South Korean Divisive Presidential Election?

By Sung-Yoon LeeKim Koo-Korea Foundation Assistant Professor of Korean Studies, The Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy, Tufts University

1. Ideology is an issue in the election. The left-right divide in South Korea, whether it accurately reflects the reality or not, may be summarized thus:

rich-poor; populism vs. elitism; welfare vs. growth; pro-ethnic nationalism (North Korea) vs. anti-dictatorship (NK); anti-hegemonism (US) vs. pro-alliance (US); progressive future vs conservatism; young (20s, 30s and half of 40s) vs old (50s and up) etc.

2. I believe Park will be better for the economy. The perception that the economy is in shambles exists in South Korea. But the reality is that the past five years under Lee Myung-bak, as seen by statistics, have brought SK out of the global financial crisis with better-than-average scores: the South Korean economy grew this year by 2.6%, which is higher than Japan, Singapore, and Taiwan, and higher than any European country. Unemployment rate is 2.8%, which is one of the lowest in the world (S’pore is the global leader with 1.9%). SK also has a budget surplus of 2.3%, only one of 5 or 6 major countries in the world to do so. All of these figures are better than those under Roh Moo Hyun, for who Mr. Moon Jae In was chief of staff.

3. President Roh called for an equidistant relationship with the US and China, even mentioning that SK will be a “Balancer” in the region. That means a move away from SK’s sole ally toward China. That created friction between Seoul and Washington 2003-2008. Mr. Moon has called for the same. Friction on North Korea policy is likely in the event Moon is elected, as Moon favors unconditional aid to NK despite Pyonyang’s repeated provocations.

4. Korea may very well elect its first female leader (which will be a first in the Confucian civilization, which includes China, Japan, both Koreas, Taiwan, S’pore, Vietnam–almost 1/4 of the world population); but that does not mean SK is a leader in gender equality. At the same time, Park’s election will have a demographic effect–it will break the traditional mold of women’s role as homemaker and give hope to hundreds of millions of girls/women who wish to build a career outside the home/in politics.

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