Kim Jong Il’s death may intensify voter focus in South Korean presidential and legislative election campaigns on policy toward a nuclear-armed neighbor now undergoing its first political transition since 1994.
Voting for the South’s 299-member National Assembly takes place in April, followed by a presidential election in December. The victory of Independent candidate Park Won Soon in the Seoul mayoral race in October has already boosted the opposition.
The contests will set the next phase of policy toward the North after decades of shifts between openness, engagement and antagonism for decades. Before Kim’s demise, criticism that a tough stance by President Lee Myung Bak had provoked hostilities including the sinking of a South Korean warship had paid off for the opposition with a slide in Lee’s approval rating.
“A whole lot depends on how the present government responds to Kim Jong Il’s death,” said Yong Chool Ha, a professor of political science at the University of Washington’s Henry M. Jackson School of International Studies. “The debate will become more intense and more lively as to how to deal with the future of North Korea.”
Elections in South Korea, Russia and the U.S., and a leadership transition in China, will also complicate the international response to North Korea, Adam Wolfe, an economist at Roubini Global Economics, wrote in a report this week.
Lee and his Grand National Party already have come under fire for not knowing of Kim Jong Il’s death before it was announced on Dec. 19, two days after his passing. Both ruling and opposition lawmakers have called for National Intelligence Service director Won Sei Hoon to step down.
“The director should take the blame and resign from his post for not knowing about Kim’s death until the TV broadcasts,” Park Young Sun, a member of the opposing Liberty Forward Party, said in an interview yesterday. “Because he had no clue, the president, along with all of the ministers overseeing national security matters, had no knowledge.”
South Korean authorities have responded to Kim’s death by raising the military and civilian cyber alerts one step above their standard levels. The government has pledged to stabilize financial markets as needed.
The Kospi index fell 3.4 percent on Dec. 19 before rebounding in the following two sessions. The benchmark was down 0.2 percent at 12:55 p.m. today in Seoul, compared with a 0.6 percent drop for the MSCI Asia Pacific Index.
Lee’s approval rating has dropped more than half from 76 percent when he took office in February 2008. Under his single five-year term that ends in February 2013, North Korea detonated a second nuclear device and last year unveiled an advanced uranium enrichment program.
While no opposition party members have officially declared their candidacy, the perceived GNP frontrunner is Park Geun Hye, the daughter of former president Park Chung Hee. In an opinion article published on the Foreign Affairs website in August, Park had signaled a softening toward North Korea.
“Forging trust and sustainable peace on the Korean peninsula represents one of the most urgent and crucial tasks on Asia’s list of outstanding security challenges,” Park wrote, proposing a “trustpolitik” based on verifiable actions.
“The uncertain security situation after Kim’s death will make this election inward and outward looking at the same time,” said Hoon Jaung, a professor of political science at Chung-Ang University in Seoul. “The Korean voter will take more of an interest in national security issues.”
North Korea will become “more open” under Kim Jong Il’s son and successor, Kim Jong Un, according to 48 percent of South Koreans in a Gallup Quick Poll e-mailed to reporters today. The report found 42 percent believe there will be no change from the elder Kim’s rule, while 62 think Seoul should provide financial aid on the condition that Pyongyang abandons its missiles and nuclear program.
The telephone poll of 532 adults was taken on Dec. 20 and has an error margin of 4.2 percentage points.
The GNP has also struggled to kick-start growth, with the Bank of Korea this month projecting Asia’s fourth-biggest economy to grow 3.7 percent next year, the slowest pace in three years, as the deepening European debt crisis crimps exports.
Lee has rolled back the “Sunshine Policy” of engagement with the North pioneered by his two predecessors, arguing that the openness rewarded the North for provocations.
A multinational panel blamed the March 2010 sinking of a South Korean warship that killed 46 sailors on a North Korean torpedo attack, a charge the communist nation denies. In November of last year North Korea fired artillery on Yeonpyeong island, killing two soldiers and two civilians, the first shelling of South Korean soil since the 1950-1953 war.
Last year’s violence had already caused some swing voters to favor a harder-line stance, said Han-Wool Jeong, executive director of the Center for Public Opinion Research at the East Asia Institute in Seoul.
“The conservative press is likely to stir more hostility toward North Korea,” he said. “This is an issue that’s unlikely to become a positive for the opposition, which has been supporting the Sunshine policy for years.”
Eighty percent of South Korea’s 20 largest business groups are concerned the death of Kim Jong Il will pose a risk to their business, the Herald Business reported Dec. 20, citing its survey of executives at the companies. Nine of them responded they will factor in the risk for their business plans for next year, according to the report.
Who ultimately benefits from Kim’s death may depend on how North Korea itself behaves, said Jae Ku, director of the U.S.- Korea Institute at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies in Washington.
“At a certain level it could help the conservatives because the public may realize how dangerous North Korea is,” he said. “But if North Korea becomes belligerent, then the opposition could begin to blame the ruling party for not engaging North Korea and creating a situation that could lead to war.”