2002 Presidential Election in the ROK: Implications and Impacts

(15-17 April 2003)


The16th presidential election on December 19, 2002, was a milestone in the course of democratic consolidation in the Republic of Korea. The APCSS conference on the “2002 Presidential Election in the ROK: Implications and Impacts” examined the significance of the election in the history of the ROK political development from historical and comparative perspectives; analyzed key election statistics and main electoral strategies and tactics; assessed the election impact on the ROK domestic politics, economy, and social development; reviewed its implications for the inter-Korean relations; as well as discussed its potential consequences for the present and future of the U.S.-ROK security alliance.  


There was a broad consensus among the conference participants that the 16th presidential election proved to be a final step on the South Korean road to democratic maturity and a fine example of the culminating point in the “third wave” of global democratization process that began in the late 1970s and spread across more than a hundred countries in the Southern Europe, East Asia, and Latin America.   This was a free and fair election; there was no money and corruption influence observed; and there appeared to be neither intelligence meddling nor military interference in the electoral process.  In the end, an obvious anti-establishment candidate won, and the ruling elite accepted the popular verdict without recourse to violence.  Furthermore, the 16th election set the precedent for the first Internet generation to vote in an e-democracy in Korean style. 


At the same time, conference participants observed that the December 19, 2002, election failed to bridge traditional differences between the Honam and Youngnam regions, exacerbated the generational gap, and revealed a significant digital divide between the young and the old.  For the first time in Korean history, the presidential election campaign played down the ideological schism between the right and the left, even despite its failure to address growing socio-economic cleavages in the Korean society.


Conference participants agreed that all along it was Lee Hoi Chang’s election to lose.  Mr. Lee finally lost it, primarily because of his lack of personal charisma, poor campaign organization, and Mr. Lee’s mercurial detachment from popular sentiments and moods.

In contrast, Mr. Roh Moo-hyun displayed tremendous personal charisma and even sex appeal among female voters.  He read closely opinion polls and adjusted his positions accordingly.  He mastered information technology tools and the Internet to his benefit. Riding on a surging wave of anti-Americanism, Mr. Roh, a “repeated loser,” was able to connect with the “outsiders’ majority” and become “a bridge candidate” who beat the odds and deliver his anti-establishment message to the Blue House.


One of the main questions addressed at the conference was “Who is Mr. Roh?”  Obviously, only time will tell.  There was no consensus among conference participants on many aspects of his enigmatic personality.  Regarding Mr. Roh’s risk propensity, some argued that he was quite risk-averse and, hence, predicted that continuity will prevail during his presidential term.  In contrast, others believed he was rather risk-prone, and, hence, expected some bold initiatives and big changes to come during his years in office.  With respect to Mr. Roh’s leadership style, some participants believed that he was a “hands-on guy” whereas others saw the emerging traces of “imperial president” in Mr. Roh.  With respect to the question whether or not Mr. Roh can learn, some participants argued that, yes, he was pragmatic, and a fast learner, and had an open mind, whereas the others disagreed and contended that he had some unshakable core beliefs and was ideology-driven in his policy initiatives. 


Regardless of the differences in opinion on Roh Moo-hyun as a leader, conference participants found it difficult to agree on the fundamental question as to whether Mr. Roh is anti-American or not.  The only consensus was that it was too early to say.  This notwithstanding, the ROK participants took pains to argue that despite some public misperceptions, he was a fan of America and liked to compare himself to Abraham Lincoln.  They reiterated that despite some of his provocative campaign statements, on the policy side, President Roh made all the right moves since taking office in shepherding the ROK-US relationship towards a better future.  Especially noteworthy is his courageous stance on support for U.S. military campaign in Iraq against the wishes of his key netizen constituency.


In the conference discussion on the DPRK’s policy and reaction to the ROK’s presidential election, everyone agreed that the so-called “Northern Wind” was no longer an important factor in South Korea elections.  This development was heralded as another example of the maturation of the ROK democracy.  Assessing the impact of the presidential election on the inter-Korean relations, the ROK participants stressed that President Roh was determined to carry forward President Kim Dae Jung’s “sunshine policy” toward the North in his own “policy for peace and prosperity,” placing great emphasis on transparency, reciprocity, and mutual accountability. 


Despite some worrisome signs during the electoral campaign, the impact of the presidential election on the U.S.-ROK alliance has been rather positive so far.  Initial steps of the Roh Moo-hyun’s administration, such as significant continuity in staffing his national security team, proved the “doomsday” talkers about the alliance, who predicted an early demise of the 50-year old security partnership following the ascent of a “left-wing radical populist” in the Blue House, to be wrong.  If anything, many participants believed that President Roh may well turn out to be the best candidate for “modernizing the overall security relationship” with the United States.  President Roh is likely to focus his efforts on achieving greater equality within alliance decision-making processes, especially on such issue as how to best engage North Korea in the resolution of the ongoing nuclear confrontation. 


Indeed, the United States and the Republic of Korea live in extraordinary times of dramatic changes both at home and abroad.  Many visions of the alliance future exist.  A number of serious alliance issues percolated during the presidential campaign.  Now, everything is on the table.  But, there is no doubt that the Bush administration in Washington and the Roh administration in Seoul share strong allied commitment to their common national security goals and joint military defense. 


Conference participants emphasized that one of the key ingredients for successful completion of alliance re-balancing and future prosperity is to have consultations before action, not after action.   Many observed that specific adjustments to the combined defense force structure and base relocations constituted relatively minor issues at present.  Such issues, along with shifts in roles and missions, as well as changes in command relationships, are likely to be on the Korean agenda only after anxieties over the present nuclear crisis with the DPRK subsided.  At that point, it is possible that issues from the electoral campaign such as the wartime subordination of Korean forces to U.S. commanders within the combined defense might be raised. 


Although the Roh administration can be expected to continue to advocate a strong alliance, the main problem for enhancing alliance resiliency is to define the glue that will keep the alliance together even without any clear and present threat from North Korea.  Seoul and Washington need to develop a common vision for the alliance after Korean unification.  They need to define and mutually recognize the commonly shared norms, beliefs, shared values, emotional attachment and feelings of mutual loyalty irrespective of issue at hand.  They also need to harmonize the shared national security interests of the two countries, especially with respect to North Korea and beyond the North Korean threat, as well as their conceptions of how security is best achieved.


In the absence of such epistemic harmonization, the ROK, despite its middle-power status, clearly inferior to all of its neighbors in national and military power, is likely to strive for a more enhanced independent defense capability. The Roh administration probably will continue to believe that ultimately guaranteeing the ROK’s security will require a multilateral regional security framework and that embedding the U.S.-ROK alliance within some kind of a multilateral Northeast Asian security forum was the best way to assure that Seoul’s interests would not be ignored by its more powerful neighbors and to enhance peace and stability in the region around the Korean peninsula.


Finally, the conference addressed the role of anti-Americanism in the presidential campaign and its impact on the Roh administration views and policies.  It was clear to all observers that Roh Moo-hyun rode to power on the wave of mass anti-Americanism, but after the election he chose to dump it.  Of course, anti-Americanism is not new to the ROK.  Radical South Korean students, for example, burned Stars and Stripes with such shocking frequency in the 1980s and 1990s that at the time North Koreans joked that Americans should feel safer in Pyongyang than in Seoul.  The relationship between America and Korea has often been punctuated by “mood swings” ever since it was consummated by the Schufeldt Treaty in 1883. 


Anti-Americanism masks four different phenomena in the Republic of Korea.  The first background type of general and unfocused anti-Americanism inclines Koreans to see what is valuable in their way of life under constant pressure from a dominant American-led western culture.  This sense of “East-West polarity” with clear racial overtones and consequent “cultural victimization” mentality predisposes Koreans to sympathize with whoever opposes America in a dispute, regardless of the issue at hand. 


The second “coming-of-age” type of sharper and more acute anti-Americanism is a reaction against perceived discrimination, a demand for parity and equality between Korea and the United States.  It is rooted in a perception that the United States does not appreciate the progress the ROK has made and still wishes to treat Korea as an inferior client state.  It is more “policy sensitive” than other types of anti-American sentiments. 


The third type of “hope and disappointment” anti-Americanism stems from perceived inconsistencies between American ideals and American practices as related to the image of America in Korean eyes.  Whenever Koreans’ very high (and often unrealistic) expectations of the United States were not met, the disappointment felt by Koreans whose faith in America was shattered, gave birth to anti-Americanism.  This is a cumulative sentiment, which can be triggered by controversial policies or the behavior of U.S. representatives in Korea.


Finally, there is a breed of anti-American sentiment resulting from the South Korean public’s growing sense of solidarity with North Korea.  When America is seen as taking a hard line toward North Korea, Washington’s actions are viewed with suspicion through the lenses of all other types of anti-Americanism.  This form of anti-Americanism related to the ROK’s intensifying sense of common identity with North Korea poses the greatest potential challenge to the U.S.-ROK security alliance.  It is likely to increase over time.  The closer the North and South grow together, the more likely the South will display an anti-American sentiment from a sense of solidarity with the North.  Although anti-Americanism does not pose a grave threat to U.S. interests at present, clearly, as time passes by, it will no longer be viable for the United States to think it can be friends with one half of Korea while remaining a mortal enemy with the other half, because of growing Korean national consciousness.