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Seoul Tilts Right

Authors: Jayshree Bajoria, and Lee Hudson Teslik
Updated: December 19, 2007

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Early results from South Korea’s December 19 presidential election show the conservative front-runner candidate, Lee Myung-bak, winning by a sizeable margin (Korea Times) over his two opponents. Despite allegations that he was involved in a corruption scandal, Lee gained over 50 percent of the total vote. The Financial Times says the landslide represents a clear mandate for policy change in a country that has been dominated by left-wing parties for the past decade.

Specifically, South Koreans seem to have turned on the “sunshine” policy of presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun—a policy of engaging North Korea that the Guardian says will face tough opposition now that Lee is in office. An analysis from the Wall Street Journal argues that South Korea’s vote could potentially fray ties with Pyongyang, particularly if Lee decides to cut back on South Korean aid to North Korea in an attempt to spur more straightforward economic ties.

Taking a tough stance toward Pyongyang was a hallmark of Lee’s campaign. In the run-up to the election, he said he would be less tolerant (Reuters) of communist North Korea if it fails to give up its nuclear weapons. His conservative Grand National Party seeks greater economic openness from North Korea, as well as concrete evidence that it is disarming its nuclear weapons program. Lee also has said he wants to reinvigorate military cooperation (Economist) with the United States. Forcing modernization of North Korea’s economy also resonates as a major goal within the party. North Korea ranks as the world’s least free economy on the Heritage Foundation’s 2007 Index of Freedom. In an interview, David C. Kang, a professor at Dartmouth’s Tuck Business School, says North-South economic engagement will be a slow process but could reshape the region economically, particularly if rail traffic is allowed to cross through North Korea.

Support for Lee stemmed in large part from frustration with the current administration of President Roh. Roh’s critics claim Seoul has been too soft on North Korea. Writing in the New York Sun, longtime Korea watcher Donald Kirk calls the peace treaty reached at the recent inter-Korean summit a “gimmick” by the North to “receive enormous quantities of aid while giving very little in return.” According to Andy Jackson, a professor at Ansan College in South Korea, the state-run Korean Development Bank estimates the cost of Roh’s proposed economic package at over $50 billion. He writes in the Wall Street Journal: “It's unlikely that major Korea corporations will want to risk more money in North Korea, despite Seoul's encouragement...That means that either way—through corporate spending or tax hikes—the South Korean taxpayers would likely foot the bill.”

Other South Koreans remain disgruntled about the state of their country’s economy (Thomson Financial). Over the past decade, South Korea’s growth rate has fallen to an annual average of 4.4 percent, down from a torrid 8 percent pace for much of the 1990s. While many see the lower rate as a more realistic long-term trajectory, inflation has been on the rise, real estate prices have increased, and income gaps have widened. Lee, the former mayor of Seoul and Hyundai’s top executive, capitalized on these concerns by pledging 7 per cent economic growth, raising income per capita from the current $18,000 to $40,000, and aiming to make Korea the world’s seventh-largest economy.

What Lee's election might mean for North Korea's denuclearization process remains unclear. According to the February 2007 agreement in the Six-Party Talks, North Korea has until the end of the year to disable its Yongbyon reactor and make a complete declaration of all its nuclear facilities. But Seoul says the North may miss its deadline (Reuters). Don Oberdorfer, chairman of the U.S.-Korea Institute at Johns Hopkins University, is optimistic nonetheless. In this interview with CFR.org, he says even with a conservative leader at the helm “rapprochement between the two Koreas will go ahead,” though it may go a little more slowly than now “unless there are some basically North-generated problems.”

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