South Korea’s Next President (But Will He Run?)


By Peter Ward

As an outsider in a society where being an outsider is a defining feature, and as a speaker of Korean with a still rather crude grasp of nuance, I can see the appeal of Ahn Chul-soo as a potential presidential candidate. So far as I have gathered, he is a self-made man, someone who had an idea to invent something (anti-virus software), using cutting-edge technology—i.e. Information Technology —and then having become a billionaire (or is that millionaire?) decided to put what he had learnt into the most prestigious job in the country (professor at Seoul National University, the nation’s Harvard or Oxford).

He is therefore a shining light for the young and a good example the old would like to see their offspring following. A solid moral background, a lot of money (earned in a both exciting and non-criminal way), and forward looking—the money was made through the revolution of our times, micro-processors. This means the man is both very popular and unsullied. He is also very anti-right, which makes a nice change from most of the billionaires I have seen with supposed political ambitions (I suppose we can make an exception for Mr Buffet).

He has said quite a few times now that the party of power here, the Grand National Party (GNP), is the problem (they did actually try to court him when he first emerged on the political scene in early September). I remember reading articles in the press that went along the lines of ‘his support for liberal democracy is a perfect fit with the GNP’ etc. But clearly, whether he is going to run for president in 2012 or not, he senses how unpopular the right is here, at least at the moment.

The real question in all of this is whether he will run as the next candidate of the ‘united left’ (a phrase I used in my last article to translate 야권 단일후보, which means someone from none of the parties of the left who is supported by them and basically represents their outlook). If he runs, he is surprisingly likely to win, if not, then the left is very likely to lose.

The left has very few viable candidates. In fact, at present, it has one: Mr Ahn. The alternative candidates, at least in present polls, are vote losers; this in an electoral climate that should favour the left, if results in the capital are indicative. Just as a bit of background, the last candidate for the presidency to lose Seoul and to win the election was Kim Young-sam in 1992. Judging by the popularity of a non-aligned left candidate in the capital in the October 26 election, the chances for Ahn are very good in the general election; he could carry Seoul, Gyeonggi, Gangwon, and the Chungcheons as well as the traditional leftist strongholds of Jeollas North and South. It is a probable scenario, but if not him who?

The alternative candidates from the left at present seem to be: Sohn Hak-gyu (the Democratic Party Leader) and Moon Jae In (the leader of Roh Moo-hyun’s fan club). There have been a few other names mooted, some high-ups in the Democratic Party, but none score above 10% in opinion polls, so I am going to ignore them for now. Sohn is not popular with anyone except the base of his own party. This is less than 30% of the voting population. He is not much liked from what I can gather, because of his defection from the right to the left; he used to be the governor of Gyeonggi province no less, as a member of the right and then he defected. He is popular with his base for having won the April 27 election thereby seizing a traditional rightist seat (Bundang). Maybe there are other reasons too, but they are not clear to me at least. What is clear is that he would be no match for the presumed candidate of the right.

Park Geun-hye is that candidate. She is very popular not just with her base, but she garners respect from independents (the vast majority of the electorate) for being the daughter of Park Chung-hee (general and leader of the country 1961-79, who led the country to development and success, though as a dictator). She has also proven to be a skilled political operator in her right when as the former head of the GNP, she won election after election. She may have been into royalty, but she has not squandered her position. Park also seems remarkably good at believing practically nothing except that her father developed the country. Aside from that, she mouths very glib platitudes to a bevy of fans in strongholds almost every day. The newspapers like publishing this stuff. I don’t know why. Nonetheless, she polls consistently high,and before the emergence of Ahn, she seemed simply unbeatable. No matter how unpopular her party was and is, she was seemingly a shoe-in.

Moon Jae In, the chief alternative to Sohn as the candidate of the left, suffers from very different problems. He is the head of what I contemptuously called the fan club of former President Roh Moo-hyun. Forgive me, but I am not a big fan of fan clubs, even for people who I personally like. Worshiping the dead is not something I have much appreciation for. And for the record I am to the left of Roh on most issues. Nonetheless, Moon could become the candidate for the left given that he has one year of experience in the National Assembly—not much but something—and he is popular with more of the voting public than Sohn. Remember that former President Roh has become very popular in death. But the problem is he has very few political credentials—working in a presidential administration and then being committed to its memory do not make you presidential material usually, and the South Korean public seems to think so.

What are the likely issues to appear in next year’s election? South Korea, surprisingly, faces a very similar problem to most other developed (and some developing) countries: a lack of jobs for the young. Like any good, developed country, South Korea has lots of educated young people, fresh out of university, ambitious and looking for good, well paid, white collar jobs (more than 80% of Korean high school graduate go to college). The problem is, there are not enough to go around, and South Koreans have to compete for such jobs on a global scale. Added to that, the global economy is seemingly approaching further recession. The result is both discontent among those who cannot get the job they want and are forced to do far more menial work, and those who have such jobs but are increasingly anxious about their futures.

This means the government of Lee Myung-bak is very unpopular. It is not clear what he can do to deal with the problems of globalisation on his own, but he is still blamed for what is to a large extent a global problem. Whether you be Swedish, Spanish or a Kentuckian student or young salary man, in a left or right wing place, the problems are remarkably similar.

Ahn is seemingly seen as a miracle worker for the country. He worked miracles in his own life, living a life the envy of most my age and older. The thought seems to be that maybe he can do the same for the country. This means that if Park Won-soon does not have an unbelievably bad year as mayor, Ahn can win, in fact it’s very likely he will be South Korean’s next president, unless something dirty is lurking in his closet. Park Geun-hye is respected by many, liked by the right, but she is no mega star politician.

But the big question is whether Ahn will decide to run. Maybe if he is smart, he will decide not to. It’s not an easy job being president, nor will it likely be rewarding. South Korea faces problems that will only be solved through multilateral, global solutions. Capitalism is in need of global reform, in order to rationalise the global economic system and bring back economic growth which creates jobs for people (i.e., the young). The United States is most crucial in this regard, and most politically dysfunctional. Reform is unlikely. Therefore as president, Ahn would face these problems with seemingly no solution and lose his lustre. He may end up like Vaclav Havel did in the Czech Republic, a great man, but seen as a bad politician. Perhaps he knows this—given his recent reaction to politics—and maybe he will decide not to run.

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