Author: Editors, East Asia Forum
South Korea goes to the polls on 9 May to elect a new president in the wake of the impeachment of Park Geun-hye. The saga surrounding Park’s fall from grace has built expectations for reforms to strengthen democratic institutions and stamp out corruption, as the vote takes place against the backdrop of concerns about tensions with North Korea.
The beginning of the end for Park came late last year with the bombshell revelations of the Choi Soon-sil scandal. Choi, a long-time family friend of Park, had exercised influence over presidential decision-making despite holding no official government position. She had also used her connection to the president to attract vast ‘donations’ from several of South Korea’s chaebol (family controlled business conglomerates) — including Samsung, Hyundai Motors and Lotte — in exchange for policy favours. Public anger boiled over, triggering millions to join the candlelight protest movement demanding Park’s resignation.
The South Korean National Assembly voted overwhelmingly in December 2016 to impeach Park, including many lawmakers from her own party. And South Korea’s Constitutional Court unanimously upheld the decision in March 2017. Park was promptly arrested, awaits trial in jail on 18 criminal charges — including abuse of power, leaking state secrets and receiving or demanding US$52 million in bribes — and if convicted faces between 10 years to life in prison. Choi, Samsung CEO Lee Jae-yong and Lotte Group chairman Shin Dong-bin among others have also been indicted.
These events have upended the South Korean political landscape. As Kim Kee-seok explains, ‘in the aftermath of Park’s impeachment, for the first time in any South Korean presidential election there is no strong conservative candidate’. Out of 18 presidential elections in South Korea’s modern political history (six of which were genuinely free and fair post-1987) South Koreans have only elected a progressive president twice and with small margins. ‘South Korea’s conservatives have had near hegemonic power, by large electoral margins in most other elections’.
South Korea’s conservatives are now in disarray. The main conservative Saenuri Party split with the anti-Park faction led by Yoo Seung-min forming the Baraeun Party (BP) and the pro-Park faction led by Hong Jun-pyo forming the Liberty Party of Korea (LPK). Barring a major upset, Moon Jae-in of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), polling at 44.2 per cent, looks set to be the next president of South Korea. His nearest rival is Ahn Cheol-soo of the People’s Party (PP), polling at 18.6 per cent, who also sits on the progressive side of the ideological divide. Both the conservative candidates, Yoo and Hong, were trailing badly for most of the campaign. Hong has made a late comeback with 13 BP lawmakers defecting to the LPK in a last ditch effort for conservatives to unite behind a single candidate. And while this saw Hong claw up to equal second with Ahn polling at 18.6 per cent, it appears to have come too late in the game.
The question now is can Moon deliver on democratic and corporate governance reforms that the public demand? And how will he deal on tricky diplomatic questions over the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) anti-missile system and North Korea? The outlook is murky on all fronts.
As Hyung-a Kim explains in our lead essay this week, ‘despite voters’ clamour for change to the way South Korean democracy works, there are … hurdles … to delivering it’. Although Moon’s DPK has the largest number of seats in the National Assembly, it does not control a majority, meaning Moon will need to cooperate with other parties. Yet Moon’s relationship with his closest ideological ally, Ahn, is historically rocky. After the former doctor and software entrepreneur pulled out of the 2012 presidential election to avoid splitting the progressive vote to improve Moon’s chances vis-à-vis Park and merged with Moon’s DPK in March 2014, a series of leadership disagreements with Moon saw Ahn split off again establishing the People’s Party in February 2016.
Public demands for constitutional change to reform the ‘imperial presidency’ are strong, but there is a sense of uncertainty over how to pursue it. The current system limits presidents to a single five-year term but endows them with surprisingly broad powers. This was originally designed to guard against a backslide to dictatorship, but is now blamed for creating lame duck presidents and encouraging the corruption that has embroiled South Korea’s post-1987 presidents. The good news, explains Kim, is that the leaders of the major parties are in favour of reform and ‘have all publicly vowed with one voice to put a bill for constitutional amendment to a public referendum during next year’s provincial elections, expected to be held in May’. The bad news is that they have not agreed on what sort of system to pursue. ‘Moon is promoting a four-year two-term presidency, whereas … Hong prefers a decentralised cabinet system. Ahn … opposes the cabinet system, weighing in behind a semi-presidential system with reduced presidential powers’.
On corporate governance reform, Moon has proposed moving away from chaebol-focused economic growth which he blames for high unemployment and low wage growth. Ahn similarly takes a critical line. But Hong has defended the chaebol saying the government should encourage them to create jobs ‘instead of treating them like criminals’. Hong’s LPK is expected to block bold reform proposals.
There are also concerns about how Moon might work with US President Donald Trump. The US has moved to speed up the installation of THAAD before the election in an attempt to force a fait accompli, while at the same time Trump has said South Korea should pay US$1 billion for it. Moon has said he will review the decision, asked the United States to respect its democracy, and emphasized the alliance relationship must be founded in trust between the South Korean and American people.
On North Korea, Moon has vowed to take a practical approach, in concert with the US and Japan, to restarting diplomatic negotiations with North Korea on denuclearisation. He said he would be willing to meet Kim Jong-un if preconditions for resolving the nuclear issue are assured. And he has suggested that South Korea should be more prepared to take the lead on North Korean issues. Moon also vowed to reopen and even expand the Kaesung Industrial Complex — an economic zone in the North that allowed South Korean firms to operate and employ local labour — although even advocates for engagement with North Korea have said this appears fantastical.
The one thing that is certain is that South Korea’s next president will have his work cut out to heal the nation after Park’s impeachment, to find a way through the necessary political manoeuvring to weld deals and craft reform agendas to seize the political opportunity, and to move the country beyond its prolonged political gridlock.
The EAF Editorial Group is comprised of Peter Drysdale, Shiro Armstrong, Ben Ascione, Amy King and Jillian Mowbray-Tsutsumi and is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy in the ANU College of Asia and the Pacific.