Just over a month before South Korean presidential election, Lee Hoi Chang has announced that he’s running as an independent candidate. I have now seen it all. So can he win? Hell if I know. To an observer of long American political campaigns, it’s hard to see how anyone could enter a race so late and have a chance of winning it, but this most definitely is not American politics. Korean politics is famously mercurial; it’s about as exact, empirical, and predictable a science as, well, Scientology. Nor does extended study of either field seem to lead to much universal understanding (at least, not if South Park is right). Or, maybe Korean politics just doesn’t translate well. Either way, I freely admit I’m in over my head here, and unless you’re Korean, so should you.
If only Lee were running in Koreatown, or in Centerville, Virginia. Unfortunately, he’s running for the presidency of a country that probably doesn’t exist anymore. If a free-market, pro-democracy, pro-unification, and pro-American politician can still win a Korean election, Lee won’t win because of those views, but because everyone else implodes. Lee needs to make a very quick, very realistic assessment of whether that’s plausible or take the risk of doing what Kim Jong Il has only dreamed of doing — installing “Comrade” Chung Dong-Young in the Blue House.
Welcome to the hung-over daybreak after President Roh Moo-Hyun’s off-key noraebang presidency. Roh’s deep unpopularity and the obliteration of his party suggest that there should be a political market for adult supervision, if not repentance. Enter Lee Hoi-Chang, who lost to Roh Moo Hyun by just 2.5% in 2002, a year when the evil twin possessed the soul of the “good” one, and rank manipulation of hatred for America decided the course of both Koreas in different ways. Lee begins his third run for the presidency at 72, which means he’d be 77 in the last year of his term. His public career has been long, starting with his appointment as a judge at just 25. I could write you a bio of Lee, but the BBC has already done that.
Lee was tarnished by some funding scandals after the 2002 election, but they’re not widely remembered by anyone except the Hankroyeh (yet). What sticks is a reputation for honesty and principle, at least compared to his peers. What also sticks is how Roh tried to exploit the opposition’s scandals, and how badly that whole ten-percent thing backfired on him.
One early poll shows that far more people oppose Lee’s entry into the race than support it, and it’s not hard to see why. What remains of the discredited left opposes Lee’s candidacy because it opposes Lee’s views and can’t bear the idea of him turning the country away from the edge of the cliff as decisively as Lee might. Conservatives are worried that his entry will lend credibilty to scandal-mongering about Lee Myung-Bak from the left. Above all, they worry that it will split the conservative vote, just as conservatives had nearly regained their power after a decade in the political minority (Lee M.B. is at 37.9% to Lee H.C.’s 24%). And for all his faults, isn’t Lee Myung-Bak still a lot better than uber-leftist Chung Dong-Young? That had been my working theory, and apparently that of a few others. Chung is polling at a blissfully awful 13.9%, and the fact that he’s the closest thing this race has to an incumbent makes that great news for Korea and ample proof that the people are prepared to throw out the Korean left and their experiment with it. Seeing that repudiation expressed in a ballot result is enough to make you glad Chung characteristically defied all reason and ran. Until Lee entered this race, Chung’s most likely way into the Blue House was in the belly of North Korean tank. Today, the leftist Hankyoreh is clinging to a slender reed of hope.
Only two things have been missing from the Korean conservatives’ campaigns for the last two years: an agenda and decent candidates. And yet they still win. Perhaps realizing that they could win elections on negative turnout alone, they’ve mostly run against the excesses of their opponents while articulating few principles to really challenge the left, especially where it went horriby wrong. Just next door to the greatest act of national self-immolation since the Khmer Rouge fled Phnom Penh, Park Geun-Hye’s North Korea policy has been inert, triangulated, and Clintonian: “flexible and future-oriented” on abetting more years of famine, terror, and atrocities comparable in scale and depravity to Mauthausen and Tuol Sleng. History is unforgiving of such things. And rather than repudiating her father’s authoritarian legacy, she has basked in the desires of some to see the return of more “decisive” leadership. Her occasional support for censoring opposing views reinforces our worst fears, though Roh Moo-Hyun’s rule was hardly a paragon of free speech, either. Park was bested by Lee Myung-Bak for the GNP nomination, but she emerged from the race with a reputation for personal gravitas, maturity, integrity, and cool under fire. She may now be the race’s new king-maker. As of this morning, she’s backing Lee Myung-Bak. In a move that’s classic Park, she backed the safe, consensus candidate, but left herself room to wriggle away from Lee if his troubles deepen.
Lee Myung Bak, the current front-runner, has all of Park’s bad qualities and none of her good ones. Several years ago, I wrote this profile of Lee Myung-Bak and described his Stalinist-sounding public-works schemes, his poor track record for ethics in government, and his tendency to say adolescent or zany things. Who can forget the time when, as mayor, he offered the city of Seoul to Jesus Christ, despite the fact that Seoul’s population must be nearly half Buddhist? Lee still hasn’t dropped the idea of building a canal through the mountainous spine of a peninsula ringed with excellent, modern ports. Since then, Lee M.B. has been running to outdo Chung Dong-Young on the amount of the taxpayers’ largesse he would funnel to Kim Jong Il. (Yes, this is what passes for “conservative” in today’s Korea.) Lee M.B. has proposed a new industrial park to harness North Korean slave labor. Much sillier is his idea of raising North Korea’s per capita income to $3,000. Only a fool can doubt where the vast majority of this wealth would end up: aimed at Seoul and Osaka, ticking on the wrists of Pyongyang bureaucrats, and flushed down the urinals of this palace. Either Lee M.B. (a) doubts that, and you can complete the syllogism yourself, or (b) he’s being deliberately insincere to get votes. I prefer Theory (b), but neither option should give Korean voters much comfort. And now, he finds himself immersed in a stock-manipulation scandal. Question the timing if you will. Like last-minute candidacies, last-minute prosecutions are a fact of Korean political life.
Lee probably can’t win in South Korea for the same reason that I wish he could, and for the same reasons that South Korea and America cannot long continue the charade that they’re still allies (as opposed to trading partners, and nations on generally friendly terms). While Lee’s free-market views are will probably help him with voters who’ve observed the effects of Roh’s redistributionism and regulation, polls generally show that anti-Japanese and anti-American sentiment are still issues that favor the left. Taking on those views means taking on Korean society’s ferocious nationalism, xenophobia, and protectionism. Calculating what kind of North Korea policy South Korean voters want is a tougher call. The widespread perception that America has compromised with Kim Jong Il (some would say caved to him and betrayed all of its declared principles) has deflated the issue’s power this year, in a way that’s unhelpful to the left. Overall, however, Korean voters probably still favor the kind of “engagement” with the North that perpetuates Kim Jong Il’s misrule, and which is therefore wildly incompatible with America’s basic national security interests.
Read the numbers, starting with the mandatory disclaimer: yes, public opinion in Korea shifts wildly over short periods of time, small sample sizes, loaded questions, etcetera, fine, whatever. They still show a Korea that’s steadily shifted away from a strategic convergence on North Korea that was the foundation of the U.S.-Korea alliance. Roh Moo-Hyun didn’t lead the Korean people to those views; he is merely a reflection of them. They were propogated by a newly influential group of 386 radicals who rose to power with Roh, and who then subsidized, nurtured, presented, and protected a flood of noxious emissions from labor unions, schoolteachers, extremist professors, celebrities, media figures large and small, and — yes — North Korean agents. At the same time, differing views were suppressed. Time will reveal how persistent this brainwashing has been.
For now, America has chosen to paper over its differences with, and about, North Korea. When we learn, again, that Kim Jong Il has cheated his way through this latest episode, America will remember that its interests do not lie in perpetuating Kim’s misrule, directly or through South Korea, and they will erupt again. For America’s interests and Korea’s, it will matter very much who leads Korea at the time of that awakening. But even in the unlikely event that Korea votes clear-eyed adult supervision into the Blue House, there’s no guarantee that that leader will have a mandate for wiser statesmanship, especially when America isn’t practicing it, and most especially if the winning candidate doesn’t win a majority of the votes.
Perhaps the best we can hope is that Lee Hoi-Chang can give Lee Myung-Bak a firm shove away from the whirlpool of his own grandiose and unattainable projects and toward more sensible, consistent policies on govenrnment spending and North Korea. Whatever hope he offers, however, Lee Hoi-Chang owes his country a speedy and sober analysis of just what they are. If Lee really can win, so much the better. If he can’t, then he should bow out and let the country can unite around the lesser of all remaining evils.
* The Chosun Ilbo reports that on October 3rd, State Department negotiators reached a “secret” deal with the North Koreans to remove them from the terror-sponsor list, notwithstanding the North’s continuing acts or sponsorship of terrorism. Lovely. If you’d like to commemorate this betrayal and get an idea of just where it will take our relationship with our most important ally in Asia (hint: not Korea), you can now order your own DVD of the prize-winning documentary “Abduction: The Megumi Yokota Story.”
* Jay Lefkowitz’s assistant, Christian Whiton, whom the left-wing Hankyoreh characterizes as a “senior U.S. envoy,” has called on world leaders to meet with North Korean defectors. Whiton may be a well-meaning person — I don’t claim to know — but I wouldn’t even describe Lefkowitz in those terms, and it says much of how successfully Lefkowitz’s role has been marginalized that hardly anyone, including the North Koreans, pays any attention to him these days. The Hanky may not get it, but the North Koreans understand that Whiton lacks the status to speak authoritatively for the U.S. government. They can see that the Administration is trying to throw a bone to persons such as myself. Very few of us are fooled anymore.
* As Al-Qaeda is driven from Iraq’s cities, the U.S. and Iraqi armies are pursuing them to their last strongholds. The most important measure of a counterinsurgency is not casualties, though they are falling, it is the seizure of insurgent leaders and weapons. Although those numbers are encouraging, I believe that predictions of victory are still very premature.