The Burden of History: A Divided South Korea Heads to the Polls

As South Koreans vote today, the race between Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in looks too close to call.

  • Share
  • Read Later
Kim Hong-Ji / Reuters

South Korea's presidential candidate Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party attends an election campaign rally in the South Korean city of Pusan on Dec. 18, 2012

Last week North Korea launched a missile; South Korea barely flinched. While the world watched Pyongyang, the southern half of the Korean peninsula kept its gaze fixed on coverage of its presidential race. The hard-fought contest between Park Geun-hye of the ruling Saenuri Party and challenger Moon Jae-in of the opposition Democratic United Party has consumed the country for months. Park, 60, is the daughter of the late dictator Park Chung-hee. Moon, 59, was once imprisoned for opposing his authoritarian rule. If Park wins, she will make history as the country’s first woman President. A Moon victory would return the country’s left-leaning opposition. As South Koreans vote today, the race is too close to call. Final polls, conducted a week before the ballot, put the candidates at a statistical dead heat.

Whoever wins, the stakes are high. Some 50 years ago, South Korea was an economic backwater. Today, it is the world’s 11th largest economy, according the HSBC figures, and an emerging cultural force (ask Psy). But people are restless. While outsiders may imagine a country consumed by what’s happening in the north, the election contest has been dominated by domestic concerns, especially quality-of-life issues. The economy is predicted to grow at 3.8% in 2013, yet South Koreans are worried about the future. Household debt has reached 154% of disposable household income, the suicide rate is the highest in among the OECD countries, and the gap between rich and poor is widening. Courting the political center, both candidates are promising some variation on a fresh start.

(MORE: History’s Child: Park Geun-Hye Aims to Make History as South Korea’s First Female President)

For all the talk of change, however, both Park and Moon are running in the shadows of past Presidents. Park’s father is the single most influential figure in contemporary Korean history. Gen. Park Chung-hee, who seized power in a military coup in 1961 and ruled until his assassination in ’79, is both loved and hated in South Korea. He is credited with orchestrating the country’s postwar economic transformation, but is faulted for suppressing dissent. Thousands of activists, including challenger Moon, were arrested during the dictator’s rule.

Though she is a political veteran in her own right, the younger Park is almost always viewed through the prism of her father’s life and legacy. She was 9 years old when he seized power, and she spent much of her childhood in the public eye. When she was just 22, her mother, First Lady Yuk Young-soo, was killed in a failed assassination attempt on her father. Park stepped in as the de facto First Lady, playing host to foreign dignitaries including U.S. President Gerald Ford. Her supporters, many of whom are older, regard this experience as an indication of her mental fortitude and sense of duty. “She is seen as someone who has endured personal tragedy,” says Meredith Jung-En Woo, a Korea expert and dean at the University of Virginia, “someone who shares the wills and woes of the people.” To her critics, however, she is the dictator’s daughter, a symbol of the country’s authoritarian past.

(MORE: South Korea: One of the World’s Great Success Stories Heads to the Polls)

Park’s life narrative is a less compelling story for young South Koreans. Their side of the country’s generational divide enthusiastically supported Ahn Cheol-soo, a charismatic, third-party candidate who dropped out of the race to avoid splitting the liberal vote with Moon. But it’s unclear if the youth vote will now go to Moon, who, as a former student leader and human-rights lawyer, is seen as more likely than Park to challenge the status quo. Moon has promised to take on the corporate conglomerates, or chaebol, which have dominated the economy for decades, and to stick up for the marginalized. But Moon carries his own burden of history: he once served as Chief of Staff for his lawyer friend, onetime President Roh Moo-hyun, who was elected in 2003 on a platform of open government but was later dogged by allegations of corruption; Roh leapt to his death from a hill behind his home in ’09. Moon is sometimes called “the shadow of Roh” for his closeness to the deceased former leader.

And so it is that the 2012 presidential contest feels like a referendum on the past, not the present. On the eve of the election, the contest became a business-as-usual battle between the two camps — conservative and progressive — that have dominated South Korea for decades. A series of “scandals” took center stage while other bigger questions lingered on the periphery. That North Korea was also just a bit player in the South Korean election constitutes what John Delury, a North Korea expert at Seoul’s Yonsei University, calls the “election paradox”: “Although North Korea has little to do with who wins the South Korean election, the winner of the presidential contest will have much to do over the next five years to put the Korean peninsula back on a path to peace, reconciliation and prosperity,” he wrote in a special report for CNN.

Caught amid a rogue neighbor to the north, an increasingly assertive China and a more nationalistic new government in Tokyo, South Korea’s next President has a lot on his or her plate both at home and abroad. The country’s past was difficult, but so is its future.

MORE: North Korean Rocket Launch Riles Neighbors, but Mild Response from China Expected

12 comments
www.astrosunil2012
www.astrosunil2012

ations Share
Post a CommentNo Comments

Posted by master of astrology K.sunil November 27, 2012 at 3:34 am
Your comment is awaiting moderation.

—==== NEXT PRESIDENT MRS.PARK GEUN HYE IN SOUTH KOREA =======(ASTROLOGY THEORY ) ACCORDING TO THE SOLAR FIRE WILLIAKS THEORY MRS.PARK GEUN HYE WILL CERTAINLY NEXT PRESIDENT TO THE SOUTH KOREA THE STUDY OF THE JUPITER INGRESS THE EXACT TIME WHEN THE SUN ENTERS THE SIGN OF CAPRICON SHOW CLEARLY THAT PARK GENU WILL STAY PRESIDENTSHIP.PARK GEUN ELECTORIAL WIN . THERE IS NO ABSOLUTELY NO DOUBT IT. MRS. PARK GEUN IN NEXT PRESIDENT IN SOUTH KOREA I ASSURED IT.
Posted by master of astrology K.sunil November 27, 2012 at 3:43 am
Your comment is awaiting moderation.

—==== NEXT PRESIDENT MRS.PARK GEUN HYE IN SOUTH KOREA =======(ASTROLOGY THEORY ) ACCORDING TO THE SOLAR FIRE WILLIAKS THEORY MRS.PARK GEUN HYE WILL CERTAINLY NEXT PRESIDENT TO THE SOUTH KOREA THE STUDY OF THE JUPITER INGRESS THE EXACT TIME WHEN THE SUN ENTERS THE SIGN OF CAPRICON SHOW CLEARLY THAT PARK GENU WILL STAY PRESIDENTSHIP.PARK GEU> PARK N ELECTORIA
Council on Foreign Relations
Member Login


Aes

Member Login
© Copyright 2012, Council on Foreign Relations. All Rights Reserved.
L WIN . THERE IS NO ABSOLUTELY NO DOUBT IT. MRS. PARK GEUN IN NEXT PRESIDENT IN SOUTH KOREA I ASSURED IT.

Post a Comment

www.astrosunil2012
www.astrosunil2012



    WSJ
        Facebook
        Twitter
    MarketW(5)

Korea Real Time HOME PAGE »

    There are 5 Comment(s)

    Go to most recent
    Add a Comment

    Sort by:
    Oldest
    Newest

            1:27 am September 13, 2012
            joe wrote:

        Poor Ahn, even a lowly level Park Geun Hye staff member had the balls to pick up a phone and threaten Ahn. Threatened Ahn not to run for the presidency and denied and denied and denied before entire country. The harrasser Jeoung wreched his car (intentionally I believe) and locked himself into a hospital and hid himself from the public.
            10:57 pm November 28, 2012
            master of sastrology K.SUNIL wrote:

        ++++ WHO WILL BE VICTORIOUS AT THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF SOUTH KOREA IN DECEMBER 2012? +++according to solar fire williaks theory mrs.PARK GEUN HYE will certainly to the south korea presidency
            3:21 pm December 8, 2012
            master of sastrology K.SUNIL wrote:

        ++++
        WHO WILL BE VICTORIOUS AT THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF SOUTH KOREA IN
        DECEMBER 2012? +++according to solar fire williaks theory mrs.PARK GEUN
        HYE will certainly to the south korea presidency
            3:27 pm December 8, 2012
            master of astrology k.sunil (www.astrosunil.com) wrote:

        who will be victorious at the presidential election south korea in december 2012 ? ===ACCORDING TO SOLAR FIRE WILLIAKIAKS THEORY mrs . PARK GEUN HYE will certainly to the south korea next president SOUR AND DEFINIITY
            5:13 pm December 15, 2012
            master of sastrology K.SUNIL wrote:

        ++++
        WHO WILL BE VICTORIOUS AT THE PRESIDENTIAL ELECTION OF SOUTH KOREA IN
        DECEMBER 2012? +++according to solar fire williaks theory mrs.PARK GEUN
        HYE will certainly to the south korea presidency no probleam

Add a Comment
Name
We welcome thoughtful comments from readers. Please comply with our guidelines. Our blogs do not require the use of your real name.
Comment
Korea Real Time Categories

        Contact Directory
        Corrections
    Policy
        Privacy Policy
        Data Policy

    Jobs at WSJ
    Copyright ©2012 Dow Jones & Company, Inc. All Rights Reserved.

 

ooga
ooga

First of all, her fathers been dead for a long time. Second, who the hell wants to carry on a dictatorship in this day and age. Give this woman a break. She loves her country and her countrymen. Politics in every country is basically male dominated. I'm glad women are rising to the top, become great role models and leaders. Take the ego away from people, and all you have left are great hopes and ideas for your country. Congrats Madam Park! Show those male politicians what you're made of! 

seonpil
seonpil

park geun-hye is just a symbol of shame.. 

pclar09
pclar09 like.author.displayName 1 Like

I'm an American. My wife is Korean and I have been studying Korean culture and language for almost two years. It is my belief that Park Geun-hye is the best leader for South Korea. I do not claim to be an expert, but I think that she will make an excellent president. I plan to one day move back to South Korea and live there, and I would feel much more comfortable in the country if Park Geun-hye becomes the president. Whether her father is viewed as a bad guy or a good guy, it should not be a factor when voting for her. She is an individual. I'm tired of hearing the only problem people have with her is because her father was Park Chung-hee. His actions, good or bad, should have ZERO affect on her campaign or bid for the presidency. 

I do not mean to offend anyone. I just wanted to state my honest opinion as an admirer of the country of South Korea and someone who is looking from the outside in. Thank you very much, and good luck to all of you as you vote!

ounou
ounou

Most people who support Park Guen-hye feel nostalgia for the dictatorship in her father's resime. Everyone still think Park Geun-hye as Park Chung-hee's daughter. No one think of Park Geun-hye and her father as separate. It is no exaggeration to say that Ms Park's supporters think her as her fater's alter ego. She could get votes because she is Mr Park's daughter. It's the true.

Park Chung-hee is the leader of South Korean economic growth and Dictator in one.

Moon Jae-in, Ms Park's liberal rival, was jailed by Ms Park's father in 1970s. Also, he was a human rights lawyer.

loogia___
loogia___

park geun-hye is the best leader who lead the south korea. it's deniable. 

and she is the daughter of park-chung-hee who greatest leader of south korea.

govkfl
govkfl like.author.displayName like.author.displayName like.author.displayName 3 Like

I Believe Park Geun-hye 

kcyj81
kcyj81

Park Guen Hye is just the dictator's daughter. I'm Korean.

My English is poor, but I want to say this "What she- strongmanr's daughter- is a candidate is making me shameful."

ooga
ooga

@kcyj81 ......in a democratic state, name one person who is an elected president that rules as a dictator, in this day and age. Give Madam Park a break. YEs her father was a dictator, but she isn't. 

jtchun777
jtchun777

For a historical study for developing countries. Park Chung-hee was a man who played the role like Bismarck in Germany and Napoleon III in France during industrial revolution (Bonapartism). And then Deng Xiaoping in China followed him. In other developing countries, people should know this historical context to develop their countries. The point is that though different in extent among countries, authoritarian administration by community-oriented leaders are needed in the first part of industrial development. It was the same case for all the advanced and well-devleoping countries. Otherwise it will fail. There are many evidences fo that in the world. (derived from my theory "Historical justiceism")