Power play throws Korean rift into relief

PUBLISHED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Friday, 13 April, 2012, 12:00am


Parallel political scenes in North and South Korea this week etch the differences between the systems that hold sway above and below the demilitarised zone that has divided the Korean Peninsula since 1953.

In the South, after boisterous campaigning marked by harsh charges of corruption, incompetence and much else, conservative candidates managed to retain a slim majority in the national assembly.

All the candidates in the run-up to the election had to speak out at rallies, stand on street corners begging for votes, debate on television and give copious interviews. You could hardly have imagined a more extraordinary show of democracy in action, especially in a country where regimes run by former military leaders ruled over hand-picked legislatures until mass demonstrations forced the introduction of a democratic constitution nearly a quarter of a century ago.

While the winners were celebrating and the losers apologising in South Korea, North Korea was coming out with a very different exercise in power politics.

A Workers' Party conference in the North announced that Kim Jong-un, the 'supreme leader' who took over after the death of his father, Kim Jong-il, in December, would be the party's first secretary. Kim Jong-il, the conference decided, would forever retain his old post of general secretary - or rather would be 'eternal general secretary'. Kim Jong-un was also made a member of the party's political bureau and chairman of its Central Military Commission.

On the way to all these posts, Kim Jong-un has not had to face a single political opponent, give a speech or make a statement on state TV or radio. On Friday, North Korea's hand-picked Supreme People's Assembly is expected to meet long enough to cheer loudly for his rise to power. The most they'll get in return is a smile and wave, maybe some handshakes.

The stark contrast between the ways the North and South select their leaders explains much about the failure of the former and the success of the latter. With no one to question or criticise its decisions, North Korea has invested what it would take to feed its hungry people for a year into firing a long-range missile and celebrating the centennial on Sunday of the birth of founding leader Kim Il-sung. The idea is to show off the North as 'a strong and prosperous country'.

In South Korea, voters will in December elect a new president as successor to the conservative Lee Myung-bak. The assembly elections may portend victory for a conservative candidate. There are, however, no guarantees. Political success is hardly needed to prove the country's incredible rise as a strong, prosperous - and democratic - country.

Journalist Donald Kirk is the author of numerous books and articles on Korea