Dictator's daughter leading polls ahead of South Korean election

Conservative candidate Park Geun-hye holds the slight edge ahead of an election Wednesday that could affect relations with North Korea.

Kim Ju-sung, Yonhap/AP
South Korean presidential candidate Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party waves to supporters during her election campaign rally in Hwaseong, south of Seoul, South Korea, Monday, Dec. 17, 2012.

The voices of party followers blare over loudspeakers from public squares shouting out the slogans of opposing sides in a presidential contest that could have a deep effect on South Korea's relations with North Korea and its alliance with the US.

Rows of placard-carrying men and women wearing red coats and sweaters preach the need for a strong conservative president who will stand up against North Korea and lead the country out of economic difficulties.

Their standard-bearer, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s long-ruling dictatorial Park Chung-hee, is believed to hold a slight edge in the presidential election Wednesday.

She faces a tough challenge from the liberal Moon Jae-in, a candidate of the opposition Democratic United Party. A human rights lawyer, Mr. Moon promises to stop the rich from getting richer and more powerful.

Several hundred feet away, demonstrators dressed in yellow carry placards telling voters to “change the future” by voting for Moon. They are campaigning to reverse the deeply conservative pattern of the presidency of Lee Myung-bak, elected five years ago in a massive reaction against a decade of liberal leadership.

"Who gets elected will have an influence on the balance of policy," says Hahm Chai-bong, president of the Asan Institute for Policy Studies here. "It would make a pretty big difference if Moon were elected and started improving engagement policy toward North Korea."

Mr. Hahm, however, doesn't see policy toward North Korea or the US as the dominant issue for voters. "We don't have that anti-Americanism," he says. "There is a lessening of ideological tension. Everyone is clamoring for jobs" – with voters disillusioned by President Lee's support for the huge business conglomerates that dominate the economy.

So reviled was Mr. Lee’s Grand National Party that it fared badly in National Assembly elections in April. While his popularity plummeted, the party changed its name to New Frontier Party with Park Geun-hye as its leader. A long-time member of the assembly, she is popular among older Koreans, many of whom look back fondly on the rule of her father, widely credited with building up South Korea’s economy while ruling as a virtual dictator with a record of brutality and suppression of his foes.

At the center of power

Ms. Park promises to build a “creative economy” – a term that she bandied about Sunday in the last of three television debates with Mr. Moon – while bowing in apology to those who “suffered wounds and hardships” in the 18 years and five months in which her father ruled the country after staging a coup in May 1961.

Though she disavows his legacy, she knows what it’s like to be at the center of power: She was Korea’s first lady for a little more than five years, after her mother was assassinated in August 1974 by a bullet fired by a Korean from Japan who had intended to kill her father. (Her father was eventually assassinated by his intelligence chief in 1979.)

Moon also has experience near the center of power. He was chief of staff for Roh Moo-hyun, the left-leaning president who governed for five years before President Lee’s election, and sees his battle against Park as a crusade for democracy against a return to authoritarian rule. His message is blunt – “The only thing that can save the Republic of Korea from this crisis is you,” he repeats at rallies in a bid to win over the undecided voters who may tip the balance in the election.

What’s the difference on North Korea?

Both Park and Moon have denounced North Korea’s launch of a long-range rocket last week that fired a small satellite into orbit, and they have both called for resuming dialogue with the North. 

It’s assumed, though, that Park would be considerably tougher in negotiations with North Korea than Moon, who would like to return to the era of the Sunshine policy of reconciliation initiated by Roh Moo-hyun’s predecessor, Kim Dae-jung.

“Park is not going to substantially move forward unless Pyongyang owns up and apologizes for the ship sinking and island shelling,” says Tom Coyner, long-time business consultant and political commentator here. He’s referring to two incidents in 2010 that upset North-South relations – the sinking of the Korean navy ship, the Cheonan, in March of that year in which 46 sailors were killed and then, eight months later, the shelling of an island in the Yellow Sea that killed two South Korean marines and two civilian contractors.

Mr. Coyner believes that Moon is “most likely to cave” in talks with North Korea in view of his record as a liberal critic of the government from his student days. Nonetheless, he says, “both candidates come across as reasonable and moderate” – neither right-wing conservative nor far leftist.

The debate

In fact, in their television debate on Sunday, while thousands of North Koreans were mourning the first anniversary of the death of leader Kim Jong-il, neither of them talked at all about North Korea. Rather, they dwelled on education, health care, the economy, corruption, and the difficulties young people face in finding jobs: Moon jabbed at government inadequacies, while Park offered her own solutions.

In the midst of the campaigning, one topic that seems strangely missing is that Park has a serious chance of becoming the first female president of a country that’s regarded as a bastion of male chauvinism. “It’s amazing to me that people don’t seem to care so much about that,” says Chung Hye-yung, a woman working in an office in central Seoul. “It’s because the media play all to the conservative right.”

Ms. Chung believes the priority is to upset conservative leadership. “We have to change this administration,” she says. “The vote is not on whether she’s a woman. This vote is old people versus young people. Young people are fed up with the old politicians.”

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