‘Presidential race goes to the middle’

Int’l experts see Ahn Cheol-soo as unique, important election factor

A panel of foreign experts from the United States, China and Japan, reviewing the Dec. 19 presidential election, shared that the two leading candidates _ Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae-in of the main opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) _ have similar policies. The previous presidential elections were largely a “litmus test” between the conservatives and liberals here.

The experts also pointed out that Korean electorates’ desire for new politics was represented through the support of the former independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo.

They agreed it was a good sign for the development of Korea’s politics, although Ahn withdrew his candidacy.

U.S. experts said Park’s victory would lead to closer ties with the U.S., but if Moon wins, he will seek more balance.

Chinese experts, on the other hand, said, regardless of the winner, Korea-China relations would develop compared to the deteriorated ties under the current Lee Myung-bak administration.

The following are excerpts from interviews with foreign experts – ED.

Q: What are the most intriguing points that you looked at in the election process?

Flake: One of the most interesting points was that it was a race to the middle. Candidates’ policies on economic justice, engagement with North Korea etc were similar. It wasn’t a litmus test of the two polls representing the left and the right.

Klingner: Park and her party have moved their party platform toward the center, adopting populist themes of social democratization. Yet, like the opposition parties, they have not identified how they would fund the promises of massive government spending.

Kang: “Democratization of the economy” is a nice phrase, but I am not sure what it means in practice. Small changes such as capping university tuition and maternity leave might be policies Park could pursue without fundamentally changing the central place of large conglomerates in the Korean economy. But I don’t see a real move to restrict cross-shareholding, for example.

Q: What would North Korea policy of the next administration look like?

Jin Qiangyi: Both candidates have almost identical polices toward North Korea — engagement with the North. In the previous 2007 presidential election, there was a big difference between the leading candidates — conservative Lee Myung-bak and liberal Chung Dong-young. Lee pledged to take a firm stance while Chung stressed engagement. I believe the changes shown now are due to the Lee administration’s extreme hard-line policy. Voters now know that such a move would only bring bad consequences to South Korea.

Klingner: Park distanced herself from Lee’s North Korea policy due to the president’s declining popularity. Yet, there seems to be little difference between her policy and that of Lee. She, like Lee, believes in offering economic, humanitarian, and diplomatic benefits to North Korea but conditioned on Pyongyang taking steps to abide by its denuclearization commitments of several international agreements. This is a more pragmatic policy than the ideologically-based policies of the late President Roh Moo-hyun and Moon which promise unconditional benefits with no reciprocal action needed by the North. Moon represents a return to the policies of Roh. He sees the 2007 inter-Korean summit statement as a “to do list” for South Korean largesse to the North Korean regime. Moon, like Roh, highlights actions that Seoul should take but does not identify corresponding steps for Pyongyang to take in return.

Kang: Much will depend on what North Korea does between now and early 2013, but it appears at least at this point that both candidates are ready to move away from a hard-line stance toward something more conciliatory with the North. Park appears to be preparing for “engagement with conditions,” which would initially mean some proactive proposals to the North. Even this small step would be different from the current regime, and would open the door to possible increase in economic or cultural interactions. If Moon wins, he would be able to move toward “engagement without conditions” simply because South Korean president has enormous power.

Q: What are your general impressions of the two leading candidates: Park and Moon?

Kang: Park and Moon are both career politicians, and both have clear organizational and political strengths. They also both represent different aspects of Korea’s past. The key question is how the electorates view their past and what they envision for the future. In this way they have not truly differentiated themselves. Both are running more on image than on clear policy proposals about the economy, education, and other domestic issues.

Jin Zhe: I think electorates in Korea are too obsessed with candidates’ past. Also, candidates themselves try to avoid giving clear-cut answers to lingering questions that the people have of their past. People in Korea should understand that, while keeping the essence of one’s values, hands-on policies can change as time passes. In other words, it is not a betrayal of one’s original supporters to take on new policies.

Flake: Talking about Park, despite her legacy as the first lady and so on, she for two decades has worked as a politician. It is worthwhile looking at her path since 1997. She has this tension between being strong and compassionate, being loyal to her late father Park Chung-hee’s legacy and to be understanding to the democratization movement. Regarding Moon, he is the most practical among the pro-Roh faction in the DUP and a sensible figure.

Q: What about former candidate Ahn Cheol-soo?

Flake: It was the first time in a long period that Korea had a real serious three-horse race for the presidency. For the last three months it has been particularly interesting due to the dynamic between Ahn and Moon. Ahn’s real attractiveness as an individual and a candidate was that he was not a politician as usual. He was like the Toru Hashimoto of Japan. Just like how Hashimoto linked hands with seasoned politician Shintaro Ishihara and lost all his credibility and respect, every day Ahn began to negotiate picking details of how to come up with a unified candidate with Moon, he tarnished his image and credibility.

Okonogi: Hashimoto and Ahn have something similar for the fact that they both gained popularity as alternatives to the established politics. But Hashimoto served as the mayor of Osaka which means he is more experienced as a politician than Ahn. Their ideologies are different as well. Hashimoto rose to fame with his far-right nationalistic perspective, whereas, Ahn was a moderate figure. It was really interesting to see a moderate stance gaining grounds in Korean politics. I think the Ahn phenomenon itself was the most unique and important element in this election.

Jin Jingyi: I can see that people in Korea crave for new politics as you witnessed via the so-called Ahn phenomenon. But looking at Ahn’s proposals, they were a little too idealistic. But there is no progress in society without having an ideal. I don’t see his resignation as a failure. Challenging the established political parties would have been hard for him. Because of Ahn, Park and Moon both tried their best to follow suit Ahn’s views which led to neutralization of the candidates’ policies.

Klingner: Ahn was the Korean Hamlet, indecisive and uncertain of which path to pursue. The abrupt and strange manner in which he abandoned his presidential campaign angered supporters and may have undercut his viability as a candidate.

Q: How would this election impact Korea’s relationship with your nations?

Jin Jingyi: Whoever becomes the next president, Korea-China relationship would be better. Park, first of all, has visited China many times and has many human networks in China. Ordinary Chinese don’t have anything bad to say about Park as well. Moon, regardless to say, would follow late Roh’s policy of balancing between China and the United States which is in line with China’s interest. Plus, China wants and believes Korea should shift its North Korea policy in the next administration, especially, against the backdrop of the United States’ pivot to Asia.

Bruce: The greatest potential for deterioration in Korea-U.S. relations would occur if Moon becomes the president since he advocates a return to Roh’s energetic, if naive, approach. Moon’s policies would be most at odds with those of the U.S. Park has demonstrated a strong appreciation for the U.S. alliance as well as a pragmatic approach to the North. Bilateral relations would be smoothest under her stewardship, though she would likely need to appear more independent of Washington than Lee was perceived to be. <The Korea Times/Chung Min-uck>

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