Published — Saturday 15 December 2012
Last update 15 December 2012 1:03 am
North Korea’s rocket launch underscores national security issues in South Korea’s looming presidential election, and challenges the two candidates’ stated aim of closer engagement with Pyongyang.
Although analysts are divided about the impact of the launch on the actual outcome of the Dec. 19 ballot, they largely agree that the eventual winner will now face new constraints in molding his or her own North Korea policy.
The conventional wisdom suggests that the conservative front-runner Park Geun-Hye from the ruling New Frontier Party will benefit from any heightened public concern in the wake of Wednesday’s launch.
Park is the daughter of South Korea’s late military strongman Park Chung-Hee and her party is traditionally seen as strong on national security and North Korea in particular. By contrast, the liberal opposition candidate, Moon Jae-In, is best known as a top aide in the administration of former president Roh Moo-Hyun who had pursued his predecessor’s “sunshine policy” of engagement with North Korea.
“Overall the launch will work in favor of Park Geun-Hye,” said Baek Seung-Joo of the Institute of Defense Analyses in Seoul.
“It will fan hostility and disappointment about the North under the leadership of Kim Jong-Un and will help boost the argument of conservative hawks in the South,” Baek said. Both candidates condemned the launch, with Park urging voters to remain calm and pick a leader with “a firm determination to guard our nation and sovereignty.” Some analysts however suggested the launch also provided Moon’s camp with some ammunition, allowing it to cast doubts on the benefits of the ruling party’s hard-line stance on Pyongyang under outgoing President Lee Myung-Bak.
When Lee came to power in 2008 he cut off aid to the impoverished North, saying future food and other shipments would be conditional on progress in persuading Pyongyang to halt its nuclear program.
But the policy had little success in bringing Pyongyang to heel.
In 2009 it carried out its second nuclear test, in 2010 it shelled a South Korean border island, and in April this year conducted a failed long-range rocket launch which was eventually followed by Wednesday’s success.
“These are clear signs of security incompetency by the ruling camp,” Moon said Wednesday, accusing Park’s party and Lee’s administration of intelligence failures in predicting the timing of the latest launch.
“Many voters are now skeptical about the current government’s hard-line policy toward Pyongyang,” said Park Kie-Duck, a former president of the Sejong Institute think-tank in Seoul.
“Park Geun-Hye has accused the Sunshine Policy of the past liberal governments as appeasement, but it has also turned out that pressure and containment simply did not work,” Park said.
Whatever spin the candidates place on the launch, most analysts agree the event will have little impact in determining the actual election outcome.
The majority of South Koreans, largely inured to the provocative acts of their communist neighbor, took the launch in their stride and are far more focused on issues like economic reform, job creation and welfare.
“The time has long passed when the so-called ‘North Wind’ had a sway over the South’s election results,” said Kim Neung-Gou of consulting company, Polinews.
The greater impact will be on the policies followed by the eventual winner of the ballot.
Both Park and Moon have signaled a desire for closer engagement with Pyongyang and even a possible summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong-Un, though Moon has gone further with a vow to resume aid without pre-conditions. Lee Tai-Hwan, a researcher at the Sejong Institute, said whichever candidate enters the presidential Blue House would be constrained by global sentiment over Pyongyang’s flouting of UN resolutions.
“They will certainly not abandon their current approaches wholesale just because of the rocket launch, but they will have less room to formulate policies on North Korea on their own,” said Lee.
“Coordination with the international community, especially the United States and China, will be the top priority in dealing with North Korea for a while,” he added.