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.

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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.

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