South Korean Elections Sidestep Rising Peninsula Tensions
South Korean Elections Sidestep Rising Peninsula Tensions
People at a railway station watch a TV broadcast of a news report on North Korea's missile launch. Seoul, South Korea, on 29 April 2017. REUTERS/Kim Hong-Ji
Commentary / Asia 11 minutes

South Korean Elections Sidestep Rising Peninsula Tensions

North Korea’s nuclear grandstanding and inflammatory missile tests, President Trump’s anti-Pyongyang rhetoric and U.S. missile deployments have raised tensions in North East Asia. Our Senior Advisor for the Korean Peninsula Christopher Green looks at where South Korea’s 9 May presidential election fits into these newly complex dynamics.

Why have tensions risen on the Korean Peninsula this year?

Tensions are driven higher, as ever, by the North Korean nuclear and missile programs and evidence suggesting that Pyongyang is making notable progress toward deployment. However, this year there have been additional complicating factors.

Since the Trump administration took office, a number of U.S. officials, including Secretary of Defense James Mattis and Secretary of State Rex Tillerson, have declared emphatically that the previous Obama administration policy of “strategic patience” is dead. This has been replaced by a firm rhetorical commitment to resolve the “North Korea problem” during the Trump term, and at times it has seemed as if there could be a willingness to use force to achieve this goal. The phrase “all options are on the table” has become almost ubiquitous. Although this spring so far has not seen a North Korean nuclear test (making it in this respect at least potentially an improvement over last spring) the country has steamed ahead with a range of missile tests, and recently conducted its largest military exercises in years – as did the U.S. and South Korea.

Amid all of this, China and South Korea have been at loggerheads since July last year over the deployment to the Korean peninsula of an anti-ballistic American missile defence system known as THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense). This has made former South Korean President Park Geun-hye’s trip to Beijing in 2015, where she stood on the dais alongside Xi Jinping and Vladimir Putin at events to mark the 70th anniversary of the end of the Second World War, seem like a very long time ago indeed!

With South Korea encumbered by a temporary administration during the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, another new factor is that Japan has attained pre-eminence among U.S. allies in the Asia-Pacific. This is a success for Japanese diplomacy, but one that runs counter to the prevailing trend of anti-Japanese sentiment in South Korea and China since Shinzo Abe returned to power in Tokyo in 2013.

So as you can see, North East Asia is a highly complex strategic environment right now, which makes tomorrow’s South Korean presidential election all the more interesting and potentially momentous.

How have the conflict politics of the Korean peninsula played into South Korea’s 9 May elections?

Korean peninsula conflicts feature very prominently as one of the main subjects that come up in televised debates, even if national security is discussed more in historical terms, not in fearful expectation of a new, imminent outburst of violence. For instance, this election has put pressure on Moon Jae-in – the candidate of the left-leaning Minjoo Party, who enjoys a healthy lead in opinion polls – to answer for the actions of the Roh Moo-hyun government of which he was a part in the early 2000s, and specifically for what it did or did not do vis-à-vis North Korea.

This election in some ways has been business as usual. For South Koreans, the security and other issues they face are familiar.

One area where the debate deals with current events is the dispute over the deployment of the U.S. anti-ballistic missile defense system (THAAD) in the south East of the country. Many in South Korea share the perception that the Washington and Seoul establishments colluded to rush the installation prior to the election, ensuring it becomes a fait accompli by the time the new president takes office. While right-wing politicians – the leading conservative candidate, Hong Joon-pyo prominent among them – have clearly endorsed the THAAD deployment, the position of the left has been less clear-cut; for a while, it appeared that a Moon Jae-in administration might seek to reverse it. More recently, Moon has acknowledged that while he does not support THAAD deployment, any such reversal would be difficult at this late stage, suggesting that – should he win – he would retain his political capital for fights he has a reasonable chance of winning. The only implacable opponent of THAAD deployment in the race is Shim Sang-jung of the minority Justice Party, who has the luxury of maintaining her principled stance on the matter because she won’t win.

How concerned are ordinary South Koreans about the security tensions?

Perhaps surprisingly for outsiders, this election in some ways has been business as usual. For South Koreans, the security and other issues they face are familiar. The democratic system worked well in removing the former president and moving relatively seamlessly into an election campaign. The major difference this time around is that the impeachment and prior corruption scandals mean that the conservatives have almost no chance of winning.

Questions of national security and U.S.-North Korea tensions clearly figure in the campaign, but discussions about such matters tend to focus less on today’s risks and more on the rights and wrongs of the candidates’ past actions. History is taken very seriously, and provokes political rifts. But that’s not the same as fearing for South Korea’s existence in the present.

Of course, a sizable minority of South Koreans are genuinely concerned about the direction in which the region is moving, and those concerns are exacerbated by what they perceive as erratic decision-making in the White House. In 2002, George W. Bush upended policy assumptions in Seoul when lumped together Iran, Iraq and North Korea in his “Axis of Evil” speech, but even so that was a more predictable era. Not so today. South Koreans don’t feel confident that they know what Donald Trump’s administration will do. And after a confused U.S. claim about a carrier strike group sailing toward the Korean peninsula and other mixed messages emanating from the Pentagon and White House, they worry about whether the situation is being handled in a professional way.

What are the main factors inside the Koreas behind the current tensions?

Tensions on the Korean peninsula often escalate early in the year, when North Korea conducts its winter military drills and celebrates the births of Kim Jong-il, then Kim Il-sung, as well as the founding of the Korean People’s Army; it also is the time of year when South Korea and the U.S. conduct their own military exercises. To be sure, this year tensions are more severe than in many other years, but they are far from being unprecedented. Take a few examples: on 26 March 2010, North Korea struck a South Korean corvette with a torpedo, killing 46 sailors; in February 2013, North Korea conducted a nuclear test, which prompted expanded UN sanctions and weeks of bellicose rhetoric before, North Korea decided to unilaterally withdraw its 50,000 staff from the Kaesong Industrial Complex in April, calling it a “theater of confrontation between compatriots and war against the North”. That doesn’t mean one can afford to be complacent about today’s tensions, but it is one reason why South Koreans aren’t panicking. They feel like they’ve seen it all before.

Indeed, when you ask South Koreans if they worry about the potential for armed conflict on the Korean peninsula, you generally get a negative response. Recent polling shows that only 18 per cent of people are concerned about national security as an electoral issue. Fewer than one in five say they will enter the voting booth with national security prominent on their minds. Asked what their top issue is in the election, most mention something broadly related to the economy. So while outsiders almost certainly view national security as the key issue on the Korean peninsula, ordinary South Korean citizens worry mostly about the state of the economy.

Do the main candidates ever seek to outbid each other in nationalist terms to further confront the North?

No, and especially not in this election cycle, since both leading candidates can be characterised as left of center. Moon Jae-in’s rival, Ahn Cheol-soo, is seeking to attract conservative voters by portraying himself as stronger on national security than Moon – making repeated visits to military locations and coming around to support for THAAD deployment – but his is not a genuinely hawkish line. Indeed, he also has advocated restoring some of the links to North Korea that were severed over the last decade. The candidates do not seek to upstage each other as more anti-North. Moon Jae-in tends to prioritise engagement, while Ahn Cheol-soo, like the government of Kim Dae-jung from which his People’s Party draws inspiration, focuses first on containing the North Korea threat.

Still, and although they have not sought to outbid each other in this particular respect, there are some dividing lines between the two. Take the case of the Kaesong Industrial Complex just inside North Korea, where South Korean manufacturers can employ cheap North Korean workers, and which was closed down early last year. Moon Jae-in is in favour of reopening it, whereas Ahn Cheol-soo has been circumspect about the benefits of such a move. In the end, of course, any president would face one major constraint, namely that reopening the complex probably would be viewed as a violation of UN sanctions.

With two candidates on the left, do you think there’s a chance that South Korea return to the 1998-2008 “Sunshine Policy” of better relations with the North?

Rapprochement, perhaps, but nothing approaching sunshine. The Sunshine Policy was devised by former President Kim Dae-jung, and derives its name from the Aesop’s fable in which the sun and the wind compete to remove a traveller’s heavy coat. The message is that due to the sun’s warmth the traveller, North Korea in this case, removed his coat – thus opening up to the world – whereas the wind only prompted him to draw the coat ever more tightly around himself.

This year tensions are more severe than in many other years, but they are far from being unprecedented.

Under the Sunshine Policy between 1998 and 2008, South Korea delivered fertiliser and food aid to North Korea, engaged in cultural and educational exchanges and, in due course, inaugurated the Kaesong Industrial Complex. The two sides also opened up Mount Kumgang to tourism, enabling South Koreans to visit the symbolic Diamond Mountains on North Korea’s east coast. At the very end of the Sunshine Policy era, December 2007, they also organised direct tours for South Korean tourists to Kaesong, which is just a few tens of kilometers north of the Demilitarised Zone, the 250km by 4km zone that acts as the de facto border between the two states.

But the policy did not survive. The sun went behind a dark cloud in the summer of 2008 – five months after a conservative administration came to power in Seoul – as a North Korean soldier shot dead a South Korean tourist at the Mount Kumgang resort. The ensuing outrage led to the end of Mount Kumgang tours. The Kaesong Industrial Complex, which closed last year, became a serious issue of controversy in 2013.

Is there any nostalgia for the pre-2008 Sunshine Policy?

Not enough to make it a winning argument in a presidential election, that’s for sure. A mistake outside observers tend to make is to presume that Moon Jae-in wants to pursue “Sunshine 2.0”. That’s an oversimplification. The situation is very different today. North Korea tested its first nuclear weapon in 2006, toward the end of the second of two liberal administrations, and this arguably permanently changed the game. North Korea now has conducted five nuclear tests and tens of missile tests, putting paid to any notion that the Sunshine Policy could resume and seriously constraining what any new South Korean administration – right, left or centre – could or would do with regards to North Korea.

With the arrest of the heir to Samsung, is there a debate about South Korea’s economic model and the future of the whole chaebol system of family-owned conglomerates?

Certainly. It is an issue of tremendous importance. There is general agreement in both camps that South Korea’s chaebol corporations dominate the economy in a way that limits dynamism and retards growth in small- to medium-sized enterprises, which is a problem particular to the South Korean model of economic development. Both leading candidates also agree that youth unemployment, irregular employment, stagnant wage growth and agricultural incomes all will be significant issues for the next administration. These are pertinent questions for developed economies around the world, of course, and in that regard, South Korea is no outlier.

A mistake outside observers tend to make is to presume that Moon Jae-in wants to pursue “Sunshine 2.0”. That’s an oversimplification. The situation is very different today.

The candidates generally agree on the nature of the problem, then, but not on the solution. Moon and Ahn both want to reform the chaebol system, but are vague as to how they might accomplish it. Broadly speaking, Moon Jae-in is in favour of direct government intervention in the economy, whereas Ahn Cheol-soo would prefer to incentivise the private sector. Both would raise taxes, though they would go about it in slightly different ways.

Is South Korea heading in a new direction?

No. I see little mainstream appetite for a thorough paradigmatic shift in terms of national security, foreign policy, or even the chaebol-dominated economy. This is unlikely to be a transformative election.

How would the two candidates navigate relations between nearby China and their U.S. ally?

South Korea is in a corner. Economically it is reliant on China, and a prominent investor there. Economic ties bind the two states together closely. Militarily, however, South Korea is in an alliance with the U.S., and as the recent clash between South Korea and China over THAAD U.S. missile deployment amply proves, it is extremely hard to keep both sides happy. It remains to be seen whether the new administration will be able to rapidly improve the state of relations with China, which responded to THAAD deployment by halting the flow of Chinese tourists to South Korea and auditing the China arm of Lotte, one of Korea’s large family-run conglomerate companies, which forced the closure of a number of the company’s stores. All this prompted Seoul to report Beijing to the World Trade Organization for violating trade agreements.

South Korea is being squeezed in other ways. The exports that have made Korea the powerful economy it is today are being undercut by Chinese producers. Shipbuilding is an excellent example. South Korean ships are engineered to a higher standard than Chinese ships, by and large, but Chinese shipyards can achieve greater economies of scale. There will be a market for Korean ships for years to come, but the industry won’t continue to be the mass employer it once was because the orders won’t be there. South Korea needs to slowly diversify its economy away from manufacturing and toward services, where it is highly competitive and innovative. It can be done, but won’t be quick or easy. The country faces a period of great challenges. It is not surprising that the general public worries more about the economy than about North Korea.

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