A lawyer with a long background espousing leftist causes is now the mayor of Seoul, a capital city of 10 million people (20 percent of South Korea’s population), after his overwhelming success in an election that has grave implications for policies visa-vis North Korea.
Park Won-soon, a 55-year-old activist who has called for the withdrawal of US troops and repeal of the National Security law for tracking Communist sympathizers and spies, easily defeated Na Kyung-won, 45, the attractive wife of a judge, a member of the National Assembly and the candidate of the ruling conservatives.
Park, who has been attacking central government policies ever since he was expelled from Seoul National University for leading protests 36 year ago, credited voters with showing “common sense and principles” in a contest that gave him 53 percent of the votes as opposed to 46 percent for Na. Clearly, his victory reflected severe differences in social class and income – and deep discontent among middle and working-class Koreans. Increasingly, they’re unhappy with a system in which the sprawling chaebol, from the Chinese characters for “fortune clusters,” including Samsung, Hyundai Motor, LG, SK and dozens of others , grow ever wealthier while most people struggle to make ends meet in a time of inflation and unemployment.
One of the country’s most powerful financial officials, Kwon Hyouk-se, governor of the Financial Supervisory Service, acknowledged the discontent, saying “Korea does have to contend with the problem of social disharmony.” He called the “Occupy Wall Street” movement in the U.S., which has caught on in Seoul in demonstrations in the financial district, “an expression of the frustration at the gains and advantages financial firms and their executives enjoy even after one of the worst financial crises ever.” In the case of Korea, Kwon told the American Chamber of Commerce, “Many attribute this to uneven sharing of growth and prosperity” amid “voices calling for more responsible corporate citizenship in our financial industry.”
The accuracy of that view was borne out as the returns rolled in, showing Park ahead in every district except for the wealthiest neighborhoods south of the Han River that bisects the capital. Park had widespread support among young office workers who seem to form the backbone of the movement that propelled him to success. “We are struggling so much, we are not even ‘middle class’ any more,” said an office manager, Kim Yun-mee, reflecting growing unhappiness with the Grand National Party, the conservative organization that controls the central government. “They are good only for the rich people. Look at the whole economy. The rich get richer, the poor get poorer.”
The surge for Park represented an astounding reversal that began when the previous mayor, Oh Se-hoon, called a referendum in August on a costly school lunch program. The conservative Oh, who had won a second four-year term by a narrow margin just last year, opposed the populist notion of free lunch for Seoul’s 800,000 schoolchildren as approved by a city council controlled by opposition liberals. Warning of the need for raising taxes if the kids got free lunches, Oh proposed a referendum giving voters an option: free lunch for them all or free lunch only for those whose families could not afford it. The opposition Democratic Party organized a boycott of the referendum, which was rendered invalid after failing to get a minimum one third of the voters to cast ballots. Humiliated, Oh resigned.
Although the mayor of Seoul has no power over foreign or defense policy, the election is seen a bellwether for pivotal National Assembly elections next April and then for election of a new president in December of next year. President Lee Myung-bak, who in December 2007 won a landslide victory in a backlash against a decade of liberal rule, cannot succeed himself under Korea’s ‘democracy constitution,’ adopted in 1987 amid protests against dictatorial rule. Voters have become increasingly critical of Lee’s hard-line policy toward North Korea, including his reluctance to extend aid or enter into negotiations unless the North shows signs of giving up its nuclear program. “The young generation are angry at Lee Myung-bak,” said Kim Kee-sam, a former official of the National Intelligence Service, now working as a lawyer in the US. “They are frustrated because of unemployment. It’s impossible for them to buy a house. It’s only the chaebol – the conglomerates – that are growing rich.”
Ironically, Park was nominated initially as an independent, without the support of the opposition Democratic Party, but finally ran on a unified ticket. Some observers believe that as mayor he will adopt a more moderate stance than indicated by his rants against the government, including his claim that South Korea “provoked” North Korea into sinking the navy vessel the Cheonan in March of last year and then shelling Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea a year ago in November, with a loss of 50 lives. “People worry about him being very liberal,” said Jeffery Jones, a long-time lawyer in Seoul. “He sounds liberal, but he’ll come back to the middle of the road.” Still, Jones added, “he’s clearly social progressive.”
Moderation, however, is not likely to temper the critical anti-American outlook of one whose election provides “a boost for the anti-establishment sentiments that the Democratic Party has never been able to effectively manage or represent,” observed long-time consultant Tom Coyner. “Traditionally, going after the U.S. as a proxy for attacking the establishment has been a safe and nationalist way to release many people’s frustrations.”
The election called into question the issue of popular support for the U.S.-Korean alliance at an incredible juncture, the day of the annual visitation to South Korea of the U.S. defense chief. No sooner had the people of the South Korean capital just elected an anti-American, anti-bases, antieverything candidate as their mayor than Leon Panetta, the defense secretary, spoke in Seoul about the non-stop North Korean “threat.” Allaying concerns about a U.S. pullout, Panetta pledged to maintain the level of 28,500 American troops while preparing for “Op Con,” the transition of “operational control” in time of war from U.S. to South Korean command by 2015.
The coincidence of Panetta’s reaffirmation of the U.S.-Korean alliance and Park’s victory dramatized an underlying dichotomy of Korean society. At the crest of an era of good-will between official Washington and official Seoul, a current of dissent was tugging the carefully contrived edifice beneath the waves. To outward appearances, the visitation of Panetta and the celebration of Park’s success bore no relationship to each other. One minute, President Lee was saying how “heavily” he regarded the defeat of his Seoul mate Na Kyung-won; the next, he was chatting with Panetta about the enduring nature of the alliance and the KoreaU.S. Free Trade Agreement.
Clearly, the candidate for president next December is going to have to adopt a softer line toward North Korea – and not speak in praise of the U.S. alliance or American bases. The big loser in the election may not have been Na Kyung-won, who will go back to her job in the National Assembly, but Park Keun-hye, the daughter of the long-ruling former dictator- president Park Chunghee, assassinated in 1979 by his intelligence chief. She’s been a leading prospect to run as a conservative next year as successor to Lee, but she lost points by speaking out for Na. Severely embarrassed by Na’s defeat, she will doubtless be rethinking her 2012 campaign strategy.
As for Park Won-soon, he had the sup- port of Ahn Cheol-soo, an IT entrepreneur who is also seen as a presidential prospect – and he will be playing upon anti-American sentiments along with the need for social and economic reform. Ahn, a professor at Seoul National University, has made a for- tune from anti-virus programs -- and he has the resources to campaign as an agent for change in fundamental policies.
Such considerations were conspicuously missing, however, from the meetings be- tween Panetta and Korea’s top leaders on the day after the election – not a word from Panetta about what the Seoul mayoralty election might mean for the alliance, noth- ing from Lee about the backlash against his “hard-line” stance against North Korea. Af- ter all the talk, the great unanswered ques- tion was what did the election of one who’s called for American troops to leave really portend for the duration of their welcome. The answer for now may be not a great deal since the mayor of Seoul has no power over foreign or defense policy. Considering all the bureaucratic and political problems with which he has to contend, he’d be lucky to be able to do much about such mundane matters as traffic jams, drinking water, sew- age and helter-skelter construction.
If the Seoul mayoralty election was about the economy, however, leftist demands for “change” always come down to the Ameri- can relationship. Park, as one-time leader of the gadfly People’s Solidarity for Participato- ry Democracy, has made a career of playing upon such sentiments. Besides denouncing the National Security Law that historically gave authorities carte blanche to go after radical malcontents, he has blamed the government for having “provoked” North Korea into sinking the navy corvette Cheon- an in March of last year and then shelling Yeonpyeong Island in the Yellow Sea with a total loss of 50 lives.
Perhaps Park’s gravest offense, however, was that he also helped to organize the massive demonstrations in the summer and early fall of 2008 against the government’s approving American beef after having banned it for years for fear of “Mad Cow” disease. As mayor, Park is not likely to welcome a repetition of such a display on the broad grassy circle in front of City Hall, now under reconstruction as a huge modern building above its Japanese-era antecedent. Still, he’s not likely to give up his ideals and beliefs just because he’s on the inside looking out, not the outside looking in.
The frustration is going up as voters criticize President Lee’s policy toward North Korea, including his reluctance to extend aid or enter into negotiations unless the North shows signs of giving up its nuclear program. That frustration puts the Americans in a quandary. Talks in Geneva in late October between a U.S. team led by Stephen Bosworth, who stepped down immediately afterward as chief U.S. envoy, and Kim Kye-gwan, the long-time North Korean negotiator, got nowhere, leaving U.S. spokespeople to describe them as “useful” and “business-like.”
“There are major pent-up pressures that have made it possible for an independent, technically non-politician to be elected to the second most important position in South Korea,” said consultant Tom Coyner. “The Mad Cow disease demonstrations essentially had nothing to do with public health. Rather, the protests were a way for the disaffected young masses to make repeatedly clear over several weeks to the Korean establishment that they can take over the streets.” In that spirit, they got their hero elected mayor – and may also win the next presidential election with an agenda that calls for cozying up to North Korea and reducing the American troop presence, regardless of whatever assurances Panetta gave the Koreans while in Seoul.
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