All change in Korean politics

A screenshot from Park Geun-hye's Smartphone AppBy Jens Wardenaer, Research Analyst and Editorial Assistant

This is a year of political flux on the Korean Peninsula. In the final days of 2011, Kim Jong-un succeeded his father as North Korean leader; now new MPs are in place in Seoul after parliamentary elections this month. In December, South Koreans will chose a successor to their current president, Lee Myung-bak.

Analysts have been surprised by the new type of regime in North Korea, delegates at this week’s Asan Plenum in Seoul were told. Experts had anticipated three main scenarios: a new, unchallenged supreme leader; the emergence of a collective leadership; or a fractured, unstable leadership following the loss of the strongman who held it together. In fact, speakers said, Kim Jong-un seemed to have consolidated his power, while also relying on a support network of Kim family members and close supporters.

Power in North Korea is often built by ‘cutting off the side branches’ (eliminating possible family rivals) and it seemed that the Pyongyang support network of Kim Jong-nam, the eldest son of Kim Jong-il, had been purged. North Korea’s political culture of relying on one person to make important decisions was likely to help the youngest Kim to stay in power, but the overall stability of the regime depended on delivering successes. In this respect, the failed satellite launch on 13 April was a bad start.

In South Korea, the conservative Saenuri Party (formerly the Grand National Party) retained control of the National Assembly in April’s parliamentary elections, despite the opposition Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) being widely tipped to score an easy victory. The upset came about for several reasons, not least the way Saenuri had reinvented itself as a more centrist party with a focus on social-welfare policies. This forced the DUP and its coalition partner, the United Progressive Party, leftwards in order to differentiate themselves from Saenuri.

The DUP’s criticism of a proposed naval base on Jeju Island, and the new KORUS free-trade agreement with the United States – both initiated by previous DUP president Roh Moo-hyun – also created doubts that it was fit to govern.

However, the DUP gained around 40 seats in the parliament, while Saenuri lost 18 seats. This makes the election results difficult to interpret. One panellist suggested that Saenuri’s victory showed the growing maturity of South Korean politics, which now revolved around ideas, instead of regionalism and scandals.

The upcoming presidential elections could go either way, delegates were told. Park Geun-hye (illustrated), daughter of former strongman Park Chung-hee and the likely Saenuri candidate, was the current favourite, because of the National Assembly results and the fact that she has successfully distanced herself from the current hardline president, Lee Myung-bak.

The election is likely to be fought over KORUS and social welfare. Analysts believed the DUP’s anti-KORUS (and anti-US) stance would not prove popular with the electorate, as there was wide recognition that the agreement, which has been projected to increase bilateral trade by 15%, would be positive for South Korea in the long run.

Pyongyang has tried to influence South Korean elections before, and any North Korean provocation might help Ms Park’s chances, as her conservative party has shown a tougher stance on North Korea than the DUP.

For more, see the recent IISS Strategic Comment: Seoul keeps an open mind on North Korea


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