Seoul's Mayoral Election: A Harbinger of Political Change on the Korean Peninsula?

On October 26, former civil-activist, political novice and independent Park Won-soon won the Seoul Mayoral election in a landslide victory.  He captured 53.2 percent against the ruling Grand National Party (GNP) candidate Na Kyung-Won’s 46.4 percent. Park Won-soon shocked observers by defeating Na Kyung-Won, who had secured the endorsement of current presidential 2012 favorite and daughter of former President Park Chung-hee, Park Keun-hye. The surprising victory for the independent and opposition-party-backed candidate represents the emergence of political progressives--an element of the South Korean political spectrum largely absent in its greater historical past. More pertinently, however, it represents Seoul's--specifically the younger generation's-- discontent with the ruling GNP. Yet, given the volatility of domestic politics and the tendency to inflate the importance of Mayoral elections, it is important to simply consider a few larger questions that can be reasonably extrapolated from the recent developments in Seoul.

For instance, The GNP has traditionally been friendly to the US, tough on North Korea (DPRK) and open to free trade agreements. Since GNP's return to power in 2007 with the election of President Lee Myung-bak, US-Korea relations have steadily improved, perhaps reaching their apogee during the recent South Korean state visit in October. If the Seoul elections are any indication of possible voting patterns in the National Assembly elections and Presidential elections, Washington will have to tweak its relations with a new, slightly less US-friendly opposition party.

The incoming mayor has indicated that he plans to reshape South Korea political dialogue and address the immediate needs of Seoul’s working and middle class. According to an Asian Institute for Policy Studies (AIPS) report, the immediate concerns of South Koreans today are rapidly changing.  The AIPS reports, South-North relations has fallen from being the most salient issue for 31.7% of those polled in January of 2011 to 8.8% of those polled in October of 2011. Instead, job creation and redistribution of wealth have emerged as the most salient issues. If Park Won-soon and potential future opposition leaders plan on following through with their policy of putting public opinion above all else, the US can expect less emphasis on being tough with the DPRK and a potential warming of South-North relations--reminiscent of the Sunshine Policy of the 1998 Kim Dae-jung Administration. This point is strengthened by Park Won-soon’s calls for the removal of US troops from the Korean Peninsula and criticism of the US-Korea FTA. Although Park Won-soon does represent 20% of the South Korea population, the mayor of Seoul has little say in the foreign policy and national defense agenda--beyond voicing his opinion. His role may be limited, but he can still influence the national conversation in the coming months.

One of the biggest losers in the mayoral election was for GNP 2012 presidential hopeful, Park Keun-hye. Her endorsement of Seoul Mayoral GNP candidate, Na Kyung-won, had little effect and the major loss of momentum from the ruling party to the opposition party could spell danger for Park Keun-hye’s chances at the presidential seat. However, the presidential elections are a full 13 months away. A whole slew of external events could sway public opinion. Internationally, a North Korea provocation would likely result in a public opinion swing towards a tougher stance on North Korea (favoring the GNP). Or domestically, the South Korean political course could be swayed by anything from worsening economic conditions (favoring the opposition party) to an improvement in the unemployment (favoring the GNP).

Transitioning back to the US, the immediate take away for Washington is fairly predictable. The US-South Korea relationship will remain friendly as it has for decades, regardless of who is the mayor of Seoul or even sitting in the Blue House. But, the larger US role on the Peninsula and the level of US-South interaction is yet to be seen and Washington will have to closely follow National Assembly elections in April to gauge the path of US-South Korea relations. This is, of course, a pertinent security issue given the presence of a nuclear North Korea that will look to flex its might on the international stage in 2012 given the 100th anniversary of Kim Il-sung's birth and the finalization of the "Strong and Prosperous" Economic Policy.

Kevin Sullivan is an editorial assistant of the Georgetown Journal Online and a sophomore in the Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service at Georgetown University.