By Rahul Raj*
Since the impeachment of South Korean President Park Guen-hye after her alleged involvement in one of the nation’s biggest corruption scandals, the major political parties have swung into action to build electoral momentum and begin campaigning for the next presidential election scheduled to take place later in 2017. The corruption scandal has gravely damaged the ruling conservative Saenuri Party, which saw a large number of its lawmakers siding with opposition party leaders in support of Park’s impeachment. On the other hand, the opposition party, which has supported public demonstrations to oust the president, is buoyant at the chance to end its ten-year exile and catapult itself to power by capitalising on the national disenchantment with the ruling party. However, things are not as rosy as they seem, for the opposition party. Despite the fact that the ruling party is in disarray and struggling to recuperate from political scandal, the opposition party is beset with its own frictions, which include trying to decide on a presidential candidate who can unite the various opposition groups.
Among those jostling for the Blue House, two main populist presidential candidates have emerged as front-runners – Moon Jae-in, the former leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, and Ban Ki-moon, the former South Korean foreign minister who has just ended a ten year stint as the UN Secretary-General. Both have relative strengths and weaknesses as well as loyal followers, which should make this election a highly competitive affair. In the balance hangs the future of a nation in the midst of its greatest political turmoil in decades.
Moon Jae-in: A Quick Assessment
Since President Park’s impeachment by the South Korean Parliament, Moon Jae-in has shown strong popular appeal in election polling albeit he is not viewed as a particularly charismatic leader and there are doubts as to whether he can unite the public and political leaders behind his candidacy. Moon Jae-in has also been criticised for flip-flopping on major national security issues by his own party members as well as the conservative party. Last year, Moon joined the bandwagon in opposing the US-made Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system, joining other opposition parties in order to capitalise on public protests against deploying the system in South Korea. Now, Moon has changed his stance, stating that a decision on THAAD should wait until the next government is in place.
Furthermore, he has been embroiled in a controversy with Song Min-song, a former foreign minister who, in his memoir, alleges that Moon backed a proposal to seek Pyongyang’s opinion before casting a vote on the 2007 UN resolution on North Korean human rights violations (South Korea had abstained during the voting).
Moon has also been accused of leading the only group aligned with former progressive President Roh Moon-hyun while ignoring people loyal to the country’s former progressive president Kim Dae-jung. This was one of the reasons for the division in the party last year that saw those aligned with Kim Dae-jung leave the party and form the new People’s Party, which is not eager to support a Moon Jae-in candidacy. The People’s Party also badly defeated the Democratic Party in the Assembly elections last year in South Korea’s Cheolla region, a bastion of progressive voters.
Ban Ki-moon: A Quick Assessment
Ban Ki-moon is a popular figure in South Korean politics who has returned to South Korea after finishing his term at the UN, signaling his intention to join the fray for the Blue House. However, despite his celebrity status he has his own drawbacks.
Primary among them is the fact that Ban lacks experience in South Korean domestic politics and does not have the backing of a political party. The joy of his homecoming and possible electoral prospects have also been marred by an allegation by Sisa Journal, a local business magazine, that he received a bribe while serving as South Korea’s foreign minister in 2005.
A Ban spokesman has rejected the charge calling them as baseless, and has vowed legal action, arguing that the magazine cited several anonymous sources in a 2016 story it published about the affair. Furthermore, he has been rumored to be supported by President Park, who tried to project him as a presidential candidate from the Saenuri Party. Hence, Ban has suffered a drop in popularity since the Park scandal broke and is now trailing behind Moon Jae-in in national polling. The breakaway conservative Bareun Party has indicated a willingness to support Ban, which would give him a political platform and also allow him to distance himself from the scandal-ridden Park presidency. However, Ban has been keeping his cards close to his chest amid speculation that he may form a broader alliance of like-minded parties who are opposed to both Moon Jae-in and Park Guen-hye, thereby broadening his appeal in the electoral mathematics.
The campaigning is yet to pick up real momentum, but political leaders are already drawing battle lines and attacking each other; and this is expected to intensify in the coming weeks. At the moment it appears likely that the two ‘Moons’ will become the leading candidates to seek election as South Korea’s next president, in the midst of a crisis that has shaken the faith of the Korean people in their political leadership and in the institution of the presidency.
* Rahul Raj
Assistant Professor, Department of Hotel & Tourism Management, Sejong University; and Adjunct Professor, Korean Studies, Graduate School of International Studies, Hanyang University, Seoul