Seoul made it official Thursday that North Korea is responsible for the deadly sinking of its warship in March, sending political parties to redo their math ahead of the nationwide local elections now just two weeks away.
A multinational team of investigators concluded a North Korean torpedo wrecked and sank Seoul’s Navy corvette Cheonan near their tense western sea border, a revelation that will likely highlight national security and swing the nation’s political pendulum considerably to the right ahead of the June 2 poll. The March 26 explosion cost the lives of 46 sailors in one of the worst naval disasters in South Korean history.
The increased tension on the Korean Peninsula is widely viewed to work in favor of President Lee Myung-bak’s conservative party in the elections, which will serve as a mid-term test for Lee and remap the political topography ahead of the 2012 presidential vote.
Among some 3,991 posts up for grabs, rival political parties are particularly focused on winning the 16 mayoral and gubernatorial positions that will determine the fate of massive ventures the Lee government hopes to accomplish before its term is up.
Dubbing North Korea’s attack “an unforgivable crime,” the chairman of the ruling Grand National Party called on the government to “get even” with the communist state that is technically still at war with the South.
“North Korea has clearly violated our armistice and betrayed our faith,” Chairman Chung Mong-joon said. “It is time for our nation to unite and work with the international community in coming up with a rightful measure that will show North Korea the weight of what it has done.”
The conservative ruling party chief also drew a line between the issue and the upcoming elections, apparently cautious of upsetting voter sentiment by dragging the matter too deep into its campaigning.
“Our party has no intention whatsoever to use this issue politically. We know this is a matter that cannot and should not become a source of political competition,” he said.
While Pyongyang continues to deny its role in the incident, Seoul and Washington plan to soon map out “stern countermeasures” upon their coordinated belief that North Korea is indeed the culprit, according to officials in Seoul.
Regardless of the rival parties’ stance on the matter, the renewed inter-Korean tension will wield strong influence on swing voters and unite the right-wing vote, pundits say.
“The investigation results will likely emerge as a key issue, pushing aside all other factors ahead of the elections,” said Lee Chul-hee of the Korea Society Opinion Institute. “The increased attention on national security could drive younger voters away from polls while uniting the older, right-wing voters - the exact effect the ruling party is hoping for.”
Professor Kim Hyung-joon of Myungji University agreed.
“Calls for stronger national security will naturally unite the conservative voters,” he said. “Voters will not be able to ignore this matter in the elections as the North Korean issue has always been directly related to the country’s economy.”
Backing the presumptions, recent polls show the number of floating voters has decreased rapidly this week, with elderly conservative voters increasingly expressing their favoritism toward the ruling party candidates.
The fact that many of the ruling party candidates are incumbent district chiefs vying for a second or third term -- such as the case in Seoul, Incheon and Gyeonggi -- is another advantageous factor for the GNP, professor Kim said.
“During unstable and uncertain times, people do not want too many changes to take place. The opposition party will definitely find it harder to take the seats from the ruling party,” he said.
Liberal opposition parties, including the main opposition Democratic Party, are striving to fend off voter backlash by putting an emphasis on the Lee government’s alleged lack of crisis management abilities. Better handling of the incident could have prevented or at least minimized the damages, they claim.
“I ask for an official apology from the president and the resignation of his Cabinet members including Prime Minister Chung Un-chan,” said Chung Sye-kyun, chairman of the DP. “How could the people bypass such an apparent inability to defend the nation? The government must take the due responsibility.”
Park Jie-won, floor leader of the main opposition party, called the timing of the government’s announcement “peculiar,” accusing the governing camp of attempting to capitalize on the national disaster for political gain.
“Why is the government announcing the investigation results on the day the official campaign period began? This is such peculiar timing, especially considering the secretive stance the government has persisted on for the past two months,” he said to party members in a meeting Thursday.
The official campaign period for the June 2 elections also began on Thursday.
The main opposition party, which has been striving to fend off its large rival by merging candidacy with smaller parties, is facing a slight, but clear, decrease in voter support in some of the most closely contested regions, recent polls show.
According to a Wednesday survey conducted by polling group Opinion, the GNP’s Oh Se-hoon is far ahead of his rival candidate Han Myeong-sook of the DP by a ratio of 59.7 percent to 36.4 percent in the race for Seoul mayor.
Ruling party candidates are also maintaining a solid lead in the races for Gyeonggi and Incheon chiefs, showed the poll that surveyed 1,500 adults in the Seoul metropolitan area.
A poll jointly conducted by the nation’s three major broadcasters earlier this week also showed ruling party candidates leading in the races for Seoul mayor, Gyeonggi Province governor and Incheon mayor by large margins.
As an issue that could overturn the situation, the one year anniversary of the death of former President Roh Moo-hyun is coming up this weekend.
Roh, a symbolic leader representing the nation’s liberal political forces, leapt to his death on May 23 last year amid a corruption investigation into his aides and relatives.
Roh’s suicide sparked speculation that the Lee government conducted a politically-biased probe on his immediate predecessor to undermine his achievements, dealing a blow to Lee and his party.
While the main opposition party may have its fingers crossed, experts remain skeptical over whether the upcoming anniversary will match the clout of the North Korean factor.
“National security remains to be the unchallengeable top issue in our country. It has the power to blur out all other political agendas,” said professor Kang Won-taek of Sungsil University. “The Roh factor will surely affect voter sentiment, but how much affect, remains to be the question.”
By Shin Hae-in (email@example.com