Park Geun-hye’s Electoral Victory: A Sigh of Relief from Washington?

Korea’s presidential election is over and conservative Saenuri (“New Frontier”) Party candidate Madame Park Geun-hye has defeated her progressive rival, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party (DUP). Park will become Korea’s first female president — an historic development in Korea’s notoriously male-dominated, rough-and-tumble politics.

In a bitterly contested race, Park overcame a strong challenge by the center-left DUP, which sought to exploit popular discontent over the economy, social welfare issues, and disappointment with the incumbent conservative President Lee Myung-bak. In defeating Moon, Park also had to contend with the mixed legacy of her father, Park Chung-hee, the military strongman who took power in a coup and ruled Korea with an iron fist for 18 years, suppressing political opposition while overseeing the country’s transformation from war-ravaged backwater to industrial powerhouse.

As the electoral results were announced, one could almost hear a sigh of relief from Washington. Many U.S. Korea experts were concerned about a progressive victory and the possibility that Moon, former chief of staff to the late President Roh Moo-hyun, would pursue a foreign policy agenda at odds with the United States. With U.S.-ROK relations now at their strongest in decades, some experts believed a win by the DUP would complicate bilateral coordination on a range of issues, not the least of which was North Korea.

For the United States, perhaps the most significant result of Madame Park’s win is that it should help keep the two allies generally on the same page as they tackle a busy bilateral agenda. Instead of focusing on damage control and managing sharp differences, the two allies will now have an opportunity to build on the current strength of bilateral ties and take their partnership to an even higher level. Differences may arise, but the solid level of trust that has been built up between Washington and Seoul in recent years should help smooth any rough patches that arise.

To be sure, the U.S.-ROK bilateral agenda in the coming months will be a challenging one, beginning with North Korea. Thanks to its recent successful rocket test, the North has moved a step closer to the day when it will have a credible inter-continental ballistic missile capability and a deliverable nuclear weapon. That prospect has been made all the more troubling by the failure of all previous diplomatic efforts to block Pyongyang’s determined effort to become a de facto nuclear weapon state.

As a candidate, Madame Park promised to reach out to the North in an effort to re-start dialogue and resume North-South cooperation. Unlike her progressive rival, she conditioned any improvement in relations on North Korean steps on denuclearization. Madame Park, like the U.S. administration, seems to harbor no illusions about the Pyongyang regime, and by all accounts she shares U.S. skepticism that North Korea will ever give up its nuclear weapons.

Washington is unlikely to oppose a renewed ROK attempt to improve ties with Pyongyang. Nevertheless, such an effort will have to be carefully coordinated so that it does not undermine current efforts to punish the North for its violation of UN Security Council resolutions and the steps the United States and others are taking to raise the cost to Pyongyang for its continued pursuit of missiles and nuclear weapons.

Other priority issues on the bilateral agenda will include smooth implementation of the KORUS Free Trade Agreement; renegotiating the bilateral nuclear cooperation agreement; completing a new cost-sharing arrangement for U.S. forces; and implementing standing agreements on consolidating U.S. military bases and the transfer of wartime operational control of ROK forces from the United States to Korea. Finding ways to harmonize the currently troubled relations between Korea and Japan will also be another priority for U.S.-ROK discussions, as will dealing with China’s growing economic and military role in the region.

President-elect Park will face a significant set of domestic challenges when she takes office in late February, not the least of which is a deeply divided electorate. In addition, a campaign fought largely over social welfare and fairness issues has created widespread expectations that she will act to reduce income inequality, curb the power of Korea’s large corporations, and stimulate the creation of new jobs, particularly for Korea’s youth.

Many in Korea, particularly those in their 20s and 30s, harbor strong doubts about her commitment to this agenda. They also see Park as representing “old” politics rather than the “new” or “clean” politics they had argued for during the campaign, and which inspired their strong support for former president candidate Ahn Chul-soo. Ahn’s sudden withdrawal from the race a few weeks ago disappointed many of these voters and may have prompted some of them to stay home on Wednesday.

In the event, overall turnout in the election was quite high, perhaps around 75-76%, an indication that voters in their 40s –- a critical voting bloc — may have turned out in significant numbers for Park, adding to the solid support she was expected to receive from voters in their 50s and 60s. With this outcome, Park should be able to claim a clear mandate. But in the contentious and emotional world of Korean politics, any honeymoon period she enjoys is likely to be short-lived.