SEOUL, South Korea — An unlikely result of North Korea shelling its neighbor to the south: schoolchildren in Seoul are losing their lunches.
With eyes on the presidency, Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon is seeking to eliminate free lunches for students in the country’s demanding schools. It’s a symptom of the current political climate: As the country's voters tilt to the right, politicians don’t wish to be seen as supportive of any public welfare measures.
November’s skirmish with North Korea has nudged South Koreans in a conservative direction. Many considered their government’s response to aggression from the North to have been weak, and are hoping for a firmer approach to Pyongyang in the coming months.
“This latest shift toward a more hard-line policy is an emotional response to a blatant attack. Understandably, the public feels that this kind of outright attack on civilians and military installations calls for a very swift military response, and none was coming,” said Sung-yoon Lee, adjunct assistant professor of international politics at Tufts University’s Fletcher School.
Periodic flare-ups in tension with North Korea, and resultant changes in public opinion, are not new in South Korea. It’s not clear how long this one will last.
As Lee pointed out, “It’s not in the interest of the public to escalate the tension with North Korea.”
Mayor Oh is believed to be seeking the Grand National Party’s presidential nomination in 2013. To help his electability, he is seeking to harden his public image.
Oh was trained as a lawyer and defended human rights early in his career. In South Korea nowadays, to appear soft is bad for a politician’s prospects. Analysts say that to compete with GNP party member Park Geun-hye, Oh will have to refashion the image his background suggests.
And he's hit the ground running.
In a press conference in early December, Oh said, “The Democratic Party’s [the opposition to Oh’s ruling Grand National Party] reckless populist welfare policies have shackled the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s administrative affairs and now it is taking Seoul residents’ lives and future hostage.”
If Oh's are fightin' words, only time will tell if they are tough enough. In the race for the presidency, he is up against South Korea’s most daunting political pedigree in Park Geun-hye, daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee.
Park is way ahead in the presidential race with a support rate of 33.5 percent, while Oh claims only 5.9 percent, according a poll by the Hankook Ilbo, sister paper of The Korea Times.
As the South Korean electorate moves to the right, Gen. Park has become a highly revered figure. He led South Korea’s economic rise and is remembered as a tough leader who got results. His image has improved as South Korea’s conservative movement has grown; his heavy-handed tactics are mentioned less often than his economic success.
And so, in an effort to compete with Gen. Park's daughter, Seoul’s mayor has chosen the unobvious vehicle of children’s lunches to cultivate a more forceful image.
According to polling data, many South Koreans would rather war was declared on North Korea. A poll by the Asian Institute for Policy Studies showed 80 percent of respondents favored a military response to the North Korean attack. Six months earlier, the number had been just 30 percent.
It may not be war with the North, but Oh has proposed an "all-out war" on a program introduced in 2010 that provided all elementary and middle school children with free lunches.
He says the lunches need to be waived as a cost-cutting measure. The lunches will cost 70 billion won ($6.2 million) — a fraction of Seoul metropolitan government’s annual budget, which passed on Dec. 30 at 20.59 trillion won ($18.3 billion).
Oh's approach may not be reflected in polling numbers, but, anecdotally, it appears to resonate with more conservative voters. And, it has undeniably sparked fighting — albeit not the sort many South Koreans might be looking for.
Scuffles, which are something of a pastime in South Korea’s legislature, recently broke out over the school lunch issue. On the day the budget was to be passed, conservative civic groups attempted to storm the National Assembly to prevent Seoul children being given lunch for free.
The Seoul government, in opposition to Oh, wants to provide free lunches to students from low-income families. Critics says limiting free lunches according to income level would stigmatize students who receive them in a country acutely perceptive of indicators of wealth and class.
Ji-young Soh, a government official in Gyeonggi province says that is a minor concern. “The schools don't collect the money. We do not [think] that is such a big problem. It’s not like they're forced to hold hands and everyone knows who is getting free lunches,” Soh said in an interview.
Oh advocated the total of Seoul’s budget being smaller. He focused on social programs, saying, "I declare that I will reject any populist policies in the name of welfare."
Park Sook-hee of the Seoul Metropolitan Government’s Educational Equality Division said that free lunches aren't the best use of budget money.“The fact is that the budget is restricted," he said. "The budget should be spent on other projects according to the priority, such as school safety or reducing measures of private education expenses.”
Baek Joon-ho, 10, a student at Yeouido middle school in Seoul, said, “It’s better that the government gives all students free lunch, that way it’s fair and we all get the same thing. All the government’s money comes from our parents, anyway.”