South Korea's unity faction is in trouble. Less than seven weeks before the Dec. 19 presidential election, surveys show that 54 percent of voters support conservative Grand National Party candidate Lee Myung-bak. This is 37 percent higher than the support for left-wing candidate Chung Dong-young, the former minister of unification and an advocate for reconciliation between North and South Korea. Chung's support stands at 17 percent.
A major point of contention in the upcoming election is the policy toward North Korea. Inheriting former South Korean president Kim Dae-jung's "Sunshine Policy," left-wing leader and President Roh Moo-hyun provided vast financial aid to Pyongyang and tolerated North Korean leader Kim Jong-il's political authority despite the detrimental effects it has had upon the South Korean economy and the public discontent it incited.
During the election campaign, former minister of unification Chung Dong-young again emphasized the importance of aid to North Korea and unity between the two states.
Lee, on the other hand, has clearly indicated that economic cooperation with North Korea is acceptable only on the condition that North Korea abandon nuclear weapons. Otherwise, South Korea will pursue independent security and increase its vigilance against Pyongyang.
During the Kim Dae-jung era, the left-wing's cooperative tactics and the historical summit with Kim Jong-il earned Kim Dae-jung a Nobel Peace Prize, although it was later proven that the summit was made possible after US$500 million was secretly sent to Kim Jong-il under the cover of South Korean corporations. Yet Roh Moo-hyung maintains enthusiasm for reconciliation and after a recent summit with Kim Jong-il, resolved to extend financial aid of more than US$500 million to the North. Experts believe this will place severe economic strain upon South Korea.
Andy Jackson, a columnist for the Korea Times and an educator in South Korea, analyzed the situation for the Wall Street Journal on last Wednesday, concluding that the two candidates differ both in terms of economic policy and strategy on North Korea.
Conservative candidate Lee Myung-bak is not only unyielding on North Korea, but also emphasizes tax reductions to lower corporate rates from 25 percent to 20 percent. He is also in favor of relaxing regulations to produce a free market climate beneficial to businesses. As the former mayor of Seoul and former CEO of Hyundai, South Korea's largest corporation, Lee's management capabilities are widely trusted by voters.
As Donald Kirk, an American academic in Seoul and the author of two recent publications on South Korean economics recently said, the left-leaning Roh is too feeble toward North Korea, advocates restrictive business policies and alienates Japan and the US.
This type of left-wing strategy brought Roh's party to a dramatic defeat in last year's local elections, landing only one seat out of 16 for major city mayors and provincial governors. The Grand National Party secured twelve seats and did especially well in the areas surrounding the capital, which contains close to half of South Korea's population of 48 million.
As the world's 13th-largest economy, South Korea's competitiveness has risen again in this year's assessments. Yet from pre-election surveys, South Korean voters place more emphasis on strategy on North Korea than on the economy. Parties that seek ultimate unification at the expense of South Korean interest may be punished in the upcoming elections.