“It’s the economy, stupid” Bill Clinton said during the 1992 U.S. Presidential Election. The same holds true two decades later in the 2012 South Korean Presidential Election. The most important issue for the South Korean public is job creation and wealth distribution. Global economic challenges, heated island disputes with Japan and China, and increasing uncertainty regarding the future of North Korea, have hardly rated a mention.
South Korea’s Presidential Election, to be held in December, has become a three-horse race between Park Geun-Hye, Moon Jae-In and Ahn Cheol-Soo. The first, a daughter of controversial South Korean authoritarian leader, Park Chung-Hee, has the support of the conservative elements. The second, an aide to former President Roh Moo-Hyun, is the darling of the progressive left. Meanwhile, the last candidate, a political maverick, is a medical doctor, university professor, successful entrepreneur and now an independent presidential candidate is popular among the politically disaffected.
Despite the differences in their background and political ideology, all three candidates are similar in how little they’ve discussed foreign policy. To date, each candidate has focused overwhelmingly on domestic issues. In the place of a clear position on specific foreign policy challenges, the public falls back on popular conceptions of how each would respond. As the conservative Park Geun-Hye would be more inclined to support the U.S position in regional affairs; Moon Jae-In, as the progressive contender, would likely seek to position South Korea as a balancer between China and the U.S; and Ahn Cheol-Soo would attempt to keep South Korea out of major-power rivalry, focusing more upon the domestic and regional rather than the international.
To date, the closest each candidate has come to foreign policy is North Korea. Each candidate has expressed an interest in moving away from the volatility that has characterized inter-Korean relations during the Lee Myung-Bak administration. Moon Jae-In, by far the most focused in this regard, aims to secure a third North-South Leaders’ Summit by June 2013 and lay the basis for peace, denuclearization, infrastructure development and, ultimately, an Inter-Korean Economic Union. At the other end of the spectrum, Park Geun-Hye’s policy champions an evolution in the current administration’s policies towards further engagement. Ahn, the political independent, holds a position somewhere in the middle.
South Korea’s foreign policy exists only in the context of North Korea. The next administration will need to be ready to respond to what are now routine provocations, whilst at the same time preparing for a much larger eventuality. Collapse and sudden unification may be remote, but that has often been the case in artificially divided nations, and its impact would be such that the next administration will need to encourage dialogue on the issue with both regional and global partners.