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Five Factors to Watch for South Korea’s National Assembly Elections


By Chad O’Carroll

In 2012 South Korea will hold elections for both the National Assembly and the presidency, the first time that both votes will be in held during the same year in several decades. With South Korean president’s being limited to a maximum term of five years, Lee Myung-bak will be ending his term in December, most likely to be replaced by either a candidate from the ruling Saenuri party, or from the main opposition – the Democratic United Party.  But what are the main issues of contention between the two parties in this year’s two elections?  The Peninsula takes a closer look at five of the main factors that will contribute towards the outcome of the 2012 votes:

PARTY REBRANDING

Despite Lee Myung-bak having brought the ruling conservative party success with a landslide victory in 2007, recent developments have led to a reorientation away from traditional political values on both sides of the political spectrum:

  1. The recent win in the Seoul mayoral election by political novice Park Won-soon has altered the political environment for the 2012 elections, contributing to one in which more focus on identifying with younger generations will be important.  Having beaten the ruling party backed candidate, Park’s victory was aided by key support from software tycoon Ahn Chul-soo, a potential Presidential candidate that himself enjoys widespread popularity among younger generations.
  2. As a result of the mayoral elections, both major parties have undergone name and identity changes in an attempt to capture some of the recent surge in support for non-traditional figures like Park Won-soon and Ahn Cheol-soo. The ruling party (GNP) has been renamed to Saenuri (“New Frontier Party”), while the Democratic Party is now known as the “Democratic Unified Party”.
  3. The proportion of voters who regard themselves as conservatives fell from 43 percent in 2007 to 31 percent in 2011.  But despite the DUP’s efforts to change, one recent poll suggests the public view the Saenuri Party’s change of direction as being more credible.

NORTH KOREA

While a recent poll suggested that just 8.1% of South Koreans believe improving inter-Korean ties is an important goal for the next president, there are three reasons North Korea will nevertheless play an important role in determining the outcome of this year’s elections:

  1. After five years of hard-line policy under Lee Myung-bak, indicators suggest that there will be increased impetus to make engaging with North Korea a priority on both sides of the political compass.  Seoul’s new progressive mayor has already started engaging with Pyongyang in cultural and sporting domains, while the ruling parties’ approval of these activities suggests that Saenuri are also becoming more open to engagement with North Korea.
  2. North Korea has long been suspected of trying to influence elections in South Korea to create a more amenable Blue House.  This year, Pyongyang’s state-run media has been making a special effort to undermine the ruling Saenuri party and has been working hard to frame the elections as a dichotomy between war and peace.  With overseas citizens now able to in Korean elections for the first time this year, there are concerns North Korea’s input may have some influence in determining the votes of overseas Koreans.
  3. Should North Korea decide to act belligerently in advance of either vote, then it could seriously impact the outcome of the elections. Following provocations like the sinking of the Cheonan and shelling of Yeonpyeong, many South Koreans took on a more hardline view of North Korea, less willing to pursue engagement policies. Because of this, North Korea might be reluctant to initiate any major provocations in advance of general elections, fearful of putting pro-engagement candidates at a disadvantage.

SOCIAL MEDIA

Social media, including Twitter, are playing an increasingly prominent role in Korean political discourse. A recent Hankyroreh and Korea Society Opinion Institute poll showed politics to be one of the most retweeted topics by users in South Korea this year. This and other indicators suggest social media will continue to shape the electoral campaigns in the months to come:

  1. As mentioned, Seoul’s 2011 mayoral elections brought to power a political novice with a history of social activism.  This was achieved mainly through the support he garnered from younger generations through IT tycoon Ahn Cheol-soo (who is also extremely popular on Twitter with the under 40 age group).
  2. Seeking to draw the attention of the politically active younger generations and increase transparency, in January the Democratic Unity Party decided to accept text votes from cell-phones to select their new leader.  The mobile voting system had previously proved influential, especially during the aforementioned 2011 Seoul mayoral by-election.
  3. The team behind one of the world’s most listened to podcast, Naneun Ggomsuda, may also have a key role in determining the outcome of elections in South Korea this year.  Specializing in political satire, the podcast has to date taken a vehemently anti- Lee Myung Bak and New Frontier Party (formerly the Grand National Party) position which may influence listeners to vote for the opposition.

KORUS FTA

Signed in 2007by late President Roh Moo-hyun and his Uri Party (one of the predecessors of the renamed Democratic Unified Party), the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement was later renegotiated by President Lee Myung-bak and his American counterparts in December 2010.  But while the FTA should therefore enjoy bipartisan support in South Korea, recent developments suggest it may emerge as an electoral issue later in 2012:

  1. On Feb 8 2012, DUP Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook said her party would scrap the FTA upon winning power unless several “poison clauses” were modified.   Since threatening to scrap the FTA, Han has been silent on the matter. This may have been due to a backlash in public opinion, with some key groups worried her position could undermine Korea’s international credibility.
  2. In response to Han’s threat, the Saenuri party conducted a poll which determined that 50.5% of the population thought scrapping the FTA would damage the interests of Korea, with just 33.2% in favor of nullifying the treat.  Lee Myung-bak has also rebuked the opposition for flip-flopping on the agreement, with many opposition figures having originally supported it under former leader President Roh.
  3. The KORUS FTA is set to enter the implementation stage as of March 15.  But with Han having labeled the forthcoming April 11 general election as a referendum of the Lee administrations “overall policies”, it could nevertheless re-emerge in the 2012 political discourse.

“WELFARE POPULISM”

With an ever widening gap between rich and poor in South Korea, there is an increasing demand for politicians to address the issues of equality and welfare.  In response, both of the main political parties have been articulating new policies to address these concerns.  But some suggest welfare promises are nothing more than an attempt to pacify the demands of voters:

  1. The ruling Saenuri Party is considering campaign platforms which may include raising the wages of conscripts to 400,000 won a month from below 100,000 won at present, providing free child care to families with children under the age of 5, and free high school education.  Similarly, the Democratic United Party’s promises include free school meals for all elementary and middle school students, a drastic expansion in national health insurance coverage, and slashing college tuitions by half.
  2. The Finance Ministry has expressed concern regarding the continuing announcement of welfare proposals from both main parties, saying that if implemented, they could cost nearly one-third of South Korea’s entire gross domestic product.  “From the perspective of fiscal authorities, it is challenging to accept the pledges unveiled by the political circles,” the Finance Ministry said.
  3. Given the extreme financial burden of the suggested reforms, politicians on both sides have been accused of pursuing populist (but unworkable) policies to attract votes. Nevertheless, opposition figures suggest that these policies are essential because the current administration drove the majority of people to greater economic difficulty with its ‘business-friendly’ policies.  For their part, the ruling party’s move towards welfare policies has been explained as an attempt to improve “the life cycle of each individual, boost employment and strengthen the government’s role in ensuring fair competition.”

Chad 0Carroll is the Director of Communications for the Korea Economic Institute. The views represented here are his own.

Photo from Jens-Olaf Walter’s photo stream on flickr Creative Commons.

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The Peninsula blog is a project of the Korea Economic Institute. It is designed to provide a wide ranging forum for discussion of the foreign policy, economic, and social issues that impact the Korean peninsula. The views expressed on The Peninsula are those of the authors alone, and should not be taken to represent the views of either the editors or the Korea Economic Institute. For questions, comments, or to submit a post to The Peninsula, please contact us at ts@keia.org.