Thursday, September 20, 2012

3-Way Election Battle Fun Is Go!

Yesterday, entrepreneur-turned-professor Ahn Cheol Soo finally declared his candidacy in the upcoming 18th South Korean presidential election. Although one could argue that the extended period of indecision which preceded the declaration doesn't bode well in terms of Ahn's decisiveness in the face of nasty, brutish and short Northeast Asian politics, it certainly did all us election watchers a favor because now we only have to follow the mud-slinging for three months or so before it's all over.

What is particularly noticeable about the field at this point is that it does actually offer a genuine choice. This is something that will be rather unfamiliar to people more accustomed to observing the machinations in Washington or any of a number of other western capitals, where there is about as much choice as there is in Pyongyang. Take the UK as an example; although David Cameron has lurched to the right somewhat since coming to power, he was more-or-less indistinguishable from Gordon Brown when Britain went to the ballot box in May 2010.

This being Destination Pyongyang, we ought to take North Korea policy as evidence of this broad choice. Handily, it is as stark in this arena as in any other.

First of all, ruling Saenuri Party candidate Park Geun Hye is offering the notion of 'Trustpolitik'. A softer version of incumbent Lee Myung Bak's angry refusal to deal with North Korea until it agrees to pursue what the international community wants, including, perhaps not unreasonably, an apology for the 2010 Cheonan sinking and Yeonpyeong Island shelling, Park does at least propose to talk with all Kim Jong Eun's men, but she has also made it clear that progress must be incremental and premised on reciprocal acts of goodwill from Pyongyang.

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic United Party has chosen former Roh Moo Hyun chief-of-staff Moon Jae In. Moon, who has yet to mark himself out as something more than a dyed-in-the-wool Roh man, has vowed to roll back the years and resume the provision of large-scale, practically unconditional aid to the North. The only imponderable here is whether there is the broad political will to do such things on the scale of old when the policy's philosophical underpinnings took such a beating last time.

Last but not least, there is also Ahn. Unaffiliated with any particular party so not beholden to any of them (at least in principle and at least for the time being), Ahn didn't say anything of any merit about North Korea while declaring his candidacy, but that is mostly because he didn't say anything of any merit about anything.

Fortunately, however, he did recently move to position himself politically by releasing a book, "Ahn Cheol Soo's Thoughts." Although it had more than a hint of "Who, me? I'm not running for office, goodness me no, I merely want everyone to know my political leanings. Lo, I have penned this little pamphlet" to it, the book was useful for discerning Ahn's start point on North Korea.

It's quite simple; Ahn wants to be all things to all men. In essence, he thinks Lee Myung Bak is all stick, Kim Dae Jung and Roh Moo Hyun were all carrot, and that what is needed is a middle ground approach featuring aid and assistance alongside criticism and pressure on human rights.

A pleasing place to start, obviously, but there is an obvious question. Namely; will North Korea allow Ahn to continue down such an ideal path if he ever gets to the point of implementation? Past precedent would tend to suggest probably not.

Coincidentally, there was some other good news this morning as, for probably the last time until December 20th, the two extremes of the domestic media managed to agree on something.

Both the conservative Chosun Ilbo and liberal Hankyoreh concluded in their 'Ahn declaration' editorials that, since the founder of AhnLab has decided to enter the presidential race almost absurdly late in the day, he is now duty-bound to hurry up and tell the people of the country what he intends to do if they elect him. My advice is that you enjoy this moment of synchronicity, for we are unlikely to see another one like it for quite a while.

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