Park Geun-hye

South Koreans head to ballot box to elect new president

Delicate relations with Beijing and Tokyo form the major backdrop as South Koreans head to the ballot box today to elect a new president

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 19 December, 2012, 4:23am


Related topics

Just days after the return of the hawkish Shinzo Abe to power in Japan, South Koreans today head to the ballot box to elect their new president.

Polls indicate the race between right-winger Park Geun-hye and leftist Moon Jae-in is too tight to call. With many in the region fearing that Abe will take a harder line on historical and territorial disputes, diplomatic storms loom, regardless of the victor. But a win for Moon could push Seoul closer to Beijing.

Tokyo is the target of ire from both Beijing and Seoul. Territorial disputes with Japan over various islands are fuelled in part by a strong sense from both of its neighbours that it has not sufficiently apologised for its militaristic past.

A victory for Moon, whose young, leftist support base is more stridently nationalistic than older conservatives, could mean harsher words between Tokyo and Seoul. But even if the right-wing Park wins, sensitivities lurking just below the surface in South Korea are always ready to explode.

Park, 60, the daughter of late dictator Park Chung-hee, is looking to make history as the first woman president of a still male-dominated nation. Moon, 59, is a former human rights lawyer who was once jailed for protesting against the regime of Park's father.

"Whoever wins, Dokdo Island [known as Takeshima in Japan] remains a sensitive issue in Korea," said Ahn Byung-jin, a professor of politics at Seoul's Kyunghee University. "Also it is a very good issue for any president who wants to make a political score in terms of poll ratings, so I am concerned."

Incumbent Lee Myung-bak, who is constitutionally limited to a single term, made the first-ever South Korean presidential visit to the islands in August, igniting a furious diplomatic row with Tokyo, but garnering himself a burst of popularity at home.

Lee's outgoing government yesterday described Japan as a "precious partner" but warned that the nation would give no ground to Abe on their historical differences.

"The government's position is consistent and clear. There are issues, including issues related to history, on which we cannot concede," Foreign Ministry spokesman Cho Tai-young told journalists.

It is unlikely that this stance will be changed by either Moon or Park.

When it comes to China, Moon has called for "balanced diplomacy", granting equal priority to Seoul's relations with Beijing, now Korea's top trade partner, and its traditional ally and military patron, Washington.

"I think it is stating the obvious, and I think this reality for South Korea is in many ways true," said Dan Pinkston of the International Crisis Group in Seoul. "But it is not a zero sum game."

Territorial issues, the rise of China and the return of Abe to power complicate regional diplomacy for the United States, which seeks an amicable Seoul-Tokyo-Washington axis.

"Obama's strategy for the East Asian region is a rebalancing strategy, and for that countries in the region should be co-operative, not in conflict," said Ahn of Kyunghee University. "I think he'll have a hard time pursuing his 'pivot to Asia' strategy."

Additional reporting by Agence France-Presse