Electing the Next President in South Korea

Kongdan Oh
Kongdan Oh Former Brookings Expert, Asian Specialist - Institute for Defense Analysis

April 18, 2011

In presidential elections, domestic politics and the domestic economy play a key role in the minds of voters.

In American politics, this role is symbolized by two famous phrases. The former U.S. Speaker of the House Tip O’Neill is famous for recognizing that “All politics is local,” and a pithy guideline of Bill Clinton’s 1992 presidential campaign was “It’s the economy, stupid.”

Yet international politics and the global economy, most especially conditions in neighboring countries and relations with major trading partners, have a strong impact on the national economy. Although these broader forces are difficult for voters to understand or even appreciate, more often than not they are the underlying forces that determine such things as employment and prices.

So what global forces are likely to impinge on South Korea in the years ahead, and how do the presidential candidates view those forces? In 2012, the presidential election year, Seoul will host the Global Nuclear Summit, and Yeosu, the beautiful port city in South Jeolla Province, will host the World Expo. The year 2012 may also prove to be a turning point in relations with North Korea, thus determining the future of the Korean Peninsula.

Start with North Korea, which looms over South Korea like a gathering storm. The leadership succession in Pyongyang will continue to develop, and however it goes it won’t be a pretty sight. Back in 1994, some foreign analysts suspected that Kim Jong-il would prove to be a reformer. Hardly anyone today is saying the same thing about Kim Jong-un. If the next South Korean president does not have a correct understanding of North Korea, the coming years may see more trouble between the two Koreas. Where will the candidates stand on important issues such as holding talks with the North, providing humanitarian aid, and maintaining economic relations?

China presents another headache because its economy will continue to grow, as well as its military. For much of the 20th century the United States influenced events in almost every corner of the world. In the 21st century, China may gain the same influence, and Korea is one of its closest neighbors. In Beijing, the Supreme People’s Congress in 2010 announced the goal of making China an economically and militarily strong nation, a larger version of North Korea’s “gangseong daeguk” (strong and prosperous country). While this is an empty phrase in North Korea’s case, it will likely become true for China. The next South Korean president must have clear ideas about what the country’s relations with China should be.

China will continue to be an important trade and investment partner, but it will be much more than that. Economic interests invariably give rise to political interests, and China has its own views on what kind of political and economic neighborhood it wants to live in. A Korean president who focuses only on bilateral economic relations will be shortchanging Korea’s future. Korea needs leverage over China to assure its own security and prosperity. Where will that leverage come from?

And then there’s the supreme challenge of national unification, which must inevitably be realized. This is something that most Koreans don’t like to think much about except in very abstract political and nationalistic terms. It is a challenge with perplexing economic, political, military, social, and moral dimensions. Perhaps unification can be “managed,” but on the other hand it may come quickly and with little warning, like an unwelcome relative paying a visit to one’s home.

And in the meantime, what is to be done about the suffering people in North Korea who are held hostage by their government? The “sunshine” policy of two previous Korean administrations did little to help the North Korean people, and by strengthening their leaders, that policy may even have hurt them. Yet, the cold-shoulder policy of the current administration is not satisfactory either, and may even invite further military provocations from the North. Korea’s next president must say how he or she will approach this momentous national challenge.

Finally, it is an unfortunate fact that politics, especially on a national level, is political theater. The candidates present themselves as actors who desperately want to please their audience. They say whatever they think will get them elected, or if they are more honest, they at least steer clear of saying anything that might keep them from being elected. To avoid “buying a pig in a poke,” to quote the expressive English phrase, Korean voters must push the candidates to state their policies clearly, while recognizing that even a president is constrained by future events and political obstacles from carrying out promised policies in their entirety.