South Korea

The race for the Blue House: N Korea in the spotlight

South Koreans are on the horns of a dilemma about North Korea policy ahead of the presidential election.

South Korean presidential election candidates, from left, Moon Jae-in, Hong Joon-pyo , Yoo Seong-min, Sim Sang-jung and Ahn Cheol-soo pose for photographers [Ahn Young-joon/Reuters]

South Korea is a deeply divided country. It is divided by socioeconomic inequality. It is divided by its past, its present, and its future. But most importantly, it is divided by North Korea and the US.

Within South Korea, North Korea has been a permanent point of friction between Liberals and Conservatives. These two major parties, which represent the centre-left and the centre-right in South Korea's parliament, get into fights that reduce the North Korean issue to a number of hackneyed slogans before every election.

The upcoming election, which will take place on May 9, is no different.

The previous administration ended in the ignominy of now former President Park Geun-hye being arrested for her alleged involvement in an extortion ring, where she leveraged her position as president, with a close friend named Choi Soon-sil.

And Park's decisions on her country's North Korea policy, as expected, also played a central role in this scandal.

It has been alleged that Park's friend Choi was directly involved in a decision to close an industrial complex that was viewed as the main symbol of inter-Korean cooperation in early 2016.

Park's liberal predecessors established the Kaesong Industrial Complex (KIC) in 2004 inside North Korea to help the country to reform its economy and ease tensions between the two Koreas. In the KIC, South Korean companies were allowed to manufacture their products using North Korean labour.

Choi's involvement in the decision to close down the KIC may be a conspiracy theory, or it may even be true, but the controversy and speculation surrounding this closure demonstrate that policy on North Korea is a highly divisive subject among South Korea's political elite. 

A soft approach

The frontrunner in the race, Moon Jae-in, the candidate for the liberal left who lost the presidency in the last election, wants to reopen the KIC. Moon also wants to re-open Mount Kumgang, a tourist resort in North Korea that welcomed tourists from the south between 1998 and 2008.

Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump may have to choose between the safety of Seoul and San Francisco.

It may look like a fair deal to a South Korean liberal, but in a way it misses the point: North Korea did not develop nuclear weapons to force the South Korean government to invest in their development or to send tourists to their beach resorts. Moon's condition to reopen both these establishments is simple: a freeze on North Korea's nuclear programme, and an agreement to start negotiations aimed at ultimately ending it.

Indeed, the North Korean government quite happily developed nuclear weapons and missiles while accepting South Korean investment and aid in the 2000s, and it is unlikely that a future President Moon could stop them continuing to do so.

An 'armed peace'

This is the basis of one of the main criticisms that Moon has faced during the election race. The centre-right candidate in the presidential race, Hong Jun-pyo, has repeatedly accused Moon of planning to form a left-wing government that would be too soft on North Korea. 

One of the main pieces of evidence supporting Hong's allegation is Moon's close relationship with the last liberal president in the Blue House, Roh Moo-hyun - who has also been criticised for being too soft on North Korea. It has recently been alleged that in 2007, while he was working as an aid to Roh, Moon had suggested the Seoul government consult Pyongyang before deciding its position on a UN resolution condemning North Korea's human rights abuses. Moon denied the accusation.

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Hong's policy alternative has a catchy name, Armed Peace, but it generally involves the continuation of the status quo of frozen relations with the North, combined with a larger defence budget and continued reliance on US military support.

Hong also argues that the KIZ and other North-South cooperation projects are effectively employment plans for North Korea's young people, and emphasises that South Korea itself has a youth unemployment rate of 25 percent. Hong seems basically to have no new ideas - no surprise there. Befitting a small 'c' conservative, he simply wants to continue what has gone before. Not exactly inspiring, to put it mildly. He is the candidate from Park Geun-hye's party, and has been third in the polls for most of the race.

The awkward middle-ground

In the centre ground of the polls and of this debate sits Ahn Cheol-soo. A successful tech entrepreneur, Ahn is relatively new to politics and looks decisively awkward under questioning.

He briefly came close to leading in the polls, but has since been pushed back to a distant second. Basically, Ahn has been reduced to being a Hong-lite as he seeks to appeal to both the parts of the centre-left that backed his party in general elections last year and the parts of the centre-right that loathe to see Moon become president but do not want Hong to assume power either. He is now being squeezed by both sides and might finish third - he was joint second in one of the polls before the election, with momentum swinging in Hong's direction.

At any rate, whoever wins the race to the Blue House will have to balance between a Trump presidency seeking to get tough on North Korea and the desire for peace and stability on the Korean peninsula.

Thinking the unthinkable

Yoo Seung-min, the other principal conservative candidate in the race - and also by far the most qualified and knowledgeable of all the candidates, in my opinion - highlighted this predicament that South Korea continuously finds itself in.

"Korea Passing" is maybe the term that best describes the situation. Inspired from the phrase "Japan Passing", it implies that South Korea's view on North Korea is not being taken seriously by the outside world.

Just like Yoo, I want South Korea to be taken seriously, but in order for this to happen, it might need to try something different, something radical - such as doing what is good for peace, regardless of what the Trump administration thinks.

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North Korea already has the ability to destroy Seoul with conventional forces along with its existing nuclear stockpile, so a freeze on North Korea's nuclear programme is less in the interests of South Korea than the United States.

It is very true that America has kept the peace and kept South Korea secure for the past 70 years. But a threatened US strike on North Korea could result in an attack on Seoul.

The truth is that South Korea and America may no longer be natural allies. No candidate will say such a thing for fear of provoking a genuine controversy that they cannot control. But truth be told, Moon Jae-in and Donald Trump may have to choose between the safety of Seoul and San Francisco.

Kim Jong-un may yet witness a nuclearised South Korea that no longer relies on US support for its security. From such a position of nuclear equality, inter-Korean economic engagement starts to look like a viable, progressive option once again. 

Peter Ward is a researcher at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. His work has been published in NKNews, SinoNK, and numerous other outlets. 

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera's editorial policy.

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