Asia Program


Korea's Presidential Election: An Early Look

January 29, 2002 // 11:00pm

Summary of a meeting with Choi Yearn Hong, professor and chairman, Environmental Policy Program, University of Seoul Graduate School of Urban Sciences, and political columnist, Korea Times

South Koreans go to the polls on December 19 to elect a successor to President Kim Dae Jung. On January 30, the Asia Program hosted a luncheon seminar where one of Korea's foremost political analysts spoke on the upcoming election, its significance in a South Korean context, and its potential impact on American interests on the Korean peninsula.

According to Choi Yearn Hong, Lee Hoi Chang of the opposition Grand National Party is the frontrunner in all polls. Lee, who entered electoral politics only a few years ago after a career as a supreme court justice, enjoys a reputation as "Mr. Clean." Since influence peddling and corruption scandals have badly tarred the current government, this reputation for probity gives Lee a considerable advantage in the race to succeed Kim. Lee's most serious challenger for the GNP nomination is Park Guen Hye, the daughter of longtime Korean strongman Park Chung Hee. Were Park to be elected president, she would be South Korea's first female president. Her most serious threat to Lee, however, lies not in the possibility of her snatching the GNP nomination from him, but of her bolting the party and running as a third-party candidate in the general election, thereby splitting the GNP vote base.

The Korean constitution bars Kim Dae Jung from seeking a second term as president. The frontrunner for the nomination of Kim's Millennium Democratic Party is Rhee In Je. Rhee was once a leader of the party that evolved a few years ago into the GNP. During the last presidential election, in 1997, Rhee sought and lost his party's nomination, and then ran as a third-party candidate, splitting the conservative vote and probably costing Lee the election. So a Lee-Rhee contest in 2002 would have personal undertones that could make for a interesting race.

Consideration of the upcoming presidential race led to a more generalized discussion of the role played by political parties in Korea's current democratic system. Political parties, according to Choi, are little more than personal entourages; personality comes first in Korean politics, then parties, he remarked. In this sense, for all the remarkable changes in Korean political life since the country's first free elections fifteen years ago, political parties themselves are still immature institutions that bear little resemblance to their American counterparts.

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