John Nilsson-Wright
Head, Asia Programme

Park Geun-hye’s narrow victory in South Korea’s presidential election will provide continuity for the ruling Saenuri party. But the election of the country's first female president in a traditional Confucian male-dominated society – South Korea has the highest level of gender inequality in the developed world – could signal change.

The election campaign focused on the issue of social and economic fairness, with both left and right candidates hewing to the centre-ground in an effort to persuade the electorate that pragmatism would trump ideology in contrast to past contests. There was little substantively to distinguish the two campaigns, either in terms of domestic or foreign policy.

Why did Park win?

  • The solidity of the conservative base: Saenuri benefited from a coherent and unified body of support, and the absence of a third party candidate. In contrast, the progressive camp were held back from the long standing struggle to choose between Moon Jae and his independent rival, the software magnate and university professor, Ahn Cheol-suh. 
  • Turnout and demographics: Support for the DUP was concentrated among 20-40 year olds, in contrast to those over 50 who were more inclined to back Park. Mobilizing this youth vote required the DUP to generate a high turnout of 77% or above, but actual turnout fell short of this target at 75.8%.
  • Regional campaigning strategies: Saeuri’s campaign was pitched at a national level with Park seeking to present herself as the candidate of 'grand national unity'. Moon targeted his campaigning on Busan in the Southeast of the country and in the greater Seoul area.

Challenges in office

A Park administration will face a number of key policy challenges, but in the first instance is likely to focus on domestic rather than foreign policy priorities. Tackling poor economic performance will be made difficult by tight budgetary constraints that will limit opportunities for regenerative fiscal spending, although the president will benefit from the 153 seat majority that Saenuri now enjoys in the 300 seat National Assembly. 

Tackling the issue of excess concentrated economic power in the country’s dominant business conglomerates, Chaebol, was a key campaign issue. The new government will not move aggressively against these organizations for fear of upsetting some of their core supporters or jeopardizing the overall economic performance of the ROK economy in which the conglomerates play a key role. It is unlikely that Park will push for limits on interlocking corporate cross-shareholding, and instead will probably encourage deregulation, initiatives to promote fair competition, and tougher legal sanctions against corporate malfeasance.

Institutionally, Park has committed to set up a new National Reform Council designed to tackle a variety of fairness issues, while also creating a bipartisan consensus by appointing opposition and non-conservative members to this new body. However, there are concerns about Park’s ability to play the role of bridge-builder between the two sides of the political spectrum. Her political experience, as the privileged daughter of former authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee, has suggested, to her critics, that she has lived a charmed, isolated existence away from mainstream of society and that she is unused to the rough and tumble of adversarial politics. 

As well as reaching out to the opposition, Park may seek to bolster the power of the prime minister’s office as a way of rebutting criticism that presidential power has become overly centralized and unaccountable. Part of this process may also involve the question of replacing the existing single five-year presidential term with a two four-year term arrangement, although this is likely to prove controversial.

Foreign policy

In foreign policy, the new government will almost certainly concentrate on continuing the tradition of the outgoing administration of fostering strong ties with the United States. This not only reflects the importance of the security alliance between the two countries (critical to meeting the challenge of North Korea), but also reflects the large number of advisors within the Park camp who have close ties with counterparts in Washington, DC.

North Korea: Progress to be made?

On the vexed question of how to deal with a nuclear North Korea, both the Park and Moon campaigns accepted the importance of a more moderate approach with a shift to greater reliance on engagement and dialogue. Park has signalled that her government will be willing to extend humanitarian assistance to the North, and that there should be an expansion of the Kaesong special industrial zone where South Korean firms have been active just north of the Demilitarized Zone. 

There are also hopes that Park’s 2002 meeting with Kim Jong-il, might provide an opening for more pragmatic North-South relations. However, in the short-term, the new administration will be inclined to wait before rushing to discussions with the North. Any hope of an immediate breakthrough is likely to require some sign of concessions or an appetite for discussions from Pyongyang. 

Progress in relations with the North historically depend on China. Given its proximity to the DPRK and its provision of food and energy support, China has often played an important mediating role. For this reason, and also because of the close economic interdependence between the ROK and China, the Park administration will want to maintain effective ties with Beijing. Particular attention will be given to the new bilateral Free Trade Talks that started in May this year.

Japan: Less promising

Japan’s new Liberal Democratic administration headed by Prime Minister Abe,  is likely to adopt a more assertive posture over controversial territorial and historical issues. It will take considerable diplomatic skill and sensitivity by officials in both countries to ameliorate recent tensions. With this in mind, the Park camp has talked of setting up a new Northeast Asia Peace and Cooperation Initiative that might provide a useful framework for tackling a range of sensitive issues in the region.

Ultimately, much of the success of the new Park administration will depend on how convincingly the new president can reach out to the opposition camp, which itself is likely to be bitterly divided and so perhaps disinclined to compromise in the wake of its electoral disappointment.