South Korea, 25.02.08: a new president is sworn in

24. Feb 2008

A personal comment by Geir Helgesen, Senior Researcher, NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

A change of leader in South Korea: does it matter much? Is it not, after all, the institutions and rules that characterize democratic governance while the president is more of a figurehead? Well, yes and no. South Korea is a democracy, as is the USA, but in both countries the president plays a decisive role, in Korea even more so than in the USA.

After two terms (and a whole decade) with centre-left leaders in the Blue House, the incoming leader is characterized as center-right. His party is called the Grand National Party (GNP), but whether it remains Grand will be seen after the National Assembly elections in April. National it is, both because the party is represented throughout the country (the South) and because the nation is an important symbol in a divided country. And of course it is a political Party, though it might not compare well with more ideologically based political organizations (what we regard as ‘real’ political parties) in this part of the world. When it has been decided who is going to run as a party’s candidate for president, that party becomes an electioneering machine; the pursuit of power overrides any ideological concerns that underpin the party’s identity. With such a pragmatic orientation, it is questionable if claims that the new president is center-right rather than center-left have any meaning.

The centre is obviously where everyone wants to be these days, and in a Confucian political culture this is more so as the centre represents the golden mean. But actually ‘left’ and ‘right’ have much the same meaning in Korea as they do in Europe. People of the left are inclined to put people first, focusing on welfare and solidarity, while those of the right prioritize the economy first, second and …That said, it is not necessarily the goal of a conservative president to ignore people and welfare. He will obviously argue that only with a vibrant economy will there be resources available to build up all the institutions that are needed to create a good society.

Korea is a divided country, and the Cold War period is barely over in this part of East Asia. For years, the 38th Parallel (the “demarcation” line between the two halves of Korea) was in effect a total barrier against any normal relations between neighbours. With Kim Dae-jung (the first centre-left president ever in South Korea) and his Sunshine Policy, some cracks appeared in the wall. During the past decade, these cracks have resulted in improved and extensive communication, collaborative projects between the two Koreas and a slow but quite steady North Korean movement towards reforms. Even so, these positive developments have not been easy, nor have they been without their interruptions and setbacks. The North Korean military-first policy, with its testing of nuclear devices and long-distance missiles, brought dramatic setbacks that upset the neighbouring countries as well as the world community. But the reason for the North Koreans to flex their military muscles was not South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, however; it was a threatening US foreign policy that considered taking military action against the North.

What will happen now, with a conservative president in Seoul and with the South naturally having closer ties with the USA and Japan? Are we approaching a new paradigm of conflict with China and Russia on the North’s side and USA and Japan supporting the South? Much depends on the new administration in Washington. Currently, even under George W. Bush there is détente between Washington and Pyongyang, not least thanks to Christopher R. Hill, who is the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the head negotiator for the US at the six-party talks. Although hardliners in Washington criticize the outcome of these talks, and in particular argue that North Korea has failed to fulfill their part of the deal, more sober observers know that the situation is more complex and that there are shortcomings on both sides. The question remain, will a conservative president in South Korea bring the Cold War back to the peninsula?

My guess is no. Mr. Lee may be conservative (or, at least, he ran for the presidency under the banner of the conservative party). But he is also a businessman, he is a Korean who experienced hardship during his youth, and he was (like all bright students) a progressive activist during his formative years. Let us take each of these experiences in turn, starting with the last mentioned. As a former student activist he is familiar with radicalism and radical nationalism; it is thus possible for him to understand the North Korean position. Having lived through difficult times in the post-war period, he may easily relate to the present living conditions of most people in North Korea. And as a business man, with few strong ideological bindings, he may first and foremost see the relations between South and North in terms of business opportunities. And this is exactly what he has announced.

This said, does it mean that there are no reason left to fear the immediate future in relations between South and North? Well, that may be a too optimistic conclusion. President Lee of South Korea has said that he wants a more reciprocal relationship, and also a more conditional one. Economic cooperation will continue (and it may even be upgraded) on the condition that the North Korean denuclearization continues. Another new aspect is that the new president will take up humanitarian issues, which means that the human rights situation in North Korea will be raised in future talks. This may be a non-starter, or it may be the beginning of a more real and honest relationship between South and North. That depends very much on how this issue is brought up. Will the South acknowledge their own highly problematic human rights record in the past? Will they have some understanding for the North Korean perspective that there is a direct link between the number of inmates in their camps and the amount of pressure – military and other kinds – that North Korea has felt as an isolated entity in a hostile world? Will President Lee (as did President Kim Dae-jung earlier) try to give the North Korean leader good reasons to embark on a reform policy. As a shrewd business man, I guess he could do that. I hope that he does.

Geir Helgesen