ROBERT E. KELLY is an associate professor of international relations in the Department of Political Science and Diplomacy at Pusan National University. Read more of his work on his Web site, AsianSecurityBlog.wordpress.com. Follow him on Twitter @Robert_E_Kelly.See more by this author
On December 19, South Koreans will choose their next president, and most polls point to a narrow victory for Park Geun-hye, of the conservative New Frontier Party, over Moon Jae-in, of the liberal Democratic United Party (DUP). After a third, unaffiliated liberal candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, dropped out of the race in late November, the contest became a traditional right versus left, two-party showdown. (South Korea frequently has major third-party presidential candidates, so this is unusual.) But the election will be close. This should be the left's year to win, given that the approval rating of the current president, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, languishes at 20 percent. Still, Park has run a moderate campaign, distancing herself from some of the tougher positions of the Lee administration on both foreign and domestic policy. South Korea may be tilting leftward, but the left may have to wait another five years to claim the presidency.
In South Korea, as in most democracies, domestic issues often determine the outcomes of elections. To be sure, given South Korea's proximity to erratic North Korea, foreign policy inevitably plays a role in politics. But it is far smaller than outsiders might imagine. Pyongyang's recent rocket launch, for example, does not appear to have significantly swung votes.
One reason for this is the growing popular consensus in favor of engagement with North Korea. For ten years, successive governments in Seoul pursued what was called the Sunshine Policy, which extended aid to North Korea and muted criticism of that regime's severe human rights abuses. After Lee's election in 2007, the new president, who was ideologically and personally close to George W. Bush, reversed the Sunshine Policy and placed strict conditions on aid to North Korea. Pyongyang, predictably, reacted furiously and tried to bully Seoul back into unconditional assistance by sinking a South Korean destroyer and shelling a small island town in 2010. Most Western powers supported Lee's hawkish turn, thinking that the Sunshine Policy, although perhaps worth a try in 1990s, had ultimately failed. That North Korea responded so violently only confirmed its place on the "axis of evil" and underscored the importance of the U.S.-South Korean alliance.