By Mascha Peters*
On 10 March the constitutional court of South Korea upheld a parliamentary motion to impeach president Park Geun-hye, clearing the way for a snap presidential election on 9 May. A clear majority of South Koreans view the first-ever impeachment of a South Korean president as a chance for a fresh start after months of protests, which drew up to one million citizens onto the streets. With at least 61 members of the ruling New Frontier Party (NFP) voting in favour of Park’s impeachment, hopes are now high for a democratic boost for the country. The scale of civic protest is comparable only to the one which triggered the downfall of the last authoritarian regime 30 years ago.
Until recently the front runner to succeed Park Geun-hye was Moon Jae-in, the candidate of the main opposition party, the Together Democratic Party (TDP), notably since Ban Ki-moon dropped out of the presidential race. Moon (64), a human rights lawyer, has been in the political arena for well over a decade. He served as chief of staff to the late president Roh Moo-hyun from 2003-2008 and ran against Park in the last presidential election in 2012, losing by 48% to 52%.
Moon’s victory, however, is far from certain. According to the latest polls, Ahn Cheol-soo, leader of the second opposition party, the People’s Party (PP), is rapidly closing in on Moon. At the beginning of this week polls showed Ahn topping all five candidates for the first time. Ahn (55) was considered a top contender for the 2012 election but withdrew his candidacy at the last-minute. The signal of a split in the opposition became evident when Ahn founded the PP in February 2016, which he labels an “anti-establishment centrist force”. In the 2016 general election his PP won 38 seats. The millionaire software mogul, a medical doctor by training, is known for his scorching criticism of the existing political parties and the Korean business conglomerates, the chaebol. But lately Ahn is increasingly reaching out to conservative voters who favour him over the two official conservative candidates Yoo Seong-min and Hong Joon-pyo.
South Korea has a long history of squabbling political parties. With Park Geun-hye being the only exception there has been no president since the beginning of the democratic transition who ended his term with the same party to which he belonged at inauguration. Furthermore, four of the six presidents elected since 1987 have been forced to leave his governing party while in office. Efforts to overcome this trend were demonstrated lastly at NFP’s and TDP’s party conventions, held in August 2016. The elected party executives, Lee Jung-hyun (NFP) and Choo Mi-ae (TDP) blatantly demonstrated party unity and their support for the respective presidential candidate. If either Moon or Ahn win the election on 9 May it would bring ten years of conservative power in South Korea to an end.
Despite their overall liberal backgrounds, both candidates stand for distinctively different political positions when it comes to questions of national security and foreign relations. In rallying support from conservative voters, Ahn has retracted from his previous opposition to the deployment of the anti-missile defence system, THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defence). Moon on the other hand has faced criticism for his ambiguity over the issue. He has made it clear that he wants to renegotiate the terms of THAAD with the US while not questioning its existence as such. THAAD puts South Korea in a difficult position as it is strongly opposed by China yet long urged by the US. China contends that THAAD compromises its national security and went as far as to shut down some South Korean corporations in China. However, with its recent deployment of the Carl Vinson strike group, which includes an aircraft carrier, the US have created a new situation. Sino-Korean relations have suffered lately due to China’s failure to rein in North Korea’s nuclear test, two of which have been carried out last year. There are signs, however, that Beijing now wants to work more closely with Seoul to address the North Korean issue. Recently China sent coal cargoes back to the North, cutting off the country’s most important export product.
As a pre-emptive strike is not an option for any number of reasons, chances are that the next Korean president will have to team up with the US in pressing China to make life more difficult for the regime in the North. In supporting THAAD Ahn has made it clear that he would favour such a move, whereas Moon would almost certainly be more accommodating towards the North. He has called for a reopening of Kaesong, the jointly operated industrial park which has been closed by Park Geun-hye after North Korea’s fourth nuclear test in 2016, and said that he would visit North Korea before any other country if the nuclear issue would be on the agenda.
Diplomatic relations between South Korea and Japan remain difficult due to the ongoing dispute over the so-called comfort women deal which Shinzo Abe and Park Geun-hye signed in December 2015. Liberal and conservative candidates alike oppose the deal, saying that Park negotiated it without input from the women. Japan has agreed to pay $180,000 for each surviving victim if South Korea refrained from any further claims. Critics say that the offer did not take the form of official reparations but were presented as a humanitarian gesture. It remains to be seen whether relations between Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo will improve in the years to come. After a three-and-a-half year suspension the trilateral summit between the three countries has been resumed in 2015 with the next one coming up on 18 Apri.
Regarding domestic policies Park’s successor inherits a difficult legacy as well. Her “474 vision”, which she pledged to deliver in 2012 – 4% economic growth, 70% employment, $40,000 per capita income – never saw the light of day. Instead economic growth slid back to 2.6% in 2015 and 2.7% in 2016, the average employment rate is below 60% and per capita income was last recorded at $25,000 in 2015. South Korea is facing severe demographic challenges. It is among the OECD countries with the lowest fertility rate, the highest poverty among the elderly and a youth unemployment rate that has climbed to nearly 10%. This contrasts with a lack of safety nets. The country spent just 10% of its GDP on social welfare in 2016, the lowest percentage among members of the OECD. Ahn and Moon have both pledged to increase public welfare spending, which they intend to finance by raising taxes on the highest income brackets and increasing taxes on capital income.
With just a few weeks before the election the race is open. But whoever wins will face some tough choices. It is unlikely that relations with the EU will be affected. There is strong bipartisan support for closer EU-Korean relations.
*Mascha Peters is an Associate Fellow of the EU-Asia Centre