How will S. Korea's presidential election affect ties with Japan?
South Korea's presidential election campaign has officially kicked off. Voting is scheduled for Dec. 19.
Under the current Lee Myung Bak administration, the country's relations with North Korea and Japan have become severely strained. Will the new administration be able to rectify this situation? The outcome of the race will definitely affect Japan's future.
The election, the first in five years, is expected to be a virtual head-to-head battle between Park Geun Hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and Moon Jae In of the main opposition Democratic United Party. It has become a straightforward conservative versus liberal choice after independent Ahn Cheol Soo, who was considered a powerful rival, dropped out of the race. The contest is expected to be a neck-and-neck race.
Park, representing the conservative camp, seeks to become the first female president of South Korea. Her father, Park Chung Hee, made the bold decision to normalize relations with Japan and paved the way for the nation's high economic growth during his presidency.
Moon, who represents leftists whose origins can be traced back to those who served in the Kim Dae Jung administration, was imprisoned for opposing Park Chung Hee's long authoritarian rule, and has served as a human-rights lawyer and chief secretary of former President Roh Moo Hyun--Lee's predecessor.
Although Park and Moon belong to the same generation, they have contrasting careers and their policies differ widely. We should pay close attention to their verbal battles.
Economic growth main issue
The campaign's main point of contention will be economic policy.
Lee has succeeded in significantly boosting South Korea's exports through economic policies based on free trade agreements with the United States, the European Union and other countries. However, his policies have also resulted in a widening rich-poor gap. Unemployment among the younger generation also has become a persistent problem. The South Korean public has strongly criticized Lee for only focusing on big companies.
As a result, both candidates have pledged to narrow the rich-poor gap under the slogan of "economic democratization." Moon, for example, is focusing on reforming chaebols--South Korea's conglomerates--and placing more emphasis on helping ordinary workers. The two candidates will be tested on whether they can come up with concrete measures to ensure the nation's economic growth.
The second issue will be North Korea.
Moon has said he will adopt the conciliatory "Sunshine Policy" that the Kim and Roh administrations used in dealing with North Korea, indicating that he was prepared to resume large-scale food and fertilizer aid to the reclusive country. Moon also has declared he wants to hold summit talks between Seoul and Pyongyang next year.
We would like to know how Moon plans to approach North Korea to have that country abandon its nuclear development program.
Park said she would not hesitate to hold a summit meeting if it led to better ties between the two countries. However, she is taking a gradual approach on the issue, which is to deter North Korea from taking provocative actions on one hand while working on confidence building on the other. We believe her approach is more practical than Moon's.
Concern over bilateral relations
The two candidates' policies in regard to Japan are also important.
Japan-South Korea relations deteriorated rapidly after Lee's visit to the Takeshima islands and his call for an apology from the Emperor. The two candidates are in favor of rectifying strained relations with Japan, as they have talked about building "future-oriented" ties between the two countries. Park has also referred to the resumption of FTA negotiations between Japan and South Korea.
However, Park and Moon both take uncompromising attitudes against Japan on certain issues, such as Takeshima. Moon's stance is especially worrying, as he says he will no longer allow Seoul to continue "quiet diplomacy" on the issue. He also suggested he will pursue Japan's legal responsibility on the issue of so-called comfort women if he becomes president.
We are concerned that if Moon takes office, he would emulate the diplomacy of the Roh administration, which took an unyielding hard-line stance against Japan and stalled relations between the two countries.
(From The Yomiuri Shimbun, Nov. 27, 2012)