The Debate

South Korea’s Three-Way Tussle

South Korea’s Presidential race takes an interesting turn.

Ahn Chul-soo, a professor and founder of AhnLab, a computer security software company, formally announced his bid for the South Korean presidency. With Ahn’s entry, the Korean public is beginning to think in earnest about the December election. A recent realmeter public opinion poll had the independent Ahn in second place with 27.2 percent of public support, trailing the conservative Saenuri candidate Park Geun-hye with 37.5 percent, but leading the progressive Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Moon Jae-in with 22.6 percent. Asan Institute poll results for two-way races between Park and either Ahn or Moon are within the margin of error.

The Mansfield Foundation’s L. Gordon Flake provides a useful primer on the presidential race, arguing that the overall trend in South Korean politics is toward a moderation of ideological extremes and a convergence on an issue agenda that addresses welfare issues, economic inequality, and labor reforms.  He also identifies some issues in U.S.-ROK relations that will be on the plate of the new president when he/she takes power in February of 2013.

While Flake skillfully analyzes the broader trends that might influence the election, the immediate preoccupations of the race revolve around how and whether a single progressive candidate will face off against Park.  Since the polls show Park easily winning a three-way presidential contest, the widespread conventional wisdom is that Ahn and Moon must join forces to beat her. But which of these men will be the progressive standard-bearer in the election, and how will that decision be determined?

When Ahn announced last week that he would join the race, he swore to transform South Korea’s existing political culture. However, as a practical matter, he will need to borrow a party organization to be able to mobilize voters and win a bid for national office. But joining an existing party automatically implicates him as a politician rather than as an agent of transformation. Thus, he will need party members to come to him and support his leadership of a clean organization, rather than his going to them for the support of an existing party.

On the other hand, Moon has now been duly selected as the DUP’s candidate for president, having won a primary competition according to party rules. His approval ratings were on the upswing following his formal nomination. It will now be difficult for Moon to abdicate his candidacy to Ahn, an outsider who has intentionally by-passed party selection processes to jump into the presidential race as an independent. Park Won-soon “borrowed” the DUP to support his independent candidacy for Seoul Mayor last October, but the failure of the DUP to nominate one of its own in two successive high-profile elections, and especially a presidential race, would come at a potentially high cost to perceptions of the party’s viability.

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Thus the ultimate question is this: Will Ahn be able to market an effective anti-virus for Korean politics, or will the necessity of human networking and political organization inevitably corrupt the Ahn file?

Scott A. Snyder is senior fellow for Korea studies and director of the program on U.S.-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations. He was previously a senior associate in the international relations program of The Asia Foundation and Pacific Forum CSIS. He blogs at Asia Unbound, where this piece originally appeared.