Well it is almost that time again, for S.Koreans to elect a new president. Out of all the Confucianist nations, I probably know the least about the Korean Peninsula, which is going to change. From what I understand it has been a turbulent years, with a lot of scandals, but that seems to not be uncommon in S.Korean national politics. I’m sure S.Koreans would differ, but Asahi Shimbun has a pretty good editorial.

A major question the editorial posses is if S.Korean politics is maturing away from electing “former rebels” who want to “fight the power”? This does not mean that S.Korea can not elect liberal leaders, but I think after they get comfortable with democracy, the liberal establishment will move away from their affection with “former rebels” to a more moderate position. At the same time, conservatives might realign to a less defensive posture, “having been aligned with the military dictatorship” (or worse yet, Japan during WWII).

It seems the hot topics are (1) the “Sunshine Policy” something America was against to begin with, but something I supported to bring stability to the pennisula. America does not have to live next to the fallout of a war or a collaspes of N.Korea and the resulting refugees, S.Korea does. S.Korea is also not quite as wealthy as West Germany was when they absorbed East Germany, and North Korea is far far poorer than East Germany ever was; and (2) the economy.

EDITORIAL: S. Korea’s election

11/29/2007

Every five years, South Korean voters elect a new leader because the country’s presidency is limited to a single five-year term. In the past 10 years, South Korea has been ruled by two liberal politicians, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo-hyun. They were both former foes of the country’s military dictatorship.

The key question in the presidential race that officially kicked off Tuesday is whether liberal rule will continue for five more years or be overtaken by the conservative camp.

Candidates are waging fierce campaigns ahead of the election, which will be held on Dec. 19. There is a long list of important policy issues that should be hotly debated during the campaign period, including how to deal with North Korea, fix fissures among the people and rejuvenate the nation’s economy. As a neighboring country, Japan finds it hard to keep its attention from being drawn by the contest.

As the South Korean government has pursued a so-called sunshine policy of engagement with North Korea for 10 years, North-South relations have improved immeasurably. South Korea’s assistance is now essential for the survival of North Korea. In South Korea, this policy is credited with having significantly reduced the security threat from the North, but critics say the government has made too many concessions to Pyongyang. The question now is whether this approach should be maintained or changed.

Another hot campaign topic is how to repair the deep rift in society caused by the Roh administration’s “review of the past” initiative. Under this campaign, Roh tracked down pro-Japanese collaborators who supported Japan’s colonial rule of the Korean Peninsula from 1910 to 1945 and disclosed new facts about certain shady acts of past military regimes, including the 1973 abduction of Kim Dae Jung in Tokyo by South Korean agents. Roh’s attacks against the old establishment and vested interests have shaken the existing order of things, even to the point of causing intergenerational clashes.

Just like in Japan, a widening disparity between economic winners and losers has become a serious social issue, provoking a variety of critiques about the government’s economic policy. After overcoming the currency crisis 10 years ago with radical structural reform, the South Korean economy has rebounded rapidly. In the process, however, real estate prices have soared, while a job shortage among young people continues and the number of nonregular jobs is growing rapidly. These harsh economic realities were behind many recent opinion polls that showed majorities of respondents wishing to see a power shift to the opposition.

A record 12 candidates are running for the presidential election. The race is shaping up as a three-way battle among Lee Myung Bak, 65, of the main opposition Grand National Party (GNP), Lee Hoi Chang, 72, a former GNP member running as an independent, and Chung Dong Young, 54, a pro-government candidate of the United New Democratic Party.

The three candidates are selling more or less similar economic and social policy messages, calling for reconciliation to heal the social rift and promising measures to narrow the economic gaps. While Lee Myung Bak, a former top executive at a large company, is focusing on economic growth, Chung Dong Young is stressing his commitment to the well-being of ordinary citizens. Their differences are only in nuances.

But the three candidates are clearly divided in their North Korea policies. They all have pledged to seek reconciliation instead of confrontation with the North. But the two opposition candidates are denouncing the sunshine policy and arguing the government should secure substantial gains in return for any aid to Pyongyang–in the form of progress toward Pyongyang’s abandonment of its nuclear arms program, for instance.

Polls show Lee Myung Bak leading his two rivals. But he faces a slew of corruption scandals, including allegations of his involvement in a stock price manipulation case. Prosecutors are currently investigating those involved.

Candidates are stepping up their campaigns to expose scandals involving their contenders, and even the presidential office is being dragged into the fray. These negative campaigns, if they hamper serious policy debates, will only deepen the people’s distrust of politics.

East Asia is in a period of great transition. We hope candidates will engage in constructive debates that are attentive also to audiences in neighboring countries.

–The Asahi Shimbun, Nov. 28(IHT/Asahi: November 29,2007)

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