December 12, 2012 3:47 pm

Impact on S Korean election unclear

When North Korea revealed its plans to launch a rocket this month, South Korean president Lee Myung-bak accused Pyongyang of trying to interfere in his country’s December 19 presidential election.

But it is not clear how Wednesday’s apparently successful launch will affect the result of the poll, or the victor’s policy towards North Korea.

The two leading contenders, Park Geun-hye of Mr Lee’s conservative New Frontier party, and Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic United party, have both vowed to pursue fresh negotiations with North Korea if elected. While each condemned the rocket launch as a threat to international security, neither gave any indication of reduced willingness to push for talks aimed at economic co-operation and eventual reunification.

Both candidates stress that they would put pressure on North Korea to wind down its nuclear programme, but with a more flexible approach than Mr Lee, who demanded evidence of progress towards “denuclearisation” before he would engage in talks.

“Both of them will try to make a rapprochement with North Korea – instead of ignoring it, there will be engagement and dialogue,” says Phillip Park, a professor at the University of North Korean Studies in Seoul.

However, analysts say that Ms Park would pursue a more cautious strategy than her liberal rival. She has scorned the idea of holding talks with North Korean officials “just for the sake of having a meeting”. And she has demanded that Pyongyang apologise formally for the 2010 shelling of a South Korean island and the sinking of the Cheonan gunboat, the latter an incident that Pyongyang has never admitted to.

By contrast, Mr Moon is expected to draw from the “Sunshine Policy” pursued by the liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun between 1998 to 2008. Mr Moon, who served as chief of staff to Mr Roh, says that the pro-engagement policy brought progress towards Korean reunification and a reduction in the North Korean military threat. But critics argue that North Korea exploited the South, extracting billions of dollars in aid while refusing to abandon its nuclear programme.

North Korean state media has criticised Ms Park, suggesting that she would continue what it considers aggressive policies pursued by her party colleague Mr Lee. Some analysts believe that Kim Jong-eun’s regime hopes for economic support from Mr Moon – but others believe that it would welcome a victory for Ms Park, in the belief that continuing tension with the South would help it to maintain its domestic grip on power.

The potential impact of Wednesday’s rocket on the election is similarly unclear.

South Korean efforts to pursue talks could face some resistance in Washington. Barack Obama’s administration was infuriated by Pyongyang’s rocket launch in April, less than two months after North Korea agreed to suspend its weapons programme in exchange for US aid, and Washington cancelled the agreement.

But Seoul’s next president is likely to follow through on the promise of a fresh attempt at engagement, says John Delury, a professor at Yonsei University in Seoul.

“I don’t think this kills what prospects there might be for renewed negotiation,” he says. “The next South Korean leader is expected to change the dynamics... If South Korea takes a real lead, and makes the case [for engagement], I think the Obama administration will be up for that.”

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