With a presidential election looming later this year, South Korean politics are in a state of flux.
While the ruling Saenuri Party won the April 11 general election by a whisker, that should not be taken as a public endorsement of its policies.
The conservative Saenuri Party narrowly managed to cling to a single majority in the 300-member national assembly by clinching 152 seats.
Opposition parties posted gains, but not quite enough to outstrip the ruling party.
The Democratic United Party won 127 seats, while the Unified Progressive Party, its junior electoral ally, garnered 13 seats.
President Lee Myung-bak is the figurehead of the Saenuri Party, but it is nominally led by Park Geun-hye.
Lee has been struggling to win public favor amid a series of scandals involving irregularities by his aides.
Park distanced herself from Lee during the campaign and portrayed him as representative of the old guard.
She changed the familiar name of her Grand National Party to Saenuri, which means new community in Korean.
Park deliberately picked red as a symbol of her party, fully aware that conservatives have an aversion to that color because of its association with communism.
On the policy front, she pledged to expand welfare and improve people's living standards. She also proposed measures to regulate the expansion of "chaebol" corporate conglomerates to emphasize her party's rebirth.
Park's father was Park Chung-hee, who led a military dictatorship in the 1960s and 70s. He was assassinated in Seoul in 1979.
He is credited with laying the foundations for South Korea's spectacular economic growth, known as the "miracle on the Han river."
South Korea remains an economic juggernaut to this day. Last year, its total trade topped $1 trillion for the first time.
Lee likes to boast that his policy of promoting free trade agreements have borne fruit.
That may be. But the fruit has been concentrated in a handful of major corporate groups, whose earnings have mostly been directed at foreign investments instead of generating jobs at home.
Rising prices continue to play havoc with people's lives.
Park Geun-hye, who intends to run for president in December, is sensitive to the sense of unfairness that permeates society.
During a news conference held after election day, she emphasized her resolve to stay close to the people.
"I visited every corner of the country," she said. "I met many people in markets, alleyways and other scenes of everyday life. I will never forget their hardships and tears."
While a number of those close to Lee were ousted, many of the new faces in the parliament have ties to Park.
She has such a grip on power in the Saenuri Party that one political scientist called it the "Park Geun-hye Party."
She almost certainly will contest the presidential election on her party's ticket.
In the meantime, Han Myung-sook of the Democratic United Party resigned as party leader as a gesture of responsibility for its electoral defeat.
During the campaign, Han urged voters to pass judgment on the government and the ruling party, which she said favor the richest 1 percent. However, her calls were perceived mostly as slogans and failed to gain currency with voters.
Confusion during inter-party talks to field unified candidates to represent the opposition bloc, along with intraparty discord, also took their toll. The sluggish turnout rate of 54 percent worked to the ruling Saenuri Party's advantage.
In both proportional representation and single-seat constituencies, however, the Democratic United Party and the Unified Progressive Party, when combined, won more votes than the Saenuri Party in national totals. Victories were thin in many constituencies, whether for the ruling or the opposition bloc.
The races were fought as North Korea prepared to test a long-range ballistic missile under the guise of a satellite launch.
South Koreans were indifferent to the stratagems to build up the image of North Korea's new leader. In fact, the impact of the famous "North wind" was minimal.
The well-off versus ordinary folk, the elderly versus the youth, Seoul versus the countryside: Those rifts cut across a society that is said to be increasingly polarized into the rich and the poor. Presenting a road map toward mending those rifts will be key to success for candidates in the presidential election later this year.
Besides the showdown of the two major political parties, I also focused my attention on the election debut of the Green Party Korea, which is calling for nuclear power to be phased out.
The government appears set to continue building more nuclear reactors and expanding the export of nuclear technologies.
"We should not give up on nuclear power just because of the accident at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant," Lee said, referring to the disaster last year.
The ruling Saenuri Party fielded a nuclear scientist from a government-affiliated research institution to lead its proportional representation list.
South Korean media argued that nuclear power is a requisite for economic growth, and seldom gave prominence to anti-nuclear civil movements in their headlines.
Opinion polls, however, told a different story. More than 60 percent of respondents called for either a reduction or total abolition of nuclear power generation.
The move to create a Green Party in South Korea began in earnest in autumn last year. Citizens who were active in environmental nongovernmental groups and consumer cooperative movements began recruiting members to qualify as a political party. They mobilized the Internet and social networking services to gradually expand their following, which culminated in a party founding conference on March 4.
The general election, which is held every four years, was only slightly over a month away, but the party managed to nominate two candidates to run in constituencies that host nuclear plants.
Koo Ja-sang ran in a constituency on the east end of Busan that contains the Kori nuclear power plant, the country's first such facility.
Koo, 53, has been active in environmental protection movements involving NGOs in Busan.
On March 13, the public learned about a cover-up of an accident at the Kori nuclear plant.
All power supply had been lost temporarily on Feb. 9 at the plant's No. 1 reactor.
Yoo Chang-yul, who represented the opposition, and independent Choi Hyun-dol, a former local county magistrate, tried to woo voters with calls for immediate decommissioning of the Kori No. 1 reactor. This represented a turnaround for Choi as he had once approved building new reactors on the site.
"No existing political parties and politicians, who have promoted the use of nuclear power, can decommission the reactor," Koo said during speeches on streets to differentiate himself from his rivals. "Only with a Green Party represented in the national assembly, like in Germany, can we realize a departure from nuclear power."
But Busan is famously known as a reserved seat for the Grand National Party (now Saenuri Party). Koo was given a cold shoulder even by villagers living next door to the Kori plant. The villagers are demanding a collective resettlement.
"A small party can't achieve anything," a villager said.
The Saenuri Party's candidate, Ha Tae-kyung, emerged victorious with 45 percent of the vote. Koo gained a skimpy 2.6 percent.
However, advocates of immediate decommissioning of the Kori No. 1 reactor outstripped Ha in the combined number of votes.
"The No. 1 reactor should be shut down for the time being, and a decision should be made on whether to restart it following inspections by the International Atomic Energy Agency," Ha said during election debates at local cable TV stations and elsewhere, partly in response to Koo's intense questioning.
The central government later came up with a similar policy statement.
"I put the issue of nuclear power up front, so the other candidates were obliged to touch upon that issue," said Koo with obvious pride after the election was over. "I have at least helped to enhance civil awareness of the nuclear phaseout issue."
Park Hye-ryeong, 42, fought a losing battle in a constituency in Gyeongsangbuk-do province that hosts the Ulchin nuclear power plant.
In the more conservative climate of the countryside, local printing offices succumbed to government pressure to refuse to print pamphlets on Park's behalf. She won only 2.9 percent of the vote.
"While it remains difficult to even talk about the nuclear issue, I spoke with many residents about the problematic aspects of nuclear power," Park said of her election debut.
The Green Party Korea fielded candidates in the proportional representation constituency as well, but grabbed only 104,000 votes, or 0.5 percent of the total. It even fell short of reaching the statutory minimum of 2 percent to remain a registered political party.
That means the party will have to undergo qualification procedures all over again when the next election is held.
The main opposition Democratic United Party championed a review of nuclear policy. The Unified Progressive Party, which placed third, called for a break from nuclear power. That split the votes of the anti-nuclear electorate.
The day after the election, I visited the "head office" of the Green Party Korea in a rented apartment in a downtown Seoul building. Ha Seung-soo, a 43-year-old lawyer who serves as the party's secretary-general, was more animated that I had expected.
"Today again, I received calls from would-be party members," he said.
The party's membership stands at about 7,400. Ha said the party will seek to steadily broaden its following and call on whoever represents the opposition in the presidential election to include a "phaseout of nuclear power" in the policy platform.
"I want to communicate with political parties in Japan that seek a break from nuclear power," Ha said.
The Fukushima nuclear disaster clearly invigorated civil movements in South Korea pushing for a nuclear phaseout.
But the triangle of the industry, bureaucrats and academics continues to press hard for more nuclear power, which they say is necessary to keep electricity rates at cheap levels.
When the presidential election is held, I plan to follow up on the debate surrounding the nuclear issue and developments concerning Green Party Korea.
Editor's note: Being a foreign correspondent is not all it's cracked up to be. As Asahi Shimbun journalists--assigned to 34 offices around the world--can attest to, the challenges of getting the story in a foreign land are much greater than on the homefront. In the Correspondent's Notebook series, Asahi Shimbun journalists will write about their experiences on the road, including the difficulties, the frustrations, the long hours, the roadblocks, etc. They will take readers along with them and give them a glimpse into their lives.
- « Prev
- Next »