Leftist wins Seoul mayoral race: How it could alter South Korea's ties with North Korea

Voters in Seoul elected a leftist for mayor and showed their discontent with the status quo. The winner, Park Won-soon, ran on a message of 'change' that could affect South Korea's ties with North Korea.

Kang Jin-Hyeong/Newsis/Reuters
Lawyer-turned-activist Park Won-soon, an independent candidate for mayor of Seoul, South Korea celebrates his victory at his campaign office Wednesday.

A leftist lawyer with a long background espousing radical causes won a decisive victory Wednesday in an election for mayor of Seoul that has serious implications for policies in dealing with North Korea.

Park Won-soon, an activist and human rights lawyer who has called for withdrawal of US troops and the repeal of the National Security law for tracking Communist sympathizers and spies, easily defeated Na Kyung-won, a National Assembly member who ran for the ruling conservative party. With nearly all the votes counted, he had 53 percent against 46 percent for Ms. Na.

Wednesday night as his victory was assured, Mr. Park credited voters with showing “common sense and principles” in a contest that reflected severe differences in social class and income.

The election highlights the deep discontent many South Koreans have with a system in which the country’s sprawling conglomerates, led by Samsung and Hyundai Motor, have grown increasingly rich, while average citizens struggle to make ends meet amid rising inflation and unemployment.

One of the country’s most powerful financial officials, Kwon Hyouk-se, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, acknowledged the discontent, saying “Korea does have to contend with the problem of social disharmony.” He called the “Occupy Wall Street” movement, which has caught on here in demonstrations in the financial district, “an expression of the [US] frustration at the gains and advantages financial firms and their executives enjoy even after one of the worst financial crises ever.”

Mr. Kwon told the American Chamber of Commerce that “many attribute this to uneven sharing of growth and prosperity” amid “voices calling for more responsible corporate citizenship in our financial industry.”

The middle class

The accuracy of that view was borne out as the returns rolled in, showing Park ahead in every district of this national capital of 10 million people except for the wealthiest neighborhoods south of the Han River that bisects the city.

Park appeared to have widespread support among young middle-class office workers.

“We are struggling so much, we are not even ‘middle class’ any more,” says office manager Kim Yun-mee, reflecting growing unhappiness with the Grand National Party, the conservative organization that controls the central government. “They are good only for the rich people,” she says. “Look at the whole economy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”

The previous mayor

The surge for Park represents an astounding reversal that began when the previous mayor, Oh Se-hoon, called a referendum in August on a costly school lunch program. The conservative Mr. Oh, elected to a second term four-year term by a narrow margin last year, opposed the populist notion of free lunch for Seoul’s 800,000 school children as approved by a city council controlled by opposition liberals.

Warning of the need for raising taxes if the kids got free lunches, Oh proposed a referendum giving voters an option: free lunch for them all or free lunch only for those whose families could not afford it.

The opposition Democratic Party organized a boycott of the referendum, which was rendered invalid after failing to get a minimum one third of the voters to cast ballots. Humiliated, he resigned with three years to go on his term.

Foreign policy

Although the mayor of Seoul has no say in foreign or defense policy, the election is seen a bellwether for pivotal National Assembly elections next April and then for election of a new president in December of next year. Lee Myung-bak, who won a landslide victory in a backlash against a decade of liberal rule in December 2007, cannot succeed himself under the country’s “democracy constitution,” adopted in 1987 amid protests against dictatorial rule.

Voters have become increasingly critical of Mr. Lee's hard-line policy toward North Korea, including his reluctance to extend aid or enter into negotiations unless the North shows signs of giving up its nuclear program.

“The young generation are angry at Lee Myung-bak,” says Kim Kee-sam, a former official of the National Intelligence Service, now working as a lawyer in the US. “They are frustrated because of unemployment. It’s impossible for them to buy a house. It’s only the chaebol – the conglomerates – that are growing rich.”

Park has been attacking central government policies since he was expelled from Seoul National University for leading protests 36 years ago against the regime of the dictatorial Park Chung-hee. His victory may well undercut the budding presidential campaign of Mr. Park's daughter, Park Keun-Hye, who campaigned for Na.

Park ran initially as an independent, without Democratic Party support, but finally ran on a unified ticket. Some observers believe as mayor he will adopt a more moderate stance than indicated by his rants against the government, including his claim that South Korea “provoked” North Korea into sinking the navy vessel the Cheonan in March of last year and then shelling Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea in November with a loss of 50 lives.

“People worry about him being very liberal,” says Jeffery Jones, a long-time lawyer here. “He sounds liberal, but he’ll come back to middle of the road.” Still, he adds, “he’s clearly social progressive.”

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