2012: The Tale of Two Elections

Photo Credit: Lee Jin-man, The Associated Press[1]

“철수 대통령” means Cheol-Su for President

By: Garrett Redfield

In November, America will have to make a critical decision that will affect the nation for the next four years, who will be its president? Will it be incumbent President Barack Obama, or the challenger Mitt Romney? While Americans are busily concerning themselves with this issue and more, half-way around the world another young democracy is gearing up for a presidential election of its own. The Republic of Korea, more commonly known as South Korea, will be electing a new president this December. The three candidates up for election are Saenuri Party member Ms. Pak Geun-Hye, Democratic United Party member Mr. Moon Jae-In and “political novice” Dr. Ahn Cheol-Su.[2]

Ms. Pak Geun-Hye is the daughter of former South Korean dictator/President Pak Chung-Hee, who is renowned for fostering South Korea’s economic prosperity and growth, resulting in the nation it is today. Ms. Pak Geun-Hye’s nomination marks the first time a “woman and first child of a former president [will] become the presidential candidate of a major political party in South Korea.”[3] However, her candidacy is not without its obstacles. Being the daughter of a former general who obtained power through a coup in 1961, she has faced pressure from “the opposition demanding that she clarify her stance” in regards to the coup.[4] In response, Ms. Pak has walked a fine line, first justifying the action taken by her father, claiming it was a “revolution to save the nation,” then slightly backtracking by stating it was her “father’s best and inevitable choice.”[5] It should be noted that Ms. Pak has since apologized to any victims who suffered during her father’s reign.[6] Furthermore, Ms. Pak faces the challenge of accounting for her father’s service “in the Japanese Imperial Army during Japan’s colonial rule of Korea from 1910 to 1945.”[7] The reason for contention surrounding this issue is because many South Koreans still harbor ill-will towards Japan for the atrocities committed against South Koreans during the occupation, in addition to previous historical conflicts between the two nations.

One of the challengers, Mr. Moon Jae-In hopes to thwart Ms. Pak’s efforts. Having previously served as “chief of staff” in former President Noh Moo-Hyun’s cabinet, Mr. Moon hopes to continue the legacy of President Noh.[8] Mr. Moon’s goals are to end corruption brought on by the nation’s elites, expand welfare privileges, punish prosecutors who are not ‘objective,’ protect small businesses from Chaebols (which are huge “family-controlled conglomerates”) and to better relations with North Korea.[9] Mr. Moon proudly claims that “fairness and justice will be the base of [his] government.”[10]

However, the next president of South Korea may have already been decided. During recent party conventions, voting for the party’s presidential candidate took place. For the Saenuri Party’s convention, Ms. Pak won “by a huge margin, gathering 84 percent of the votes.”[11] In contrast, Mr. Moon only won about “56 percent of the votes cast” during the Democratic United Party convention.[12] Additionally, the introduction of the wild-card candidate Dr. Ahn Cheol-Su has alarmed some liberals. There is concern that if Dr. Ahn were to run as an independent, he could split the liberal vote between himself and Mr. Moon, thereby enabling Ms. Pak to win by a large margin. This fear was illustrated in a poll that was recently conducted, where it found that “[Ms. Pak] would win a three-horse race… But either Dr. Ahn or Mr. Moon could win if they were the only opposition candidate.”[13]

As for the last candidate, Dr. Ahn Cheol-Su, he has had quite a diverse career. Dr. Ahn has been a medical doctor, a software designer (which includes “South Korea’s most popular antivirus software”), and a dean at one of South Korea’s most prestigious universities, Seoul National University.[14] However, Dr. Ahn has an advantage over his political opponents. Having served as a dean, it has enabled him to establish a connection with college students thus increasing the chance he’ll capture the ‘youth vote.’ Additionally, he has increased his popularity with college students by giving “campus talks [censuring] the country’s [Chaebols] and [criticizing] what he characterized as a political culture of greed and arrogance.”[15] Nevertheless, Dr. Ahn is not without his faults. Opponents cite the fact he lacks political experience, but Dr. Ahn simply emphasizes the fact that he has no “political baggage. If anything, [his] diverse experiences ranging in areas from I.T., medicine, management and education will be a plus…They cannot be a minus.”[16]

In reflection, we are still left with some questions. Will the intervention of third-party candidate, Dr. Ahn, split the liberal vote thereby enabling Ms. Pak to win? Will Dr. Ahn and Mr. Moon find some common ground and unite the liberal voters? How greatly will Ms. Pak’s history affect her candidacy? In December, all these questions and more will be answered.


Garrett Redfield is a Master of International Affairs Candidate at the School of International Affairs at The Pennsylvania State University. As an adopted Korean American, he has a strong interest in Korean Peninsula affairs, and focuses on Korean Reunification. Garrett has lived in Korea for an extensive amount of time, mainly as a former ESL instructor. He is proficient in Korean.

[1] http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Independent+candidate+throws+wrench+into+South+Korean+election/7288810/story.html (October 2012).

[2] Lim Yun-Suk, South Korea’s presidential race heats up, http://www.channelnewsasia.com/stories/eastasia/view/1228338/1/.html (September 2012).

[3] Choe Sang-Hun, Ex-Dictator’s Daughter Nominated for South Korean Presidency, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/08/21/world/asia/park-geun-hye-nominated-for-south-korean-presidency.html?_r=0 (August 2012).

[4] Ibid.

[5] Ibid.

[6] Lim Yun-Suk.

[7] Choe Sang-Hun, August 2012.

[8] Choe Sang-Hun, Opposition Makes Pick in South Korea, http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/17/world/asia/moon-jae-in-chosen-as-opposition-presidential-candidate-in-south-korea.html (September 2012).

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid.

[11] Choe Sang-Hun, August 2012.

[12] Choe Sang-Hun, September 2012.

[13] http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Independent+candidate+throws+wrench+into+South+Korean+election/7288810/story.html (October 2012).

[14] http://www.vancouversun.com/business/Independent+candidate+throws+wrench+into+South+Korean+election/7288810/story.html (October 2012).

[15] Su Hyun Lee and Rick Gladstone, New Voice in South Korean Politics Enters Presidential Race,  http://www.nytimes.com/2012/09/20/world/asia/new-voice-in-south-korean-politics-enters-presidential-race.html (September 2012)

[16] Ibid.

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