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South Korea: A Presidential Election Primer

Author: Scott A. Snyder, Senior Fellow for Korea Studies and Director of the Program on U.S.-Korea Policy
December 14, 2012


South Korea's campaign for the December 19 presidential elections formally launched late last month. The field of major candidates was set two days prior to the filing deadline when independent candidate and business entrepreneur Ahn Chulsoo announced that he would concede in his campaign for a unified candidacy among liberals to Democratic Unity Party (DUP) nominee Moon Jae-in, who served as chief of staff to former President Roh Moo-hyun. This announcement paved the way for a two-way race between ruling Saenuri party candidate Park Geun-hye and the DUP's Moon.

Ahn Chulsoo's withdrawal had an immediate impact on the framing of the race. Although Ahn is a novice politician and an idealist who wants to effect major political reforms, his selection as the single major candidate opposing Park would have framed the main theme of the election as a candidate of the past (Park is a political veteran who has been on the stage since she occupied the Blue House together with her father in the 1970s) versus the candidate of the future (an IT entrepreneur with the potential ability to clean both computer and political viruses). Moon needs active participation from Ahn's youthful supporters if he is to be truly competitive with Park, who entered the formal campaign period as the putative frontrunner.

But now the past (Park Chunghee's 1970s vs Roh Moo-hyun's 2000s) serves as a backdrop for converging campaigns that have drawn stark differences over two primary issues. They are how to deal with economic inequality within South Korean society (Moon opposes South Korean conglomerate control of assets through cross-shareholding while Park does not), and degrees of engagement with North Korea (Park wants dialogue with North Korea, but her overall plan for engagement remains conditions-based while Moon favors a transformative approach that promotes inter-Korean economic ties as an instrument for engaging North Korea comprehensively).

With few policy issues ripe for debate, the deciding factor in South Korea's election campaign will be image, and more specifically, Park Geun-hye's image. Park is distinct from that of every other leading politician in South Korea, both by gender and by genealogy. It's notable that Park is a female politician who has survived for decades in Korea's gritty world of male-dominated politics. Her father gave her a political pedigree and the unique experience of having served as de facto first lady following her mother's assassination in 1972. Her association with her father's authoritarian regime has been exploited as a potential political vulnerability, especially among activists like Mr. Moon who cut their political teeth demonstrating against her father's rule.

As a politician and leader in her party, Park has tasted both victory and defeat. Her concession to Lee Myung-bak in the Grand National Party's 2007 primary contest was a gracious observance of the democratic process, even though she was outflanked in support from within the party by Lee's higher approval ratings among the broader public. When she led her party to victory in April 2012 National Assembly elections, Korean headlines dubbed her the "queen of elections."

These headlines reveal both the origins and the limits of Park's appeal: she is only equivalent in Korea to political royalty that remains in Korea's rowdy democracy. She has burnished her image through her personal circumstances. Since Park never married, she can claim no greater love than for her country. It may be her endurance as a political leader, combined with a carefully cultivated public reputation for keeping political promises, that may be her greatest asset. But does she have the executive experience to effectively and inclusively govern South Korea's fractious politics, or will the reserved and capable Moon be better positioned to lead South Korea toward the future?

This is the question that Korean voters must ponder as South Korea's campaign season comes to a climax. Polls show the South Korean public closely divided, with Park having greater support among those over fifty, while Moon has strong support among younger voters in their twenties and thirties. The determining vote goes to South Korea's bulging forties cohort, a generation that played a critical role as student activists in South Korea's transition from authoritarianism to democracy. But this generational cohort also has the greatest stake in economic stability as the breadwinners who must care for their children and their elders, and it is the generation that will determine both Park's and South Korea's political future.

This article appears in full on by permission of its original publisher. It was originally available here.

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