Foreign Affairs

North Korea’s Influence on South Korea’s Elections

In a 17th century play by William Shakespeare, a question asked but not answered is: “Can one desire too much of a good thing?”  It is a question that has been asked of, and now answered by, the voters of South Korea.

In the aftermath of the unprovoked and cowardly torpedo attack by North Korea on March 26 resulting in the loss of the South Korean warship Cheonan and 46 of its crewmembers, the South Korean people have now spoken.  Voting in local and regional elections held June 2nd, they have issued a mandate to their government on how to deal with their neighbor to the north. 

While close to 4000 offices were up for grabs, sixteen races served as a critical indicator—i.e., involving big city mayor and provincial governor offices—of support for the ruling Grand National Party (GNP).  The campaign for these offices began May 20th, the same day Seoul released the results of an investigation into the sinking of the Cheonan, conducted by an international team of experts.  That report left no doubt North Korea was responsible for yet another in a long line of unprovoked terrorist attacks against the South that date back to end of the Korean war in 1953.  Against the backdrop of the Korean War Museum in Seoul, President Lee Myung-bak launched the GNP’s campaign along with a condemnation of Pyongyang over the incident.  Of the sixteen critical races, Lee’s party was expected to win at least nine.

With elections looming, Lee took a firm stand against North Korea, telling his people he would no longer tolerate such brutality.  While the South seems, over the years, to have become detached by such outrageous acts of aggression by the North, the Cheonan loss has clearly been the most egregious.  Lee severed many trade links with the North and sought assistance from the UN Security Council to take measures against Pyongyang.  He vowed, “North Korea will pay a price” for its most recent aggression.

As Lee went on the attack against North Korea, the GNP’s main opposition—the Democratic Party (DEP)—went on the attack against Lee.  Despite the international make-up of the Cheonan investigation team, DEP party leaders questioned findings about North Korea’s involvement—even accusing Lee of having rigged the investigation.  And, even if North Korea was involved, the DEP incredulously argued, the Cheonan incident may have been “provoked” by Lee’s abandonment of the “Sunshine Policy”—a policy seeking peace with Pyongyang through appeasement—that had been followed by two previous DEP administrations.  Instead of embracing the Cheonan incident as a “Pearl Harbor moment” to unify the country against North Korean dictator Kim Jong Il, the DEP sought to use it for political gain by undermining Lee’s credibility. 

The good news about the local elections is voter turnout was the highest (54.5%) in 15 years;  the bad news for the GNP is it lost big.  Of the sixteen races, it won only six to DEP’s seven—the remaining three claimed by a small opposition and two independent party candidates.  The DEP also won a majority of all the smaller races.

While Lee had spoken out about punishing the North for the sinking, he never threatened military action.  But this, apparently, was not enough for most voters who, while mad at the North for the incident, still did not wish to risk war on the peninsula, opting for reason (apparently unilaterally applied as Pyongyang has never proven capable of exercising it) over confrontation. 

One of the GNP’s major election losses is most telling about the pulse of the South Korean populace.  It came in Gangwon-do, an eastern province the GNP had held for sixteen years.  Obviously a factor in how votes were cast was the province’s location—situated right along the border with North Korea.  Residents had no desire to see their province become a forward battlefield.

The head of the DEP, Chung Se-kyun, sees the election results as the people’s message for Lee now to “abandon his confrontational policy on North Korea and ease tensions on the Korean peninsula.”  In fact, DEP leaders are demanding Lee apologize to the nation for having turned Cheonan’s loss into an unnecessary national security crisis. 

To add insult to injury, as embarassed GNP party bosses resigned, an audacious Pyongyang announced it was satisfied with the South’s election results.  Feeling its oats and seeking further intimidation of Seoul, Pyongyang warned on Sunday it would retaliate against South Korea for its “intolerable” campaign to punish North Korea through the UN.       

According to exit polls, it appears the deciding factor in the elections was the high percentage of young voters supporting the DEP over the GNP.  Rather than believing North Korea was responsible, they chose instead to blame the Lee administration for falsifying investigation results.  They wanted to believe this rather than feel any sense of moral obligation to punish the North for killing 46 of their fellow countrymen.  Apparently for South Korea’s young voters, taking the moral high road involved too much personal risk and potential sacrifice on their part.

The election results have already had a measured impact on President Lee.  At a speech given days later at a Singapore defense conference, while blaming North Korea for Cheonan’s loss, he later added—for the first time—there was absolutely no possibility of war with the North.  In Memorial Day remarks at home afterwards, he even toned down his anti-North Korea rhetoric by not even mentioning Pyongyang was responsible for the ship’s loss. 

It is discouraging for the US, as an ally that came to Seoul’s defense 60 years ago when it was invaded by the North, to bear witness to the unwillingness of the South Korean people to stand tall against Pyongyang’s bully of a new century.  In the ensuing six decades since the Korean war ended, as life has immensely improved for citizens of the South, it has de-sensitized them—particularly the young—to the realization sometimes personal sacrifice is necessary when tyrants strike out.  Sadly, the good life has left the South Korean people desiring too much of a good thing—so morally disorienting them that they choose to be intimidated by the beast of tyranny rather than slay it. 

There was another time in history when democratic states—intimidated by tyranny—chose to cower from rather than confront it. As free nations suffered the plague of isolationism before World War II, President Franklin Delano Roosevelt reminded them, “There must be recognition of the fact that national morality is as vital as private morality.”  South Korea seems to lack both.

Forty-six South Korean lives were claimed in Pyongyang’s last act of aggression.  What will be the cost in lives sacrificed without accountability by North Korea next time before the people of South Korea find the courage to hold Pyongyang responsible?

Sign Up