Will South Korea’s progressive victory bring change to the Peninsula?
Author: Stephen Costello, George Washington University In late April, speculation erupted over the absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from public view for a prolonged period. Among the commentary about the durability of North Korea’s leadership, the central question of US and South Korean policy toward the country was barely addressed. The value of […]
Author: Stephen Costello, George Washington University
In late April, speculation erupted over the absence of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un from public view for a prolonged period. Among the commentary about the durability of North Korea’s leadership, the central question of US and South Korean policy toward the country was barely addressed. The value of the past three years of South Korea and China’s investment in the country’s stability, development and denuclearisation is also unacknowledged.
Before Kim Jong-un’s absence and reappearance, a development with long-term implications for inter-Korean relations and Northeast Asia occurred. On 15 April, elections for all 300 seats in the single-body South Korean National Assembly resulted in a large win for the Democratic Party. Its 180-seat majority ensures that the administration of President Moon Jae-in can now fast-track legislation and overrule a filibuster.
This will directly impact the next two years of Seoul’s approach to North Korea, and possibly the next seven years, if another Democratic Party candidate succeeds President Moon in 2022. With only six months before the US presidential election, enhanced domestic political support for Moon’s engagement with Kim could also impact US policy after the post-election dust settles in Washington in January 2021.
For South Korean policy, the National Assembly election has three main consequences.
First, Seoul’s efforts to engage more closely with North Korea without addressing UN and US sanctions, have already picked up. Renewed construction on the southern side of the east and west coast rail lines has begun. Moon has also pushed forcefully for expanded cooperation with Pyongyang on containing the COVID-19 pandemic. For the remaining two years of Moon’s term, such efforts are expected to continue.
Second, the Moon administration’s increased political mandate may portend a longer period of South Korean policy activism and rule-setting on the Peninsula and in the region. The lopsided vote in favour of the Democratic Party is inseparable from the COVID-19 crisis. Moon’s party is likely to have performed worse before the government earned plaudits for its pandemic response.
But the vote is also inseparable from the collapse of the so-called conservative opposition. That group’s empty policy proposals and reverence for authoritarian leadership and anti-communist simplicity helped defeat several party leaders in the National Assembly elections and left it floundering. A combination of strengthened progressives and weakened opposition increases the likelihood that the broad group of moderately-minded Democratic Party Assembly members could remain in power until 2027.
Third, the vote implies a degree of middle power authority that is unique in today’s international landscape. It also occurs just as the capacity of China and the United States to lead toward positive global outcomes — or to lead at all — has spectacularly collapsed. This is not to say such power is gone but that it is likely to be profoundly weakened for the next few years at least.
South Korea’s democracy is maturing. Moderate and modern social policies that are regarded as mainstream in western and northern Europe are now becoming the norm. The government’s early successes in dealing with COVID-19 is the latest in several remarkable national feats that support a more confident and independent identity for the country.
The struggle for democracy in the 1980s and 1990s was the defining experience for a generation. This May marks the fortieth anniversary of the searing, bloody suppression of democracy protests in Kwangju. Both the recovery from the Asian financial crisis and the civic and systemic ejection and jailing of corrupt former president Park Geun-hye, along with the jailing of former president Lee Myung-bak, further helped define the modern Korean outlook. Now the society has collectively managed to fight COVID-19.
These were expressions of civic organisational ability and leadership as well as broadly-supported, non-violent action. They aimed for and produced political power. Legislators, governors and presidents must now pay attention to expectations in the civic space.
But the Moon government may be unwilling to embrace its potential middle power role. Debate among policymakers in Seoul over if and how South Korea could advance the peace process with North Korea as well as its alliance relationship with the United States will continue. These debates will be important for the region because an energised and confident South Korean administration moving carefully and smartly among actors and international institutions could be decisive in shaping Northeast Asian security and development.
The future of UN sanctions on North Korea, and the role of sanctions on the Peninsula and broader region, remains the most important variable for all parties engaged in inter-Korea diplomacy. All other significant progress in regional development and security depends on it. If Korea can’t tackle sanctions head-on, it could remain on the sidelines.
The best role for the United States is another question that is still quietly debated in both Seoul and Washington. This parallel debate is occurring just as the United States faces its most consequential presidential election in a generation. No matter which party wins the White House, the pressure on Seoul to take more of a leading role on Peninsula affairs will increase. Seoul gears up for its own presidential election in May 2022.
The next two years will be consumed with economic and social responses to the COVID-19 crisis. North Korea does not seem to be currently trying to change the balance of power through nuclear or intercontinental ballistic missile tests, and South Korea is leaning in to engage it on a wider range of activities. But the United States is continuing its 20-year history of misjudging both Koreas and preventing further engagement and denuclearisation.
This combination can exist indefinitely, but the contribution of the newly empowered government in Seoul and the collapse of US legitimacy lend new urgency to the question: when would Korea finally embrace its expanded powers in order to advance everyone’s interests, beginning with its own?
Stephen Costello is a Visiting Scholar at the Institute for Korean Studies, George Washington University, Washington DC. He is formerly director of the Korea program at the Atlantic Council and director of the Kim Dae-Jung Peace Foundation.