The resounding defeat handed to South Korea’s ruling conservative party in last week’s legislative elections had, on the surface, little to do with North Korea. Domestic issues dominated the campaign, and the vote reflected a so-called South-South struggle that not only pit liberals against conservatives, but also split the liberals into two parties and exposed two warring factions within the ruling Saenuri Party.
That said, the resurgence of South Korea’s liberal opposition and the setback to the Saenuri Party have important implications for the future course of inter-Korean relations. The developments merit attention from Americans who follow Asia policy, and from would-be advisers to the next President of the United States in particular, since the trends bear upon the fate of the US-ROK alliance and its coordination of policy toward the DPRK. Given the resurgence of South Korea’s liberals, it is worth revisiting the range of attitudes toward North Korea on their side of the aisle.
Divisions All Around
First, a few words about the domestic South Korean issues that dominated the 2016 election season. The overriding public sentiment that found expression at the polls was disgust with factionalism. Liberals did not exactly win the election as much as conservatives lost it. And they lost because, in the final sprint, they appeared even more devoted than their liberal opponents to addressing internal feuds rather than public welfare. Neither side focused on how to deal with North Korea in part because they were so preoccupied by their own divisions.
This outcome is laced with three shots of irony. First, the conservative scions who indulged in intramural power struggles were overconfident in their ability to defeat the liberal opposition precisely because liberals had long struggled, very publicly, with their own factional conflicts. As a result, conservatives were blindsided by disgusted voters on Election Day.
The second irony is that while factional pressures split the liberal opposition into two parties, this open division gave them an electoral advantage over conservatives, who remained united in form but not in spirit. The new People’s Party, a splinter liberal group led by former software entrepreneur Ahn Cheol-soo, retained vulnerable liberal seats in the southwest, while the liberal mainstream Minjoo Party stole vulnerable conservative seats away from Saenuri. The Minjoo and People’s parties together won 26 “proportional” seats based on voter preference—a decisive advantage over Saenuri, which won only 17 of the 45 proportional spots.
The final irony is that while Ahn’s political career is predicated on offering a new style of post-partisan politics, the center-left party he created primarily represents the interests of a single region—a hallmark of the “old style” democracy he purportedly seeks to transcend.
The Liberal Vision of Inter-Korea Relations
What might these developments bode for relations between the two Koreas, keeping in mind the fact that the election was not a referendum on North Korea policy?
On one hand, the decisive victory of the two liberal parties should not be misconstrued as a mandate to enact a “Sunshine Policy 2.0.” Liberals, after all, did not make North Korea a major part of their campaign; they ran on progressive social policies and on the unpopularity of President Park Geun-hye and her conservative party. Moreover, they still lack a supermajority in the National Assembly, which is a relatively weak branch of government to begin with. But in so far as liberals are now much better positioned to take back the Blue House, their ideas about North Korea take on greater significance as guideposts for the future.
Leading Minjoo Party figures like Moon Jae-in—a former lawyer, political advisor and presidential candidate—remain committed to the liberal vision of proactive engagement with North Korea. Moon was an architect of the most ambitious phase of inter-Korean reconciliation during the presidency of Roh Moo-hyun, the last liberal who held the office from 2003 to 2008. Moon supports active pursuit of denuclearization through negotiations, namely through the Six Party Talks, and he is likely to seek enhanced cooperation with Beijing to engage Pyongyang, rather than just additional steps to sanction and deter the DPRK. But Moon is unlikely to let inter-Korean relations wither on the vine of stalled denuclearization talks. Instead, he can be expected to reboot the many cooperative projects that were underway before the liberals lost the Blue House in 2008.
Moon stepped down from party leadership in the run-up to the election, and turned the reins over to Kim Chong-in, a former economic advisor to President Park and not much of a liberal with regard to North Korean affairs. But Kim guided Minjoo to legislative victory, winning a seat for himself in the National Assembly in the process, and he remains a force to be reckoned with. For now, however, Moon Jae-in remains the political center of gravity, the strategist for inter-Korean relations, and the leading liberal candidate for the next presidential election.
The third key figure in this new liberal trifecta is Ahn Cheol-soo. Ahn lacks Moon’s deep background in inter-Korean affairs, and he sometimes tacks to a hazy middle position when he comments on the North. Nonetheless, he defaults to the liberal approach of engagement, as opposed to taking a hard line toward the DPRK while pining for its collapse. In a statement released last June, for example, Ahn marked the 15th anniversary of the first inter-Korean presidential summit with a forceful call for political rapprochement and economic reintegration with the North. Much of the statement directly echoed the Sunshine Policy as it was written by Korea’s first liberal leader, Nobel Peace Prize winner Kim Dae-jung. Ahn added a “business” case for inter-Korean cooperation, arguing that Kim’s policy helped South Korea recover more quickly from the late 1990s Asian financial crisis by mitigating the “Korea discount” of the North Korean security risk. Liberal thinkers, however, debate among themselves whether Ahn could be counted on as president to pursue a peace and reconciliation agenda with the North; some have suggested that as president, Ahn’s policy toward North Korea would be similar to the “engagement lite” adopted by Park in the first years of her presidency.
Most South Korean liberal intellectuals appear to agree that the Saenuri Party’s legislative defeat will not alter President Park’s sudden shift earlier this year to a hardline stance against North Korea, jettisoning her prior “trustpolitik” approach. Still, it is difficult to measure how hard she can push the North as a lame-duck leader with rock-bottom approval ratings. Liberal strength in the National Assembly will at least give them a greater platform to criticize her new determination to inflict “bone-numbing” pain on the DPRK.
A Liberal in the Blue House?
Liberals cannot claim a sweeping mandate from last week’s election, but the conservative defeat may bode ill for the Saenuri Party’s chances of retaining the Blue House in 2018. Liberals seem at last to be finding a new configuration that gives them the national majority. If liberals can unite around a single presidential candidate—and that remains a big “if”— they would have favorable odds of retaking power after nearly a decade in the political wilderness.
A new liberal presidency would have profound implications not only for inter-Korean relations, but also for the US-ROK alliance. Despite outliers like Kim Chong-in and unknown quantities like Ahn Cheol-soo, the basic philosophy and policy preferences of liberals are fundamentally different from those to which Washington has grown accustomed in the relatively congenial years of Park Geun-hye and her predecessor Lee Myung-bak. A liberal South Korean president is very likely—or in the case of Moon Jae-in, guaranteed—to proactively engage Kim Jong Un in political dialogue, allow civic groups in the South to resume their activities and exchanges with the North, and restore and expand economic linkages. The Obama administration’s lukewarm attitude toward dialogue and negotiation, and focus on getting China to implement harsher sanctions on the DPRK, would no longer align with the inter-Korean policy of its ally in Seoul.
The second dawn of a Sunshine Policy on the Korean peninsula would present either a challenge or opportunity for whomever happens to be the next occupant of the White House. As a general principle, Americans are more comfortable talking to South Korean conservatives than liberals, and the fact that conservatives have controlled the presidency for so long has strengthened that US tendency. Given this year’s election results, now may be the time for US policymakers, especially those in the potential next administration, to start listening a bit harder to Korean liberals.