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Democracy, Gangnam-Style

South Koreans pick a president

Dec 17, 2012, Vol. 18, No. 14 • By ETHAN EPSTEIN
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This economic system is mostly a vestige of Park Chung-hee’s rule. But now Park Geun-hye wants to limit the power of the chaebol by, among other policies, increasing punishments for embezzlement and other financial shenanigans. She also wants to provide more aid to small and medium-sized enterprises, a historically underdeveloped sector of the Korean economy. Park calls this “economic democratization.” She also wants to attack the deficit, which stands at about 2 percent of GDP. She’s a bit vaguer on this subject, though. Park compares herself to a Korean mother; in Korean households, it’s often the women who are in charge of balancing the household checkbook.

Moon’s approach is decidedly more government-centric. He promises a draconian crackdown on the chaebol, proposing to eliminate the so-called cross-shareholding system, which allows a conglomerate to maintain control over its circle of subsidiaries with a relatively small number of shares. (This complex system is a boon to the chaebol.) He speaks about retaining only “the good parts” of the market economy. And Moon wants to go on a hiring binge, adding some 400,000 bureaucrats to the public-sector payroll.

As of 2010, the last year for which data were available, South Korea was ranked 28th out of 29 OECD countries in welfare expenditures. The government spends less than 11 percent of GDP on welfare programs, compared with 32 percent in France and Sweden. (The OECD average is closer to 20 percent.) Both candidates want to increase welfare spending, but with a huge difference in degree. Park, for example, wants to expand government spending on health care, targeting coverage of specific illnesses, like cancer. Moon, meanwhile, wants to increase health care spending by triple the amount that Park proposes. Park makes the point that while Moon offers only redistribution, her platform is designed for both increased redistribution and increased growth.

It’s unsurprising, given the presence of a nuclear-armed, Stalinist state just 40 miles north of the nation’s capital, that foreign policy is also playing an important role in the election. Park stresses the importance of maintaining the close military alliance with the United States that sees 28,500 American troops stationed here. Given Korea’s location, relations with Beijing will be pivotal. Intriguingly, a party spokeswoman suggests that Park could have better relations with the Chinese government than would Moon, because the Chinese authorities have, in many important ways, self-consciously emulated her father’s policies of the 1960s and ’70s.

It’s always a good sign when a candidate is criticized in North Korean propaganda. And, indeed, the North Korean media have claimed that Seoul will suffer “unbearable misfortune” should Park be elected. She’s earned the opprobrium. Madame Park rightly points out that simply sending unconditional aid to Pyongyang represents nothing but a “fake peace.” She also doesn’t shy away from pressing the moral case for democracy in North Korea. Given her lineage, that requires something of a straddle. But she’s attempting to square this circle. In a September press conference, Park apologized for human rights abuses that occurred under her father’s regime. “Behind our history of miraculous growth, there were the sacrifices of workers who suffered under harsh working environments, and behind our guarding of national security against North Korea there were violations of human rights by public authorities. I once again offer my sincere apologies to the people who suffered wounds and hardship as a result, and to their family members,” she declared. It was a shrewd move; even in her apologetic statement, Park alluded to her father’s record of “miraculous growth.”

One of the central ironies of South Korean politics is that many of the politicians who most support “engagement” (read: unconditional aid) with the North Korean government are the same people who steadfastly opposed South Korea’s dictatorship. The case of the late Kim Dae-jung is instructive here. Kim spent much of his career bravely making the moral case for democracy in South Korea, even while exiled in Japan, where the South Korean dictatorship attempted to assassinate him. But when he was elected president of South Korea in the late 1990s, Kim initiated the “Sunshine Policy,” which saw the South Korean government shower the North Korean regime with aid, and all but ignore its woeful human rights record.

Moon Jae-in represents a continuation of this noxious trend. Not only does the former anti-dictatorship activist support opening talks with the North Korean regime without any preconditions, but he also backs restarting various exchanges and aid programs, which were suspended in the wake of North Korea’s sinking of the South Korean ship Cheonan and the shelling of a South Korean island, both of which occurred in 2010. Even North Korea’s planned missile launch has not deterred Moon’s zeal for “engagement” with the evil regime in Pyongyang.

For most of the campaign, it looked like Park was going to coast to victory. Ahn Cheol-soo, an independent, liberal-leaning professor and former businessman was also in the race, drawing a large bloc of support from the young. Ahn, who is prone to spouting airy platitudes, was basically the TED Talk candidate, as befits a man most commonly referred to by the ominous moniker of “software guru.” It looked like Ahn and Moon would split the liberal/left vote, allowing Park to waltz into office. But, for reasons that are still unclear, Ahn dropped out in late November, leaving a one-on-one race between Park and Moon. With a majority of Ahn supporters switching their support to Moon, Madame Park has a real dogfight on her hands. Recent polls show her support at 47 or 48 percent, while Moon draws 44 or 45 percent.

Walter Paik, a spokesman for Park’s campaign, appears confident, averring that South Korea is a fundamentally conservative country. He points out that when leftist candidates are elected president, it’s always by a tiny margin (Roh Moo-hyun was elected by only 49 percent to his opponent’s 47 percent in 2002), whereas conservative presidents are often able to run up huge wins (the current president, Lee, won by more than 20 points). This will benefit Park’s candidacy. She’ll also be helped along by the country’s overwhelmingly conservative media. Wired though Korea may be, some 60 percent of the public here still reads at least one print newspaper regularly, and with one prominent exception, those papers are conservative. Park should dominate among older men. To win, Moon, the leftist, will need to capture Obamaesque numbers among women and the young. Against a female opponent, he may have a hard time doing so.

And while Madame Park is not exactly a charismatic presence on the stump, she projects an air of being “cool, calm, and collected.” In an aging country facing some serious problems, that should be enough. It might not be a walk in the park, but the dictator’s daughter has a good chance of being South Korea’s next democratically elected president.

Ethan Epstein is an editorial assistant at The Weekly Standard.

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