The popularity of software mogul Ahn Cheol-soo--particularly among the younger generation--is shaking up South Korean politics. The country's ruling party (Hannara or the Grand National Party [GNP]) now seems to be engaged in a major makeover in advance of the April National Assembly elections. The changes extend to a new name (the Saenuri party), which itself generated an immediate backlash from party members. According to friends in Seoul, there is still no dominant translation of Saenuri; we have heard New World, New Horizon and New Frontier; think JFK. The changes were not only cosmetic. The party also formed an "emergency council" to address the government's falling popularity. The party’s conservative platform has fared poorly in the face of populist sentiment and growing public concern over "economic polarization."
According to the council’s press release, the new platform, called “promise to the people,” embraces a welfare-state and the idea of “democratizing the economy.” Progressives in South Korea have long sought to reform the country’s monopolistic chaebol structure; it may seem strange that a conservative party is advancing greater state involvement in the economy. But recall that the party’s standard-bearer is the daughter of Park Chung Hee, a firm believer in industrial policy. The country’s constitution has a surprisingly expansive role for the state, stipulating that “[t]he State may regulate and coordinate economic affairs in order to maintain the balanced growth and stability of the national economy, to ensure proper distribution of income, to prevent the domination of the market and the abuses of economic power and to democratize the economy through harmony among the economic agents” (Article 119, Section 2).
As we noted back in August, signs have been afoot that the GNP is looking at its North Korean platform as well. Recent polling information from the Asan Institute suggests that LMB’s strategy is widely perceived as a failure. The new platform calls for a change in North Korea policy through the principle of “harmonizing” relations and greater "flexibility." A rough translation from the press release (original here):
“[We] made clear our philosophy and vision towards reunification based on a free democracy and market economy [in the new platform]. But in terms of our North Korea policy, we clearly put forward a change in its direction by the harmonizing principle and flexibility. While we shall firmly deal with security threats such as the North Korean nuclear problem, policies that seek mutual benefits and the recovery of co-essentiality of the people [minjok, 민족] through South-North dialogue and exchange and cooperation will be expanded. It is also made clear that we will continue to improve human rights conditions in North Korea as well as humanitarian support. While removing [the phrase] of “inducing reform and opening and transition toward free democracy in North Korea,” [the new platform] clearly states a policy that promotes peace on the Korean peninsula and opening of North Korea by supporting it to participate as a responsible member of the international community.”
Party platforms are purposefully ambiguous, and the GNP’s long-standing goal of “peaceful reunification under democracy and a market economy" survived the transition to the Saenuri. But the party has been more divided on North Korea policy than most recognize; it is easy to find articles that outline how conservatives can also seek peace, reunification, and improved inter-Korean relations. After all, it was Roh Tae Woo’s Democratic Justice party—a forefather of the GNP and Saenuri—that sought improved relations through his Nordpolitik. Nonetheless, the tack in strategy is hard to miss.
On the other side of the aisle, the Democratic party is also struggling with its own coalition-building efforts in a bid to find the political center. The left has also gotten a name-change (now the Democratic Unified Party [DUP]). The section of the DUP platform dealing with North-South relations is called “North Korea policy along with peace and reunification”:
“We honor and accede to the June 15 and October 4 joint declarations. We seek to strengthen exchange and cooperation in economic, social and cultural fields while establishing a peace regime between the South and the North. We promote a North Korea policy that accompanies peace and reunification in order to become a leader in the era of peace and prosperity in Northeast Asia.”
The references to the summit documents and the concept of “peace and prosperity” harken back unambiguously to Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun. State recognition of the two summit documents as equivalent to treaty commitments has been a long-standing goal of the DPRK.
We should not overestimate the significance of North Korea policy in South Korea's electoral landscape. As we noted here and here, the political salience of the issue is surprisingly low. Nonetheless, given the difficulties that LMB is facing, the Saenuri appears to be looking for help with swing voters wherever it can get it, including on North Korea.