Success of rightists’ move to use NK-related policies in coming presidential election has yet to be seen

In mid-December, South Korean voters will go to the polls to decide who will be the next president of the Republic of Korea (ROK). South Korean elections tend to be rather uncertain and tense affairs. Compared to many countries, though, South Korean politicians are not enthusiastic participants in mud-slinging matches. Nonetheless, a great deal of attempted manipulation of public opinion happens during election season – as one should expect in any functioning democracy.

This time around, policy regarding North Korea has seemingly become the object of such intrigues. It remains to be seen whether campaign strategists of the South Korean Right will succeed in their efforts to make the North a big issue, but regardless of the eventual outcome, these intrigues tell us much about contemporary attitudes in South Korea towards the North.

Generally speaking, North Korea does not feature prominently in South Korean electoral politics. The Korean peninsula is mentioned on the front pages of major world newspapers usually only when the North Korean government has done something strange, silly and/or provocative – i.e. a missile launch or nuclear test. It is therefore no wonder that outsiders assume that policy towards North Korea must be a major political issue in South Korea. But this is not the case. On the contrary, the South Korean public tends to ignore the North most of the time. On a personal note it is quite breath taking just how ignorant the average South Korean is about the average lives of North Korean people and the political situation north of the 38th parallel.

This time though, the South Korean right hope to boost their chances of winning by concentrating on the North Korean-related policies of the progressive administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun who run the South from 1998 to 2007. Their goal is very clear: they wish to present the Left as weak and naive in the face of the menace of North Korean provocations, and at the same time, present themselves as pragmatic, flexible, but also firm and resolute in protecting the country’s and the people’s best interests.

The first salvo in this fight was fired in early October when a lawmaker from the ruling, centre-right New Frontier Party, accused the former centre-left President Roh Moo-hyun, the icon of South Korea’s progressives, of agreeing to reconsider the Northern Limit Line (NLL), while in talks with Kim Jong-il in Pyongyang in 2007. President Roh allegedly said that this line had been unilaterally drawn by the Americans in order to take land from the North (this statement is grotesquely incorrect, but we do not have the space to talk about the history of the NLL here). The former president was effectively saying that South Korea was open to discussion on the issue.

South Korea’s progressive forces reacted to these allegations rather equivocally. On one hand they denied that President Roh had ever said anything about the NLL, but they added at the same time that had such claims, had they been true, should not be seen as a big deal. The NLL, they claimed, is not a fixed border, but rather merely a provisional demarcation line and can be changed with little damage to national sovereignty. It was officially stated that records of President Roh’s talks with Kim Jong-il existed, but would be classified for several decades. The vast majority of South Korean observers were however left with the impression that Roh had said something about the NLL, and this something was probably very similar to the allegations of these right-wing lawmakers.

Another leak, obviously related to the same shadowy campaign, followed in late October when the influential right-leaning Choongang Ilbo newspaper interviewed a former high-level official from the current Lee Myung-bak administration. Speaking on the condition of animosity, the official said that back in 2010, the North Korean side demanded a lump sum payment of $500-600 million as a preliminary condition for its agreement to hold a third North-South summit. The official further related that President Lee rejected the demand and the summit did not take place.

This statement seems to be highly plausible. After all, an official investigation a couple of years ago revealed that the first North-South summit in 2000 took place only after the South Korean government had promised to pay $500 million to Pyongyang. It is amusing to note that the price tag of inter-Korean summits has not gone up in line with inflation. The final leak was arranged in early November when Reto Wittwer, the CEO of Kempinski Hotels & Resorts, confirmed what the South Korean media had been speculating about for a while. He said that in 2005, the South Korean government was willing to pay another $500 million to finance the completion of the notorious Ryugyong Hotel in Pyongyang. The deal was discussed by the South Korean intelligence officials, but did not get through.

The building of this 105-storey hotel began in the 1980s and was meant to become a symbol of North Korea’s alleged industrial progress and technological sophistication. By the late 1980s however, Soviet subsidies dried up and construction was abandoned. The hotel became a gargantuan pyramid of grey concrete which for two decades has dominated Pyongyang’s skyline. It was even once voted the world’s ugliest building, and official photographers of North Korea’s media took especial care to ensure that the Ryugyong Hotel was not to be found in their pictures. More recently, as a result of a deal between the Egyptian Orascom company and the North Korean company, the building was covered with glass, and few floors might start operating soon, but back in 2005 the existence of this building was seen as a source of major embarrassment.

Once again this information (explicitly confirmed by the Keminsky Hotel company, and therefore beyond reasonable doubt) is meant to further underscore the same message: The left-leaning administrations of Kim and Roh were willing to waste taxpayer’s money saving and shoring up the North Korean regime in order to boost their own prestige. It remains to be seen to what extent these leaks will influence South Korean voters. It is though remarkable what these leaks say about the South Korean popular mindset regarding the North Korean regime. Of course campaign strategists may have misread the local mood, but from the present author’s experience, it seems far more likely that they are indeed correct in their understanding of voter opinion.

When it comes to North Korea, South Korean voters have a rather peculiar mind-set. On the one hand, they do not want North Korea to be troublesome; when North Korea engages in provocative and/or violent actions they first  get annoyed with Pyongyang, but then they get angry with their own government which they accuse of being incompetent when it comes to dealing with the North. The average South Korean voters would much rather read about summits and high-level talks with North Korea, as well as joint concerts with artists from both countries or the visit of stunning North Korean cheer leaders to Seoul. The South Korean public does not want tension – partially because it is scary, and partially because it is bad for the economy, which is by far the most important issue for most voters.

However, the same voters are also very unwilling to pay to maintain good relations with North Korea. They are unhappy when they learn that their hard-earned won is being spent on support for North Korea. This is the reason why the left-leaning administrations went to great length to cover the scale of the financial aid they provided to North Korea in 1998-2007.  In other words, the average South Korean wants to have good relations with the North but is not going to pay for these relations.

There is a large and insoluble contradiction in this worldview. For decades – essentially from the very inception of the North Korean state – the North Korean leadership has seen foreign policy as first and foremost as a way to squeeze money from the outside world. They are not going to do much for free, indeed there is no such thing as a free lunch when it comes to dealing with North Korea – a truth which was learnt the hard way by the Soviet Union and China in the 1970s, and is currently being learnt by the South Koreans and the Americans.

North Korean decision makers know that South Korean decision makers face significant pressure from their voters. Voters want them to be capable of handling Pyongyang, so their visits to North Korea, or participation in large-scale talks are seen as proof that they know how to keep things stable. The North Korean side is well aware of this and, logically enough, are willing to offer the South Korean leadership what they want for a hefty price.

So the South Korean public are clearly doves when it comes to dealing with Pyongyang. But they are also miserly doves and this makes their expectations highly unrealistic. They might indeed be influenced by the recent leaks and choose to vote for the Right. But once in power, the Right will have to pay the North if it wishes to maintain relatively good relations with South Korea’s unruly neighbour.

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