in South Korea.

Apparently, Ahn is a godsend for the opposition parties, which have failed to find a competitive contender in recent months, breathing new life into the opposition’s hopes for presidential power a year from now. The Democratic Party, the second-biggest in the country, wasn’t even able to generate enough approval to field a strong contender in the Seoul mayoralty race and so backed Park Won-soon.

Park Won-son’s election as Seoul mayor appears directly engineered by Ahn, who was initially considered to be the leading mayoral candidate. With his withdrawal, it was widely assumed that the race would go to the GNP candidate, Na Kyung-won. But against the odds and with Ahn’s ability to mobilize young voters, Park won a hands-down victory despite the energetic attempts by Park Geun-hye to help Na.

Na’s defeat, by a margin of 46 percent to 53 percent for Park, clearly demonstrated the incongruities and frustrations that are piling up for the government and the ruling party. It’s unclear whether the victory of Park, a human rights lawyer who won his spurs opposing earlier military dictatorships, will usher in cleaner government in South Korea.

But Ahn appears to know exactly what young voters want. Over the last several months, Ahn, the dean of Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, has performed as a ‘national mentor’ who is more often than not mentioned at the dinner table as a serious presidential candidate.

With a long background in the IT industry, Ahn is a comparative latecomer to politics, but one who is adept at reading frustrated voters’ undercurrents. Inevitably, his eyes can be expected to drift to the presidential elections, scheduled for December 2012.

However, it is not uncommon for university professors to enter politics, where most helplessly vanish into a cloud of political obfuscation. Moderates wonder whether Ahn, who is building his political fortunes on the overall failure of government policies, scandals and economic malaise, is entitled to run for the presidency. His opponents criticize the rhetoric he has launched against the chaebol, the giant conglomerates that dominate the country’s business landscape. Indeed, he isn’t the first. While his perceptions of the chaebol may be on the mark, a lot of other pundits have spent years criticizing their practices.

Ahn’s economic philosophy, mainly drawn from his experience as the chief executive officer of his own company, has rekindled a debate between the right and the left about whether the big corporations are the most effective leaders of South Korea’s economy. To this end, his political impact in terms of an alternative vision may turn out to be far less influential than his current poll numbers suggest.

While the conservatives are eager to hear Ahn’s position over the controversial Korea-US free trade agreement, which has been described as a ‘marriage with no divorce,’ he has kept his own counsel. Yet now with the current contest hinging on the economy, including jobs, and corruption, these are the most likely ingredients to secure Ahn’s position as an alternative independent candidate and ultimately the Blue House occupant, and analysts believe he must start making his positions better known.

The perception of integrity alone can’t buy the presidency, of course. But everyone is talking about the corrupt leadership for obvious reasons. President Lee and his loyalists had no trouble ignoring their professed values and turning a blind toward the cronyism and numerous scandals of a broken government. In particular, young people’s wrath says that they could sink the GNP.

Going to a two-person run-off in the 2012 presidential elections is a unified opposition’s preferred way to win the race, which could reshape the edge for Ahn, only if he can survive the pre-election process to be handpicked as the solid candidate of a coalition. This is a politically tangible scenario in the context of dynamic Korean politics.

In one survey, 58 percent of respondents in their 30s, 49.1 percent in their 20s and 46.6 percent in their 40s, respectively, were in favor of Ahn’s joining the presidential race. People in their 40s are called the 486 generation, a reference to those who were born in the 1960s, a great number of whom fought to take power away from military rulers in the 1980s. Born in the early 196os, Ahn was quick to win the support of most relatively liberal voters for his anti-military stance.

It’s not yet confirmed whether Ahn was a strong advocate of democratization in the 1980s. But he is to be sure one of the most influential figures in Korean politics. Even with widespread name recognition, he might decide not to enter the race. Instead Ahn who already identified himself as an anti-GNP supporter will likely play a decisive role in campaigning for a unified opposition party’s consensus candidate as he did for the new mayor.

Whatever he might choose, Ahn’s political pull would create a significant effect on the GNP’s tides. His public footprint is really big. By contrast, Ms. Park’s candidacy looks similar to that of Arizona Sen. John McCain, whose campaign collapsed in December of 2008. More twists and turns lie ahead. But in 2012, South Korea could see the GNP collapse.

(Lee Byong-chul is a Senior Fellow at the Institute for Peace and Cooperation in Seoul. These views are his own.)