An odious brand of crony-corporatism has prevailed in the South Korean economy, spearheaded by the chaebol, large-scale conglomerates like Hyundai, LG, and Samsung. While these recognizable brands have indeed brought much wealth and opportunity to the southern half of the peninsula, Koreans on the lower end of the economic food chain feel neglected by the nation’s mega-corporations and the wealthy political elite behind these companies. Prior to taking office, President Lee ran the Hyundai Engineering and Construction conglomerate, and has pardoned the chairs of Samsung and Hyundai Motors from jail time over convictions of fraud. Park’s opponent, the liberal Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, has accused the country’s conglomerate-dominated economic model of being the main contributing factor to economic inequality, in addition to crediting Park’s father with developing the corporatist economic model still prevalent today.
The defeated Moon Jae-in spoke of increasing taxation on the wealthy and providing small businesses with economic protection from the chaebol. President Lee’s passing of a free-trade agreement with the United States enraged many working class people and farmers who fear the flooding of Korean markets with cheap foreign agricultural products. Moon publicly voiced his disapproval of the trade regime and vowed to re-negotiate it; this position resonated well with young leftists, but popular disdain for establishment parties like Moon’s Democratic United Party proved to be a major obstacle for the left. Park, on the other hand, has toed the party line of President Lee by championing economic and diplomatic ties with Washington, while resisting calls for taxing the chaebol in fear of hampering their growth. Park has played more of a centrist role than one would expect from a conservative ticket by advocating college tuition cuts, maternity assistance, free school lunches, and other social welfare programs, but has come under fire for being unable to answer basic questions about minimum wage figures during a debate, prompting tough statements from the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions:
“It is terribly discouraging when a person who wants to become president does not even know the country’s minimum wage, which is a minimal right for survival and the first step toward a welfare state.”
The failures of Lee Myung-bak’s loathed tenure are none more apparent than in the field of inter-Korean relations. As Kim Jong-un consolidates power in Pyongyang and toys with introducing seedlings of economic reform, it is high time for a change in frequency from the Blue House in Seoul toward more amenable relations between the two Koreas. Although Park has publically stood clear of Lee’s tough stance, a closer look at her foreign policy signifies more acquiesce than divergence from the status quo. In a 2011 article published by Park in the Council on Foreign Relation’s Foreign Affairs website titled, “A New Kind of Korea,” the incoming president talks of adopting a policy of “trustpolitik,” aimed at developing a minimum level of trust between the two Koreas. Just as it exists under the current leadership of President Lee, the cornerstone of Park’s policy revolves around Pyongyang abandoning its nuclear program and de-weaponizing, or suffering the consequences.
Park is setting herself up to fail, and having herself visited Pyongyang to negotiate with Kim Jong il, one would assume she would be less naïve on the issue of Pyongyang’s nuclear program and the importance it holds to North Koreans. After the death of Kim il-Sung in 1994, his son oversaw general economic mismanagement and a series of natural disasters that led to widespread starvation. To legitimize his tenure, Kim Jong-il introduced Songun politics, a military-first policy aimed at appeasing the military and building up national defenses. The attainment of a “nuclear deterrent” has been trumpeted as a major accomplishment in domestic North Korean propaganda, despite very little concrete evidence known about these weapons, their capability, or the status of Pyongyang’s nuclear program.
It is unrealistic to expect Pyongyang to give up its nuclear program, primarily because achieving the status of a nuclear state (despite whether or not they actually have achieved that status) is Kim Jong-il’s main “accomplishment.” The upper echelons of leadership in the Korean Worker’s Party surely hold dear the lessons of Gaddafi after dismantling Libya’s nuclear program. Pyongyang continues to pursue provocative missile tests and belligerent rhetoric because they view this as a means of ensuring their security, the fact that the Pyongyang power-dynasty has moved into a third generation is proof enough that this policy has worked for them. Park has spoke of taking a middle-of-the-road approach, and buttressed an inter-Korean dialogue with Kim Jong-un. These are goals that represent a more practical shift, but if Park’s policy rests solely on being open to Pyongyang only if they disarm, the incoming administration will find itself mired in President Lee’s legacy of tension. In line with the militarism of her conservative party, Park has spoken of plans to create an East Asian military alliance and appears willing to continue the hardline against Pyongyang:
“Asian states must slow down their accelerating arms buildup, reduce military tensions, and establish a cooperative security regime that would complement existing bilateral agreements and help resolve persistent tensions in the region.”
“South Korea must first demonstrate, through a robust and credible deterrent posture, that it will no longer tolerate North Korea’s increasingly violent provocations. It must show Pyongyang that the North will pay a heavy price for its military and nuclear threats. This approach is not new, but in order to change the current situation, it must be enforced more vigorously than in the past.”
The incoming South Korean administration has lots of problems on its hands; managing an ageing population with some of the world’s lowest birth rates, tackling increasing prostitution rates, high suicide rates and other social ills, and coping with an economic slowdown in China, the nation’s biggest export market. South Korea’s economic development has lifted millions out of poverty and into the economic space of high-income earners in the span of a few decades. It would be foolish for Park to pursue the foreign policy of her predecessor and risk bringing about a reignited Korean war and all that would come with it; enormous civilian casualty rates, an unprecedented refugee crisis, and a major handicap on the South Korean economy. All signs point to Park Geun-hye continuing along the same economic trajectory as the incumbent President Lee, perhaps with a greater emphasis on social welfare programs. The next five years will be critical for inter-Korean relations. In attempting to emerge from her father’s shadow, one would hope that she could address the faults in the economic system her father helped create by reducing the income disparity, and also learn from his mistakes by allowing free and open political dissent and total freedom of expression.