The Wednesday general election was held in familiar territory when it comes to political parties stoking ideological debate, this time driven by North Korea’s nuclear test and long-range rocket launch earlier in the year.
Controversy persisted over Seoul’s unveiling of the joint arrival of 13 North Korean defectors just days before polls were cast, with the attention returning to how ideological battles during past election seasons played out. In throngs, ruling Saenuri Party contenders chanted calls for stronger security, as the opposition candidates denounced the current foreign policies as having failed.
Ideological strife has often held sway in previous elections, though its extent varied. Nearly all presidential polls in democratic Korean history have seen communist-labeling attempts and disclosures of potential spies either by the incumbent administration, challengers or the National Intelligence Service.
In other cases, North Korea itself staged an atomic test, missile launch or other provocation, fanning heated debate over how to resolve the nuclear issue and perennial cross-border standoff.
In 2012, for instance, the then-ruling Grand National Party had been facing increasingly bitter voter sentiment ahead of the general election, prompting its leadership to change the party’s name to today’s Saenuri Party and vow sweeping reforms. Then Pyongyang fired a long-range rocket about one month before voting began, as calls for tighter security and harsher sanctions ensued. Saenuri Party then won a majority in the National Assembly.
The conservative camp was also seen to have benefited from strained inter-Korean relations in the 2008 general election following Pyongyang’s demand to pull South Korean government officials out of the Gaeseong industrial park.
The correlation between elections with the North Korean factor was blunter in the more distant past.
During the 1997 presidential election, three officials at Cheong Wa Dae were found to have met with those at the North’s Korea Asia-Pacific Peace Committee in Beijing. They reportedly asked for an armed protest near the armistice line to boost the ratings of the GNP candidate Lee Hoi-chang, supported by President Kim Young-sam at the time. Though the plan had not been realized, it created a nationwide sensation.
That year, the Agency for National Security Planning, predecessor to the NIS, also created a stir upon news that it had bribed a Korean-American to disseminate rumors that Kim Dae-jung had fostered ties with North Korean strongman Kim Jong-il.
The 1987 bombing of a Korean Air flight by North Korean agent Kim Hyon-hui, which took place about two weeks ahead of a presidential vote, played a key role in the victory of Roh Tae-woo, the front-runner of the ruling Democratic Justice Party. Kim’s transport to Seoul was broadcast live one day before the polling stations opened.
In contrast, the Kim Dae-jung administration’s announcement of an inter-Korean summit prior to the 2000 general election backfired, helping consolidate the conservative base and bring defeat to his own progressive camp.
Likewise, the liberal Democratic Party swept the 2010 local elections despite the Lee Myung-bak government’s campaign against the North in the wake of its sinking of a South Korean corvette.
In recent years, however, ideology debate appears to have relatively waned as democracy takes deeper roots and the economy, welfare and other core issues creep up the agenda.
Though the impact of the latest controversy over the uncovering of the 13 defectors will remain impossible to put in numerical terms, critics call for all policymakers and politicians to refrain from attempting to cash in on ideological inclinations as an election tool.
“Given its unprecedented speediness, the joint defection could not have been possible without the relevant agencies’ meticulous planning and preparations,” said Cheong Seong-chang, head of unification strategy research at the Sejong Institute.
“Similar cases involving the agencies’ political intervention may well come about in next year’s presidential election if prevention steps are not taken. ... North Korea policy should no more be compromised for, or fall victim to, domestic politics.”
By Shin Hyon-hee (email@example.com)