My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the Agenda for Korea’s Next Prez

Newsweek cover 2

Newsweek Japan asked me for a long-form essay on the challenges facing the new Korean president-elect for its December 26, 2012 issue (cover story to the left). Here is the link in Japanese, but I thought it would be useful to publish the original, untranslated version as well. (If you actually want the Japanese language version, email me for it please.)

The essay was actually written up before the outcome (a Park Geun-Hye victory) was known, but the argument still applies. In brief, I argue that Korea is drifting leftward. The young in Korea want chaebol reform and less political elitism at home, and abroad they want a foreign policy both less hawkish on North Korea and less influenced by the United States. In fact, if Korea weren’t aging so extremely fast, this agenda would have won. But Korea’s demography is now so skewed that ‘missing’ youth voters due to Korea’s super-low birthrate probably cost Moon Jae-In the election. (Not surprisingly, the Korean news is already reporting on youth action against against free bus fair for the elderly, because they ‘stole’ the election.) Nevertheless, the generational split is real, and the right would be foolish to govern against future voters’ wishes in the name of aging voters who will naturally pass away. Hence my prediction that Park will govern as a centrist not a conservative.

Regular readers of this blog will see themes I have emphasized before. This was intended for their print edition, so there are no hyperlinks included in the text. Here we go:

“On December 19, South Korea will have its sixth democratic election since the end of military rule in 1987. The main candidates are Park Geun-Hye of the conservative New Frontier Party and Moon Jae-In of the liberal Democratic United Party. Park is expected to win, as Moon has run a poorly organized campaign and the Korean left has split. Ahn Chul-Soo, a popular reformist liberal candidate, dropped out late in the race and only weakly endorsed Moon, while a far-left party, the Unified Progressives, has stayed in the race. All this will fragment the left’s vote, likely throwing the election to Park.

Despite all the global media attention, the recent North Korean missile launch will probably not affect the election. North Korea frequently pulls such stunts around Korean elections, so South Koreans tend to discount them. Conservatives may find the launch a cause to vote for Park in order to be tough on North Korea. But simultaneously, liberal voters tend to read North Korean misbehavior as the outcome of conservative confrontational policies. They may therefore come out to vote for Moon. The likely effect is a wash.

But whoever wins, the new president will face pressure to move Korea beyond its traditional, Japan-derived model of economic technocracy at home, coupled with a US alliance abroad. Korea’s maturing democracy is increasingly incompatible with its governmental and economic elitism, while China’s rapid rise stresses the long-standing alliance with the Americans. Both trends should broadly favor the political left. The opposition parties have traditionally supported increased citizen participation against bureaucratic technocracy and greater foreign policy autonomy in dealing with the Americans, Chinese, and others. Even if Park wins, she will contend with a slow public drift leftward.

To pre-empt this, Park has a run, rhetorically at least, a centrist campaign and is not promising the clear rightward shift current President Lee Myung-Bak offered when he ran in 2007. She speaks of ‘fairness,’ ‘economic democracy,’ and helping young mothers, to capture the broadening support for de-concentration of the economy and politics. She has sent mixed signals on North Korea, because most Koreans would like to see engagement and negotiation with North Korea and China, rather than hostility. (Current President Lee’s confrontational approach is deeply unpopular.) Both tendencies suggest a ‘modernization’ of Korean politics toward greater openness – a more accessible, socially mobile domestic structure and greater freedom of action in foreign policy. As a now-wealthy OECD state with increasingly mature liberal democratic politics, this deepening of citizen participation and the corresponding increasing demand for accountability are not surprising.

Ambivalence on Domestic Reform

Korea’s economy and politics are quite closed and oligarchic. The economy is dominated by a handful of mega-firms, the chaebol, similar to the kereitsu, whom most Koreans increasingly distrust. One poll found that 74% of Koreans agree that the chaebol are ‘immoral’ – meaning that they ruthlessly buy up or drive out of business small- and medium-enterprises, or hold themselves above the law. In 2008, President Lee disturbingly pardoned over 300,000 bureaucrats and businesspeople for charges including fraud and corruption. In one notorious case, the head of Hanwha Group was pardoned despite physically assaulting someone with a metal pipe. These conglomerates are often controlled by the family descendants of their founders. Shareholders have few rights, and the government has prevented any meaningful foreign ownership or penetration of these ‘national champions.’

Korea’s politics mirrors this closed world of family control and nepotism. Korea’s political class is a classic example of an ‘old boys network.’ Seoul-based elites who live in close geographic proximity to another, attended the same schools, worked in the same companies, ministries, and think-tanks, dominate political life. This class unites business and politics; the chaebol families are influential in the bureaucracy and political parties, especially the conservatives. Intermarriage, elite residential districts, and high-priced international schools reinforce the interlocking exclusivity of the politico-economic class. (Psy famously satirized this in ‘Gangnam Style.’ Gangnam is the poshest neighborhood in the country, where Psy would meet well-connected young women and drive a sports car, if only he could break-in somehow.)

‘Networking’ obviously competes with meritocracy as the key to entering Korean politics, and outsiders find it almost impossible to break-in. I teach in a political science department outside of Seoul, where I routinely see the disappointment of my majors that they cannot penetrate this closed, elite world. They cannot pass the requisite exams, do not have friends or connections already in the political system, or simply lack the money to access the ‘Seoul-Republic.’ Nothing like the outsider success of Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger or President Barack Obama could happen in Korea, and this was a major reason for Ahn Chul-Soo’s popularity. Although his political positions were poorly defined, his sheer outsider differentness from the ‘usual suspects’ – children of wealthy, influential families like Park Geun Hye herself, daughter of an earlier president – made him immensely popular. Like Obama, Ahn might have increased the turn-out of young voters energized by the possibility of ‘change.’ A big reason Moon will probably lose is his ‘old boy’ image and tactics against Ahn, which will disenchant Ahn’s youthful, leftish constituency.

Ahn’s withdrawal is a major setback for the liberalization of this narrow world. Early in the campaign, while Ahn was her greatest threat, Park spoke committedly for chaebol reform, such as clearer ownership structures. With Ahn out, and the more traditional insider Moon as her opponent, her language has muddied. Her reformist advisor, Kim Chong-In, has been frozen out. She now opposes breaking family control of the chaebol and wishes to prevent ‘hostile foreign takeovers’ of them. Moon may be tougher on the chaebol, but like Park, Korean politicians have frequently denounced the chaebol in the campaign season, only to capitulate to traditionalism in office.

However, Park’s shift is probably not as opportunistic as her opponents claim. Her hesitation also flows from Koreans themselves. For all their distaste of current system, many wonder what would come next. Despite the corruption and elitism of ‘Korean model,’ it has guided Korea through the ‘miracle on the Han’ and generated an enviably fast rise in wealth, living standards, and global prestige. Park captures these contradictions well. She is the daughter of the dictator who ignited Korea’s miracle growth. She comes from wealth and family connections. As with George W. Bush, it is hard to imagine Park’s success without her family background. Yet to Park’s elderly voting base, who experienced her father’s promotion of the chaebol and Korea’s rapid earlier growth from third world poverty, this is reassuring. They are not demanding a serious crack-down on the conglomerates; instead, the chaebol are the ‘national champions’ that made Koreans proud in the world.

Instead, there is a generational division. The young in Korea, Ahn’s most fervent and now disappointed supporters, support the liberalization of Korea’s politics and economy. It is they, especially those outside of Seoul, who are systematically locked-out. In time, they should bring these values into elections and drive change. Ahn was a big step in this direction, and Park’s on-again-off-again talk of reform suggests it will be harder to defend the status quo. Even current President Lee contributed. His free trade agreements with the US and EU will make it harder for the chaebol to abuse insider access to the government. The price of Korea’s export-dependence is growing foreign pressure for rule-based transparency from the Korean government.

The result of these competing pressures will be a generational struggle in the next decade or so, between traditional ‘developmentalist’ Korea, dominated by a nepotistic, technocratic, but reasonably successful elite, and a newer, more open, more responsive, populist Ahn/Obama-style politics.

Drifting Leftward on Foreign Policy?

This leftward drift of Korea’s politics is even more apparent in foreign policy. Koreans are very unhappy with the hardline approach of President Lee to North Korea, and his very low approval rating – around 20% – is widely attributed to this hawkishness. Similarly, Koreans are increasingly aware that they are positioned awkwardly between the US and China. The American ‘pivot to Asia’ strategy is not widely-touted, as in Washington; Koreans have little interest in containing China with an ‘American camp’ in Asia.

Korea is not as instinctively pro-American in foreign policy as Japan. Japan is far more concerned about China’s rise. A serious competition is arising between them, and Tokyo supports the ‘pivot.’ Korea, by contrast, views Japan as a greater threat than China, and the public regularly objects when the Ministry of National Defense seeks to label North Korea as the ‘main threat’ to South Korea. The drift of Korean public opinion from a cold war mindset, with China and North Korea on one side, and the US on the other, opens space for South Korea to pursue regional engagement. Even Park has promised renewed engagement with the North, and all candidates have pledged to improve ties with China, as it is now Korea’s top export market and North Korea’s economic lifeline.

In the 1990s, the South Korean perception of the North Korean threat sank significantly. The Cold War ended, abruptly halting Soviet support and permanently delegitimizing North Korea as a meaningful alternative to the South. Kim Il Sung, North Korea’s 45-year stalinist dictator, died in 1994. A terrible famine in the late 1990s killed perhaps a million people. Gone seemed the ferocious dictatorship of legend, replaced by a collapsing third world state of starved people led by a megalomaniac. In this atmosphere, Korean opinion embraced the ‘Sunshine Policy’ for which President Kim Dae Jung won a Nobel Peace Prize. Unconditional aid was extended, and Seoul ceased criticizing Pyongyang on its human rights record. ‘Sunshine’ appeared to bring a period of calm in inter-Korean relations. The anti-Southern terrorism so common in the Cold War faded, and although Northern nuclearization proceeded apace in this period, this has always worried foreign analysts far more than South Koreans.

‘Sunshine’ ended abruptly with current President Lee, but this has proven hugely unpopular at home, even as western and Japanese analysts applauded the move. Outside analysts have been substantially more hawkish on North Korea than South Koreans themselves since the mid-1990s. Many South Koreans see the North as their ‘ethnic brothers’ who would not use nuclear weapons against them and whom should be engaged. South Koreans strongly rejected George W. Bush’s placement of North Korea on the ‘axis of evil’ and protested Lee’s close relationship with Bush in the streets. South Koreans are not ‘neoconservatives,’ and they do not support risky brinksmanship with the North to provoke ‘regime change’ or collapse. When North Korea sank a Southern destroyer in 2010, conspiracy theories circulated widely that the Americans or Lee administration had sunk it to stir anti-Northern sentiment.

I see this regularly among my international relations students. Contrary to outsiders who routinely see North Korea as a cartoonish villain, my students are uncomfortable with that image. Some see the young Kim Il Sung as a liberation hero. Others are proud that a Korean people managed to build nuclear weapons despite a global effort to halt it. Most see US pressure on North Korea as reckless and provocative. In 4.5 years of teaching, not one student has ever approved of the ‘axis of evil’ or advocated offensive military action to bring down the Northern regime. Greater Seoul begins just 30 miles from the demilitarized zone, yet all most of my students hope for jobs there. By far the most common sentiment is to manage and help the North, not confront it, to draw it into the world in hopes of moderating it. The logic that unconditional aid to North might be seen as a bail-out of a bankrupt system is generally rejected.

The outcome of these trends are Lee’s abysmal approval rating, and the consensus among the presidential candidates for re-engagement. Moon has openly said he would return to the Sunshine Policy; he was an architect of it in the administration previous to Lee. But even Park has agreed to renewed aid to the North with few conditions and a summit with the new Northern leader. While she makes conservative noises on denuclearization, this is mostly rhetoric for her voter base. Everyone knows Northern denuclearization is extraordinarily unlikely.

Finally, this leftward drift away from the traditional cold war division in Asia is most clear in the engagement of China. Japan, Taiwan, Australia, Vietnam, and India are all increasingly unnerved by China’s rise. They support the US ‘pivot,’ and there is a growing likelihood the pivot will morph into soft containment of China because of its activities in the South China Sea. By contrast, South Korea is hardly so fearful. Japan and the Liancourt Rocks dispute activates Korean nationalism far more than China’s growth.

Korea’s long history with China has generally been peaceful with heavy cultural interchange. Koreans learn Chinese characters and their close history with China’s various dynasties. The dominant social traditions of pre-modern Korea – Confucianism and Buddhism – entered through China. For a millennium, Korea was part of the Sinocentric tribute system and enjoyed good trade and political relations. Korea recognized the Chinese emperor’s authority; Korea only had a ‘king.’ Ming China helped Korea against the Hideyoshi invasion of 1592, and China never absorbed Korea despite its weakness. Today, confronting China would be hugely risky. China is now South Korea’s largest export destination and increasingly dominates North Korea. Unification depends on Seoul’s relationship with Beijing, which South Koreans almost certainly will not risk over Americans’ fears of fading hegemony.

In short, South Korea is increasingly caught between its politico-military dependence on the US and economic reliance on Chinese importers. As with domestic reform, there is ambivalence – the US has shielded Korea for decades – but the long-term trends should favor the left over the next decade or two. Even if Park wins, she will face an electorate clamoring for better relations with North Korea and China, regardless of Washington’s (or Tokyo’s) opinion. So long as the US and Japan are declining relative to China – China should be the world’s largest economy by the end of the decade – a sharp rightward turn in foreign policy, as occurred in 2008 under the current president, is unlikely.”

7 thoughts on “My ‘Newsweek Japan’ Cover Story on the Agenda for Korea’s Next Prez

  1. great essay! i think the “leftward drift” line is useful but also can be a bit misleading – especially as applied to foreign policy. sure, the whole South Korean “engagement/negotiation” preference in dealing with N. Korea can be viewed as more “left,” but the preference for aligning more closely with China and hatred of Japan is not really “left” and can be seen more as a mix of “realist”-type action based on power considerations and nationalism.

    i would also argue that the South Korean population’s soft stance toward North Korea is also a manifestation of nationalism. so South Korea’s political economy is not really moving leftward as it is moving in a kind of liberal-communitarian direction, with calls for increased welfare state spending as well as market liberalization – all justified through a discourse based around “justice” and “democracy.”

    but fascinating article all in all, especially when we compare and contrast the trends you describe with those in the US – the world really is a whole other place!


    • Yeah, ‘drifting left’ was not a good title, but I was trying to find some way to connect the ideas that Korean youth want both a different, less elitist and closed political economy, and a less hawkish foreign policy. As result, Park won’t govern as a conservative even if she wants too.


  2. Excellent article, Robert. I think that the statements that “…although Northern nuclearization proceeded apace in this period, this has always worried foreign analysts far more than South Koreans” and, that your student’s “most common sentiment is to manage and help the North, not confront it, to draw it into the world in hopes of moderating it.” are very telling about what is really going on in the SK-sphere versus what you read in foreign media.

    I often read articles in non-Korean publications that strike a hawkish or worrisome tone in regards to NK’s nuclearization and their isolationism. In contrast, my experiences and conversations with Koreans tell me that most do not feel worried or concerned at all and your student’s desire to work extremely close to NK speak volumes about their lack of worry as well. When people engage me on this topic back in Canada, they’re often surprised at this stance, as they assume that I’d constantly be concerned for loved ones who are there.

    Keep up the good work!


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