South Korea's Coming National Elections

South Korea’s upcoming presidential election, due on Dec. 19, has come down to a battle between the country’s polarized liberal and conservative camps. Nonetheless, voters from across the political spectrum are demanding a more active government role in public life, although they differ sharply on which candidate they think is better suited to lead.

On the right is the Saenuri Party’s Park Geun-hye, conservative icon and daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee. Many older Koreans remember the elder Park as the man who led the economic boom that took South Korea from post-war poverty to wealth, which makes his daughter popular among old and conservative voters.

The other side of Park’s father’s legacy, however, is his heavy-handed style. He crushed dissent and made plenty of enemies. As his descendant Park reflects this legacy: she lacks support from liberals and to be elected, she will need to win over young voters, particular urban ones in the Seoul region.

On the left is the Democratic United Party’s Moon Jae-in, a former chief of staff under the liberal Roh Moo-hyun government (2003-2008). Moon has campaigned on bread-and-butter liberal promises like expanded welfare and tighter corporate regulation. The biggest criticism is that his plans to increase welfare spending aren’t affordable and fears that he would be an ineffective liberal leader like his mentor, the late Roh.

The race ahead of the vote is still too close to call, but poll data released on Dec. 2 by the Korea Society Opinion Institute shows Park leading with 44 percent of support, compared to Moon’s 40 percent.

The victorious candidate is likely to be the one who can pull in the most swing voters, many of whom had been supporters of recently bowed-out software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo. Moon and Ahn were unable to reach an agreement on which of them would be the single opposition candidate, leading Ahn to step aside voluntarily.

Ahn is now biding his time, staying out of the public eye for a moment, but is expected to come out in strong support of Moon about two weeks before the election. If Ahn’s supporters rally behind Moon, he could help decide the election in a manner similar to how his support helped Park Won-soon win the Seoul mayoral by-election in October 2011.

A big election issue has been what is being called ‘economic democracy’, a kind of leveling of the playing field in a country where regular folks say it has got too difficult to compete with a wealthy elite that is overrepresented in the ranks of major corporations and leading universities.

With an economy facing headwinds from a rapidly aging population, an inflexible labor market hemmed in by strict labor laws, and heavy reliance on exports, which comprise half of gross domestic product at a time of flagging global export demand, the electorate nonetheless are demanding job creation and welfare measures from their next leader. Critics have said that the generous welfare pledges by both candidates, particularly Moon, would bankrupt the country and are little more than populist promises meant to attract votes.

South Koreans regularly rank as some of the least happy, most tired and stressed out people in the world, and have little time to worry about the unstable neighbor to the North, which may explain why North Korea is almost a non-issue in this election.

That being said, the coming change in governments will provide a chance to reformulate Seoul’s North Korea policy. Both candidates say they would take a softer line on North Korea than outgoing leader Lee Myung-bak, who has presided over some of the worst inter-Korean relations ever.

A key difference between the two is that Park is more likely to insist that the North apologize for the 2010 sinking of the Cheonan gunboat and the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island, and is more likely to be insistent that Pyongyang give up its nuclear program. That could be a stumbling block in restarting dialogue, as Pyongyang isn’t known for publicly backing away from its objectives.

Moon has said he would unconditionally start dialogue and lift the May 24 prohibitions on trade with North Korea and that if elected, he would look to hold an inter-Korean summit during his first year in office.

If Park is elected, she would be the first female government head in Northeast Asia and the first in this still fairly patriarchal country. After a career spent presenting herself as a politician who happens to be female, instead of as one who works according to female instincts, Park is now making her gender a big part of her campaign. Her main campaign poster describes her as a “prepared female president” and she has made comments pledging to oversee the country “with the heart of a mother.”

There is a debate going on over whether Park has the credibility to trumpet gender politics in her campaign or to appeal to the Korean concept of the nurturing mother figure. In early November, Yonsei University professor Hwang Sang-min said what many are thinking by commenting, “Park may have the genitals of a woman but has never performed her role as a woman.”

The unmarried, childless Park is unpopular with young women who feel that with her privileged upbringing and unconventional adulthood she has no real understanding of the things that are important to women who are attempting to raise children in an expensive, demanding country or succeed professionally in the masculine, boozy world of Korean business.

According to OECD data released on Nov. 30, South Korea has a gender income gap of 39 percent, the largest among the 28 nations surveyed. South Korea also led in that category in 2000, with a gap of 40 percent. If Park is successfully elected as a candidate who will work for women’s well being, she will need to find ways of addressing serious problems such as the lack of progress on this front.

The upcoming election promises to be a tight contest between two candidates with firm support bases but limited crossover appeal. The eventual victor could be the candidate who can do more to ingratiate him or herself to the small, undecided middle of the political spectrum between now and Dec. 19.