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Park Geun-hye campaigns in Seoul. (Lee Jae Won / Courtesy Reuters)
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.
But at home, a generational shift is occurring on the North Korea question. Since the 1990s, South Koreans, especially young people, have become more dovish and supportive of diplomatic outreach to the North. This explains, in large part, why Lee's approval ratings have plunged. A January 2012 poll taken by the South Korean Ministry of Unification found that 60 percent of South Koreans believe their government is too harsh in dealing with North Korea. Even in the wake of the sinking of the South Korean ship, conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Americans or the Lee administration had sunk it to stir up anti-North Korean sentiment. And after the shelling of the island, a snap poll by the Kukmin newspaper found that half the public blamed Lee for provoking North Korea into belligerence.
This public sentiment is reflected in the tone of the Park campaign, which has moved beyond the normally hawkish rhetoric of the conservatives. Park is promising to engage with and build trust with the North, including by resuming the aid that Lee had suspended (what, if any, conditionality there will be is unclear). She has also suggested a summit meeting with the new North Korean leader, Kim Jong Un. This is a bit of gamble; her conservative, elderly base, as well as the right-wing media, is still quite anti-communist. But conservative voters have nowhere else to turn. Park's only viable rival, Moon, has pledged to revive the Sunshine Policy. In any case, the fact that both candidates are running as doves suggests that a new generation of South Koreans is beginning to accept the semi-permanence of the North-South divide and is unwilling to risk the South's prosperity over confrontation with the North or attempts at regime change.
Another foreign policy issue lurking in the background of the campaign is South Korea's geopolitical bind between the United States and China. Korea has historically been an encircled middle power -- "a shrimp among whales," as a traditional Korean saying goes. So South Korea's alliance with the United States reinforces Seoul's sovereignty in a tough neighborhood. But China is now Korea's largest export market, and it wields great influence over North Korea. As a result, all the candidates have pledged to improve relations with China. Maneuvering the tensions between Washington and Beijing will prove a tricky foreign policy issue for decades.
For all the talk of the "pivot" to Asia in the United States, the idea is not widely discussed in South Korea. And South Koreans are not all that interested in containing China. Although Korea was a tributary state of China for nearly a millennium, China never terrorized it the way Japan did. A January 2012 poll from the Dong-A newspaper found that more South Koreans disliked Japan than disliked China -- 50 percent and 40 percent, respectively. And the dispute over the Liancourt Rocks, a group of islets claimed by both Seoul and Tokyo, regularly sparks anti-Japanese fervor in South Korea. China and South Korea share obvious cultural similarities, and their sheer proximity means that Seoul and Beijing will inevitably engage on many issues -- most importantly, the fate of North Korea. All this means that, for South Korea, relations with China are now arguably as important as those with the United States.
Electorally, this slow shift favors the left. Park is heir to a more traditional, pro-American foreign policy, whereas Moon appeals to supporters of an Asia-oriented approach, in which South Korea would operate more independently and cut deals with China, North Korea, and others as needed. Understanding that centrist policies have become more popular, Park has run a moderate campaign. So a win for her would not likely result in a distinct right turn, as Lee's victory did in 2008.
A similar trend is playing out in domestic politics. The current administration has failed to address some major policy questions, most notably inequality and the need for reform of the chaebol (large business conglomerates). But Park's moderation lets her avoid association with Lee's shortcomings.
Inequality has been the most divisive issue in the campaign. Koreans largely believe that their country's economic growth has brought about a two-tiered society, consisting of a wealthy elite of politically and economically powerful families (endlessly romanticized in Korean soap operas) and a broad but struggling middle class.
By the formal measure of inequality, the Gini coefficient, South Korean society is reasonably equal. At 0.31, its income distribution is similar to Scandinavia's. (The United States' score is 0.38, Japan's is 0.33, and China's stands at a staggering 0.44.) Nevertheless, a regular bout of scandals has shone a spotlight on the country's crony corporatism. Polling finds that large majorities of South Koreans resent the mammoth chaebol that dominate Korea's economy. A February poll taken by Hangil Research found that 60 percent of Koreans thought the chaebol did not benefit "ordinary people." Before he was president, Lee ran one such conglomerate -- Hyundai Engineering and Construction -- and many suspect that he has aided them against struggling smaller businesses. Most disappointingly, he has also pardoned from jail time several chaebol heads, including the chairs of Samsung and Hyundai Motors, both of whom have been convicted of fraud. (The usual specious excuse is that they are critical for national development.)
Resentment of the chaebol is nothing new in Korean politics. What has changed, however, is that this year even the New Frontier Party appears to support reforming them. Park has been generally in line with the social democratic tilt of a campaign season in which ideas such as maternity assistance, capping university tuition fees, and free school lunches have been very popular. Favoring such policies is atypical of South Korea's conservatives, but the country is facing severe social and demographic problems that call for political flexibility. South Koreans marry later and divorce more frequently than in the past. The country's birth rate is one of the lowest in the world, and its suicide and household-debt rates are among the highest. The lack of at-work daycare and the persistence of Confucian gender roles have produced a backlash among educated women who are increasingly unwilling to surrender their careers to raise children. These are not trends that South Korean conservatives can afford to ignore.
Whoever wins, the new president will face pressure to move South Korea beyond some of its traditional approaches: economic concentration at home and a foreign policy centered on a close alliance with the United States. South Korea's maturing democracy is increasingly incompatible with its economic elitism, and China's rapid rise suggests that a simple reliance on the Americans will not best protect Seoul's interests. Both of these trends should broadly favor the political left, and even Park, the likely winner, will govern to the left of her predecessor.