Tag Archives: roh moo-hyun

Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

South Korea’s snap presidential election in May now favors the progressive candidate, Moon Jae-in, but he is facing surprisingly strong opposition. (Facebook)

When Moon Jae-in (문재인) won his party’s nomination last Monday, news outlets across the globe immediately proclaimed that the progressive’s nomination all but assured Moon’s victory in the snap presidential election set to take place on May 9. 

Nevertheless, the next 27 days promise to be some of the most tumultuous in the history of South Korean democracy, with former president Park Geun-hye (박근혜) under arrest on bribery and other corruption charges and with US president Donald Trump’s administration taking an increasingly bellicose line over North Korea’s nuclear provocations. Park’s removal from office brought forward the presidential election previously scheduled for December.

Last week’s primaries among all of South Korea’s major parties have effectively settled the presidential field. Almost immediately, though, Moon’s opponents started lining up behind another progressive alternative — former software engineer and entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), who kicked off his general election campaign by taking a ride on Seoul’s subways. The hint wasn’t subtle: Ahn is an outsider who understands the problems of everyday Koreans.

It set off an election dynamic that polls say, all of a sudden, is now too close to call.

Once Moon’s ally, former software businessman Ahn Cheol-soo is gaining support from many different corners of South Korean society, united solely by their mutual distrust for Moon. (Facebook)

The sudden Moon-Ahn horse race elevates a long-simmering rivalry that’s defined the South Korean opposition for the better part of the 2010s. Moon and Ahn both hold relatively left-wing views by the standards of South Korean politics. But Ahn is increasingly viewed as more pro-American, given Moon’s skepticism about the US-built Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile system that North Korea and China view as an American provocation. While both Moon and Ahn previously opposed THAAD, which could deploy within weeks, the two candidates are now voicing at least qualified support for its deployment if North Korea’s aggression continues. But Moon has warned that THAAD’s deployment should be halted if North Korea resumes negotiations and freezes its nuclear weapons program.

More broadly, South Korean business elites like that Ahn comes from an entrepreneurial background. Idealistic voters, meanwhile, consider Ahn an untainted maverick who can break the cycle of corruption that’s dogged several administrations from both the left and the right and the ‘chaebol’ conglomerates than dominate the South Korean economy. (Notably, Samsung CEO Jay Y. Lee (이재용) was arrested in February as a result of the wide-ranging corruption scandal that engulfed Park’s presidency, accused of paying up to $40 million in bribes to Park in exchange for favorable treatment for Samsung).

At a stunningly rapid clip, Ahn has defined himself as the outsider to Moon’s insider. In addition, with the Korean right in shambles after Park’s implosion, many conservative voters — for now at least — seem to prefer a strategic vote for Ahn instead of a more right-wing candidate. Continue reading Snap South Korean presidential election points to tough Moon-Ahn race

Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)
South Korean president Park Guen-hye met with US president Barack Obama in Washington soon after taking office in 2013. (White House)

Though it’s only been two weeks since South Koreans upended polls to deliver a shock verdict in parliamentary elections, the country is now pivoting toward its next presidential election — which is nearly 20 months away. northkorea

Taking place nearly two-thirds of the way through the five-year term of president Park Guen-hye (박근혜), the election was an opportunity for Park to solidify her grip on the National Assembly, as well as her own party, the conservative Saenuri Party (새누리당, ‘New Frontier’ Party) by winning a more solid majority in South Korea’s 300-member unicameral legislature, the National Assembly (대한민국 국회). 

Despite poll predictions that Saenuri would take advantage of a split opposition and win an even wider majority, the party instead lost ground, falling further away from an absolute majority, winning just 122 seats, 24 fewer seats in the National Assembly than the party held before the elections. Park, like all South Korean presidents, is limited to a single term in office and, in some regards, she became a lame duck president from the first days of the 2013 inauguration of the country’s first female president. That hasn’t stopped Park from wielding power through a very strong executive branch.

SK elections 2016 SK national assembly (1)

Saenuri’s defeat, however, and Park’s failures in particular, mean that the country is now shifting towards the posturing among Park’s opponents, including those within other Saenuri Party factions, to plot a path to the presidency in an election that will not be held until December 20, 2017.

The results will give hope to the traditional center-left opposition party, the newly renamed (as of last December) Minjoo Party (더불어민주당), a successor to what used to be called the Democratic United Party, which won 123 seats — one more than Saenuri. That could embolden several top figures within the party to mount a 2017 presidential bid, including Moon Jae-in (문재인), the party’s former leader and its 2012 candidate against Park.

But the results will give even more hope to the newly formed, as of February, People’s Party (국민의당), an alternative liberal party that has pulled supporters away from Minjoo. Its leader is Ahn Cheol-soo (안철수), a software entrepreneur, businessman and academic, who burst onto the political scene as a potential presidential candidate in 2012. He will now almost certainly be a contender in the 2017 election. Though the People’s Party only won 38 seats, it actually won more votes than Minjoo.

So what does South Korea’s election mean for the rest of Park’s administration and for 2017? Continue reading Koreans look to 2017 after Park’s governing party loses seats

Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president


Back in July, I suggested that  Park Geun-hye (박근혜) of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’, the New Frontier Party) was defying gravity in her race for South Korea’s presidency, and I listed five reasons why:

South Korea Flag Icon

  • She’d rebranded her party from the Grand National Party into the ‘New Frontier’ Party.
  • She then led the Saenuri Party to victory in elections for the National Assembly in April despite the unpopularity of her party’s incumbent president Lee Myung-bak (이명박).
  • Even six months ago, she had already co-opted the message of the center-left on ‘economic democratization,’ chaebol reform and income inequality.
  • South Korea’s progressive opposition was largely divided.
  • Mixed feelings (including some nostalgia among older voters) about her father’s authoritarian reign from 1961 to 1979 largely neutralized potentially controversial family ties.

By the time South Koreans went to the polls yesterday, all of those factors contributed to her victory.

She has defeated Moon Jae-in (문재인) of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) with 51.6% of the vote to just 47.9% for Moon, ending what was always a very close race — albeit one where Park always seems to hold a slight edge.

As we look ahead, all of those factors should equally inform us as to what to expect from Park — the first woman to become South Korea’s president — and her incoming administration.

By rebranding her party as the ‘New Frontier’ Party — and making clear that the new frontier would not include Lee (who narrowly defeated Park for her party’s presidential nomination in 2007) — and then running against Lee’s record as much as against her opponent, she neutralized one of the most significant impediments to her candidacy.  She reinforced the split during the spring legislative campaign — and, by the way, she’ll enter the Blue House with a very friendly parliament as well.  Moon, had he won the election, would have been hampered by a hostile Saenuri majority, but Park will find a largely pliant National Assembly — Saenuri legislators know that they would not have that majority without Park.  So she’ll wield significant power as president in order to push through her campaign agenda.

That agenda, frankly, does not appear dissimilar to the agenda Moon promised.  While the policy details have been less than detailed, Park’s campaign emphasized traditionally liberal themes, and that moderate agenda certainly helped elect Park yesterday.  If Park wants to avoid the unpopularity of her predecessor, she’ll have to produce legislative accomplishments, not only on chaebol reform, but also find a way to reduce Korean income inequality and, ultimately, she’ll probably need to be lucky enough to have robust GDP growth.

On North Korea, too, both candidates agreed that the next president should be more conciliatory to North Korea than Lee’s administration, but they shied away from advocating a full return to the ‘Sunshine Policy’ of the late 1990s and 2000s that increasingly seemed to South Koreans like a series of handouts in exchange for further aggression from North Korea.  So under Park, South Korea will likely retain its firm approach to North Korea, but with relatively more carrots than sticks.

In terms of the geopolitics of East Asia, Park — who assumed the role of first lady during her father’s administration at age 22 when, in 1974, her mother was assassinated by North Koreans — will certainly be no shrinking violet (get set for five years of hearing the phrase ‘the Iron Lady of Asia’).

Indeed, it’s a crucial time for East Asia, given that King Jong-un has been in power for only a year, Xi Jinping (习近平) only last month took over as general secretary of the Chinese Communist  Party (中国共产党) and is set early next year to become the president of the People’s Republic of China, and the hawkish Shinzō Abe (安倍 晋三) only last Sunday won Japan’s parliamentary elections, returning him to power as prime minister.  Park’s immersion in Korean politics since the 1970s and her perceived toughness (she once returned to the campaign trail in 2006 just days after an assailant slashed her in the face with a knife) also likely contributed to her victory yesterday. Continue reading Park Geun-hye becomes South Korea’s first female president

Roh Moo-hyun haunts Moon’s candidacy in Korean presidential race


Although the conservative Park Geun-hye has had to fend off challenges tying her to the worst of massively unpopular incumbent Lee Myung-bak and her father, Park Chung-hee (South Korea’s autocratic ruler from 1961 to 1979), it’s another former South Korean president who may represent the largest millstone in the Dec. 19 presidential race.South Korea Flag Icon

Moon Jae-in, candidate of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’), and a former chief of staff to Roh, has essentially no political identity separate from Roh.  He’s inescapably the heir to Roh, for better and for worse — for Roh’s supporters, Moon is an experienced champion of the policies Roh pursued; for Roh’s detractors, of course, Moon represents a return to the perceived incompetence and disappointment with Roh’s administration.

Park has had her challenges as the candidate of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), the New Frontier Party — and formerly the Grand National Party — the party to which Lee belongs, but voters don’t associate Park with Lee because Park comes from a different wing of the party, has a vastly different management style and background, and, above all, she has campaigned as much against her opponent, Moon, as she has against Lee.  If anything, voters (especially older voters) associate Park’s candidacy with her father, who gained power in a coup in 1961 and pulled South Korea’s economy into the developed world until his assassination in 1979.  Voters will recall that Park (the daughter) was essentially South Korea’s first lady from 1974 onwards, when her mother was also assassinated.  Despite the economic strides that South Korea made in the Park era, it made precious little progress in the area of political rights or democracy.

The campaign for human rights and a more democratic South Korea during the Park years is, in fact, the defining experience of both Roh and Moon — Roh’s emergence in South Korean politics coincided with the rise of the ‘386 Generation,’ a new generation of political leadership educated in the 1960s that came to politics demanding for greater freedoms and democracy.  Moon, a human rights lawyer, was actually imprisoned in the 1970s for his activist efforts against the Park regime.

Fundamentally, the ties that bound Moon to Roh were forged during that fight — against Park’s father.  Park (the daughter) has recently apologized during the campaign for the abuses of her father’s administration, although her father’s legacy probably helps Park among many Koreans nostalgic for what seems to them a golden era of growth and prosperity.

That makes this year’s South Korean election — especially with the withdrawal of popular software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo from the race in late November — very much a prototypical ideological fight between the two major forces in South Korean political life for nearly half a century.

As such, it’s worth reflecting on Roh’s administration, Moon’s role in Roh’s administration, and the scandal that led to Roh taking his own life by jumping off a cliff in May 2009, which tragically elevated Moon in the public eye.

Roh’s suicide came after what many believed were politically motivated allegations of bribery surrounding his family and associates, but those allegations never really touched Moon.  Nonetheless, his suicide elevated the pro-Roh faction within South Korea’s progressive scene, including Moon (shown above at Roh’s funeral), who served as counsel to Roh during the post-presidential investigation and who organized Roh’s funeral.


Roh came to office as a bit of an outsider — he served briefly as minister of maritime affairs and fisheries under Kim Dae-jung, hardly the best profile for a 2002 presidential run.  But his conciliatory approach to North Korea and his calls for a more equal relationship with the United States, especially following the acquittal of two American soldiers who hit and killed two teenaged Korean girls with an armored vehicle in an accident in June 2002.

Roh continued Kim’s ‘Sunshine Policy’ toward North Korea to somewhat less than great effect, and turned out to be more conciliatory to the United States than many expected back in 2002.

But the defining aspect of Roh’s presidency was the virulent opposition he encountered from conservatives.   Continue reading Roh Moo-hyun haunts Moon’s candidacy in Korean presidential race

North Korea launches itself into top echelon of issues in Korean presidential race


With so many other economic issues to discuss in the South Korean presidential campaign, relations with North Korea had not always been at the forefront of the campaign debate, even though it was always more likely than not that the unique foreign relations challenge will eventually rise to the forefront of the  next South Korean president’s agenda in the next five years.

North Korea’s unpredictable passive-aggressive policy with respect to its southern neighbor has continued at a low hum since Kim Jong-un (pictured above) assumed leadership of the ironically named Democratic People’s Republic of Korea following the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December 2011.

Today, however, North Korea may have ‘launched’ itself into the presidential race by firing a rocket — literally, a long-range rocket that threatens to make North Korea a dominant issue in the presidential race:

Such developments can influence whom people will support when they go to cast their ballots, although its effects on public sentiments has yet to be determined.

“Experts are divided on the impact, with some predicting the launch will give credence to hardliners and help conservative presidential hopeful Park Geun-hye, while others said people may vote for Moon Jae-in of the liberal opposition party because they do not want an escalation of tensions,” an election watcher said.

He added that because voters are already split between the conservative and liberal camps, the latest provocation by Pyongyang may not really affect the outcome of the race.

“The country as a whole has become ‘indifferent’ having already seen the North test numerous rockets and detonated two nuclear devices,” the expert said. He added that because the launch had been expected people will be less likely to be moved.

For now, with a final presidential debate scheduled for Dec. 16, and with new polls forbidden from publication after Thursday under South Korean election law, it will remain unclear what impact the North Korean rocket launch might have on the campaign until election day.

Ultimately, however, both major candidates in the South Korean election have promised a more conciliatory policy with North Korea than outgoing South Korean president Lee Myung-bak, and many observers believe the rocket launch had more to do with internal North Korean politics than anything else.

While South Korea, with around 50 million people, has a GDP per capita of around $32,000, North Korea’s GDP per capita is something more like $2,400, despite the fact that it has just under 25 million people.  The South Korean economy exceeds $1.15 trillion to just around $45 billion in North Korea (see below a photo of the two Koreas at night from the Earth’s atmosphere).

South Korea split from North Korea after World War II, and the Korean War that began in June 1950 when the North invaded the South ultimately became the first proxy battle of the Cold War, pitting active forces from the United States against Communist forces (with the People’s Republic of China backing the North).  Despite an armistice agreement in 1953, the two Koreas have formally been in a state of war ever since, and the de-militarized zone between the two marks one of the most heavily armed borders in the world.

While it’s expected that the candidate of Lee’s party, Park Geun-hye of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’) would take a more hawkish tone, and Roh’s former chief of staff, Moon Jae-in, the presidential candidate of the liberal Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) is expected to pursue a renewed variant of the once-ascendant ‘Sunshine Policy,’ the reality may well be more complicated.

Park has advocated what she uniquely calls a ‘trustpolitik‘ policy toward North Korea — more hawkish, perhaps, than previous policies of the Roh and Kim administrations, but decidedly more geared toward discussion and conciliation than the Lee administration, which Park says has failed to stem the aggression of North Korea.

Given the widespread disillusionment with the Sunshine Policy and its perceived lack of results, in addition to the relatively tighter economic conditions in South Korea, it seems unlikely that Moon would either be willing or able to pursue as wide a conciliatory policy to North Korea as the Roh and Kim administrations.

Lee has taken a hawkish attitude toward North Korea, ending the so-called ‘Sunshine Policy’ of his predecessors Roh Moo-hyun and Kim Dae-jung that had been South Korea’s policy for a decade.  Indeed, former president Kim won a Nobel Peace Prize for the policy, which resulted in summits in 2000 and 2007 to discuss further north-south cooperation in greater Korea, but mixed or negative results otherwise. Continue reading North Korea launches itself into top echelon of issues in Korean presidential race

The incredibly shrinking Lee Myung-bak

South Korea’s presidential elections never feature incumbents — the president is limited to a single five-year term — but that doesn’t mean incumbents don’t feature prominently in presidential elections.

In 2007, Chung Dong-young suffered from his ties to president Roh Moo-hyun, under whose administration Chung served as unification minister, and to some degree, Moon Jae-in, the presidential candidate of the liberal Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’) and Roh’s former chief of staff.

But given that incumbent president Lee Myung-bak, who will leave office as one of South Korea’s most unpopular presidents, garners approval ratings of around 20%, you’d expect that the candidate of Lee’s Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’), formerly the Grand National Party, would be suffering even more, right?

Wrong.  In South Korea’s presidential race this year, one of the reasons that Park Geun-hye has consistently held a lead over Moon has been her successful distancing from the Lee administration (although that lead is narrowing fast, especially after Park made a gaffe in the second presidential debate Monday indicating she wanted to ‘invigorate’ the underground economy).

Moon has consistently attacked Park for her party’s economic record, but the charges have not (so far) erased Moon’s deficit, even after posters surfaced trying to tie the two together as ‘Lee Myung Park Geun-hye.’

If anything, Park has been more successful by hammering away at lingering doubt about the Roh administration and Moon’s ties to it as Roh’s chief of staff.

That’s in part because while Park has attacked Roh’s administration, she’s also shown no compunction in attacking Lee’s record as well:

“The Roh Moo-hyun government wasted a period of prosperity in the world economy by indulging in ideological debates and power struggles, leading to the erosion in working-class living standards. The Lee Myung-bak government put growth before everything and failed to make lives better. I will not be a leader who will repeat the mistakes of previous governments,” Park said at a rally in Seogwipo, Jeju Island.

During the campaign, Park has attacked Lee’s administration for having failed middle class people and for exacerbating income inequality — an issue that both Park and Moon had pledged to make a top priority if elected.  Despite the rhetoric, there’s really no indication that Park’s administration would mark a vast policy difference from Lee’s administration.  If anything, Korean conservatives are incredibly united behind Park’s candidacy — more so than at any other time since the 1987 election.

But Park has long been known as an intraparty rival of Lee — no one would ever accuse Park of harboring secret affection for Lee or his accomplishments. Continue reading The incredibly shrinking Lee Myung-bak

Ahn’s exit clears way for competitive Moon presidential campaign against Park in South Korea

Last Friday, independent presidential candidate Ahn Cheol-soo dropped out of the South Korean presidential race.

Without a doubt, his decision has transformed the race from a three-way contest between one conservative and two liberals, which was destined to favor the conservative candidate, Park Geen-hye of the Saenuri Party (새누리당 or the ‘Saenuri-dang’) into a direct showdown between the two dominant brands of politics in South Korea over the past half-century.

Before his withdrawal, Ahn was splitting the support of liberal voters with Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party (민주통합당, or the ‘Minju Tonghap-dang’).

Now Moon and Park are in a much closer race, although the latest polls give Park a slight edge (the latest Realmeter poll from Nov. 30 shows Park with 49.9% support and Moon with just 44.2%).  Polls routinely showed that before his withdrawal, Ahn, if anything, was the stronger candidate against Park (not Moon).

It’s still unclear why Ahn dropped out so suddenly — in an interview last week prior to his withdrawal, he indicated he had no intentions of bowing out.  But by falling on his own sword, Ahn has made himself even more popular by apparently putting the cause of defeating Park ahead of his own personal ambitions.  Now in the position of a potential kingmaker, Ahn can trade his vigorous support for Moon (Ahn has already somewhat gracefully called on his supporters to vote for Moon) for a role in a potential Moon administration, which could give Ahn governmental experience in advance of the 2017 election.

For such a liberal candidate, it’s a little shocking to see polls that show only 50.7% of Ahn’s former backers are committed to Moon with less than three weeks to go until the election, even though over 70% of Ahn’s supporters want to see a change in administration from the current Saenuri Party.  Fully 26.4% of Ahn backers apparently support Park and 21.9% remain undecided — Moon cannot win unless he (with or without Ahn’s help) can migrate more of Ahn’s former supporters into his own camp.

Ahn’s popularity has been somewhat of a phenomenon in South Korea since he first flirted with running in Seoul’s mayoral race in October 2011 — although he failed to enter that race, which polls showed he could have won, he backed Park Won-soon, another liberal independent, who ultimately won the Seoul election.  Ahn spent the better part of 2012 teasing a presidential campaign that he announced only in September of this year.

Ahn, himself, is a businessman by background — he founded AhnLab, Inc. in March 1995 (think of it as South Korea’s version of McAfee or any other anti-virus software company).  Until he launched his now-aborted presidential campaign, Ahn was a graduate school dean at Seoul National University.   Continue reading Ahn’s exit clears way for competitive Moon presidential campaign against Park in South Korea