A Different Kind of Election - Unlike the Past, When Elections Were Determined by Personality Rather Than Policy, the Candidates Were Forced to Take Stands on Issues

By Hwang, Balbina Y. | The World and I, January 2003 | Go to article overview

A Different Kind of Election - Unlike the Past, When Elections Were Determined by Personality Rather Than Policy, the Candidates Were Forced to Take Stands on Issues


Hwang, Balbina Y., The World and I


On December 19, 2002, South Koreans elected a new president to lead their country for the next five years. This election was an important milestone in South Korea's political development because it cemented once and for all the tradition of a peaceful and fully democratic transition of presidential power.

The election of President Kim Dae Jung in 1997 had been the first-ever stable transition from a ruling to opposition party in South Korea's modern history. On the economic front, with the economy growing at robust rates, the 2002 election marked a striking contrast to the one five years ago, when South Korea faced perhaps its most serious economic crisis since the Korean War. Yet, do a new president and a seemingly thriving economy mean that the political and economic landscape of South Korea has changed?

More likely, the old adage holds true in South Korea: the more things change, the more they stay the same.

The political landscape

The presidential campaign leading up to the election was typically chaotic, contentious, sometimes unruly, and suspense-laden until the very end. While jockeying for leadership began early in the year, it was only in October that the South Korean electorate began to focus on the upcoming elections.

Other events had preoccupied the national attention earlier in the year: the cohosting of the World Cup soccer games, as well as shocking revelations by North Korea that it had been pursuing clandestine nuclear arms programs. But through it all, the Korean public was inundated with the gossip, rumors, scandals, and regionalism that have dominated every presidential campaign since direct election of the president was reintroduced in 1987.

Nevertheless, there were some notable changes in this year's election. Unlike past elections, which were based more on personality than policy, the candidates were forced to take stands on issues. While the depth of political debate may not be akin to the distinct ideological stances that distinguish the parties in, for example, the United States, Korean voters could differentiate candidates based on policy debates, which set an important precedent. It was also the first time that there was a substantive discussion of Korean foreign policy in a presidential campaign.

Among the issues discussed was the future of inter-Korean relations. During previous presidential campaigns, candidates took remarkably similar positions on inter-Korean relations because they feared appearing either too soft or too reckless on North Korea. Although Kim Dae Jung spoke of the need to interact with North Korea in his 1997 presidential bid, the economic crisis forced the issue to the sidelines during that campaign.

This year, by contrast, inter-Korean relations proved to be the most controversial of all the issues. Since the historic South-North summit in June 2000, when the leaders of the two Koreas met for the first time, the opposition Grand National Party (GNP) leader, Lee Hoi Chang, has been critical of President Kim's "sunshine policy," toward North Korea. In contrast, Roh Moo Hyun of the ruling Millenium Democratic Party (MDP), who is the heir apparent of President Kim, promised to maintain, if not expand, interaction with North Korea. Chung Mong Joon, the scion of the Hyundai conglomerate and an independent candidate who entered the race late, had been to North Korea several times, making him the first major presidential candidate to visit the North before running for office.

The differences among the candidates had immediate implications for inter-Korean relations. A Lee victory would have meant a chill in North-South relations and probably would cause much worry inside the North Korean regime. A Roh or Chung victory, on the other hand, would have signaled a continuation of Kim Dae Jung's course of engagement, but with differences in style and personality.

Another foreign policy debate of great significance during the election was the future of relations with the United States.

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