Who will be South Korea's new leader?


A South Korean activist (C) wearing a mask of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un holds a mock missile during a rally denouncing North Korea's rocket launch and the three-generational dictatorship, in Seoul on April 15, 2012. Has normal electoral rules applied, tensions with the North, plus renewed concern over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs, would normally have benefited the opposition. But as signs of an opening up emerge under the North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un, the appetite south of the border could be for a leader more willing to re-open the door to aid and dialog.



SEOUL, South Korea — Seven months before South Koreans elect their next president, only one thing is clear: the winner will not be the incumbent, Lee Myung Bak. 

Lee is constitutionally banned from seeking a second term, but the legacy of his eventful five years in office is proving critical in the fortunes of the men, and one woman, in the frame to replace him in the Blue House.

Voters were expected to punish his ruling Saenuri Party in national assembly elections last month, only to see it narrowly retain the majority.

Rather than giving an indication of who might lead South Korea next year, the result brought only more confusion. In the run-up to the assembly votes, polls had indicated widespread disaffection with the Lee administration among young voters, who viewed his party as the natural ally of South Korea's powerful chaebol conglomerates (large, family-controlled business conglomerates) at a time when Asia's fourth-biggest economy faces a rising income gap and shrinking workforce.

Had normal electoral rules applied, tensions with the North plus renewed concern over Pyongyang's missile and nuclear programs would have benefited the opposition.

More from GlobalPost: Chinese cars, made in Bulgaria

And as signs emerge of a slight, but discernible, opening up under the North Korea's new leader Kim Jong Un, the appetite south of the border could be for a leader more willing to reopen the door to aid and dialogue.

Analysts say the presidential campaign is likely to focus on the economy and social division, which could spell even more trouble for the ruling conservatives.

The Lee administration's apparent obsession with free trade-inspired growth appeals to South Korean multinationals but dismays those among the country's 50 million people who have yet to feel the supposed benefits of trade agreement.

Underpinning popular discontent with the chaebol's favorable treatment under Lee is concern over the widening income gap and poor employment prospects for young people — warnings outlined in a recent Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development report.

Against that backdrop, opposition politicians believe the conditions are right for a change of direction.

"South Koreans are most concerned about the economy, how to make ends meet, and young people are worried about tuition fees and jobs," Lee Hae Chan, a Democratic United Party (DUP) politician representing a seat about an hour south of Seoul, said in an interview with GlobalPost. "Those are the issues we will focus on during the presidential election.

More from GlobalPost: Kim Jong Un-certainty

"The current administration has given big business huge tax reductions, but that money should have been spent on welfare and education."

Lee, a former prime minister, said policy towards North Korea would also be a factor in deciding the presidency. "If the opposition wins, I think we'll see an improvement in bilateral relations," he says. "We need to put an end to the all-or-nothing hard-line approach taken by President Lee and work through our problems together."

Both Saenuri and the DUP, the main opposition party, have the confusion created by the close election result in April to thank for giving them more time to select their presidential candidates.

Saenuri has done everything possible to disassociate itself from Lee, and talks instead about a more centrist, welfare-oriented party under its chairwoman and "election queen" Park Geun Hye, daughter of South Korea's former military dictator, Park Chung Hee.

While she has yet to declare an official interest in running, Park's successful handling of the assembly elections should have secured her Saenuri's nomination as presidential candidate, says Yoon Hee Wong, a senior analyst at the Korea Society Opinion Institute in Seoul.

"It will be difficult for other candidates to compete with Park," says Yoon. "As long as she doesn't make any big errors of judgment, the party will chose her as its presidential candidate.

More from GlobalPost: South Korea: where sarcasm can get you thrown in jail

If only the opposition parties' task was as straightforward. After leading for much of the assembly campaign, the DUP lost crucial votes after failing to ditch Kim Young Min, a podcaster and comedian, as a candidate after it emerged he had made vulgar remarks to senior citizens on an internet radio show a few years earlier.

The party is also under pressure to end its electoral alliance with the smaller United Progressive Party, currently mired in a vote-rigging scandal. Moon Jae In, former chief of staff to President Roh Moo Hyun, and Kim Do Kwan, a provincial governor, have emerged as possible contenders for the DUP's nomination, but may struggle to appeal to the electorate at large, according to Yoon at Korea Society Opinion Institute in Seoul.

The opposition's best chance of fending off Park Geun Hye's anticipated run for the Blue House could come in the form of Ahn Cheol Soo, a businessman-turned-academic who has become a champion of South Korea's dispossessed and disenchanted.

"Ahn is the only possible independent candidate worth discussing," says Yoon. "His support comes from people who think traditional politics is inherently unfair, and politicians untrustworthy."

"And unlike the other possible candidates, he has a proven knowledge of business and the economy. There is a huge amount of public interest in him, despite his lack of experience."

Ahn, who set up a successful software company before taking up a post at Seoul National University, has stayed tight-lipped about a possible presidential bid, even as senior DUP figures discuss the merits of bringing him into the party fold.

When, and if, they finally become clear, Ahn's political ambitions could prove decisive for both main parties, and turn South Korean politics on its head yet again.