THAAD, Ahn, and the Defector Vote: #Shigak no. 37

By | April 30, 2017 | No Comments

A photo of pamphlets from the five major presidential candidates sent by election authorities to households in South Korea. | Image: Steven Denney/Sino-NK

On April 2, Sino-NK began a series of regular analyses looking at the South Korean presidential election through the lens of the Korean-language media, reviving a series that ran from February 2014 to October 2015. “Shigak” (시각), or “perspective” uses Twitter to curate sources on the key determinants of the election outcome. Each issue takes the most important tweets posted by Sino-NK analysts under the #시각 hashtag and augments them with essential annotations and a bite-size dollop of concentrated analysis.

Sino-NK will publish brand new #Shigak analyses three times a week between now and the election on May 9. #Shigak is edited by Steven Denney and Christopher Green. Yongmin Lee is a regular contributor. Back issues can be found on the dedicated page. Importantly, users of Twitter are encouraged to adopt the hashtag and take part in the project.

THAAD, Ahn, and the Defector Vote: #Shigak no. 37

by Sino-NK

In this edition of #Shigak we add the diverse voices of the defector community to the cacophony of election opinion, assess the reasons behind the current, potentially vital dip in Ahn Cheol-soo’s popularity and concomitant rise of Hong Joon-pyo, and review the THAAD-tinged fifth televised debate.

The latest Gallup Korea poll shows Minjoo Party candidate and front-runner, Moon Jae-in, pulling ahead of the pack, and People’s Party candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo, losing support. Ahn was seen as a legitimate contender in the lead-up to the the official campaign season, which began earlier this month. Since then, however, Ahn has been on a downward trajectory; he needed to capture both center-left and center-right voters – a difficult feat, to be sure. Perhaps unsurprisingly, he appears to be failing at this task.

Reasons for Ahn’s drop in popular support vary, but two widely cited triggers are: 1) Poor debate performance; and 2) unfavorable policy positions. This election marks the first time that the main candidates have sparred in an open debate format (five debates are now legally required), and one expected consequence of this change has been more engagement by the candidates with one another and greater elaboration on salient political issues. Ahn, it would appear, has not fared well on either front.

Analysis of debate performances indicates that Ahn has come across as awkward and unable to communicate clearly in debates. Moreover, some of his policy positions – namely, his position that he favors private kindergarten education over the public choice (despite families, especially mothers, favoring the latter) — is cited as a trigger of his popularity dip. Conversations with voters in Seoul lends support to the view that Ahn’s poor debate performance has hurt him in the polls. It’s unclear how Ahn might rebound, but one shouldn’t rule out the possibility of a People’s Party merger with one (or both) of the conservative parties.

Another consequence of Ahn’s fall from contention has been a small surge for the conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo (Liberty Korea Party), who until recently was polling in the single digits.

Outsiders assume many things about South Korea’s community of resettled North Koreans, not least that the group’s membership is implacably conservative and will vote accordingly, irrespective of age, upbringing or any other variable one might ordinarily consider salient to voting behavior. Clarity on this point is rare, because although the defector community is surveyed by academics and policy-makers on a regular basis, the subject is not normally South Korean politics.

There is some truth to the claims of conservatism. It stems from a genuine sense of betrayal the first and second waves of post-North Korean famine defectors felt at the way in which the Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun administrations (1998-2008) sidelined defector voices in favor of engagement with the regime of Kim Jong-il, which the defectors felt was responsible for their plight. The most famous example of this phenomenon is Hwang Jang-yop, the former KWP International Secretary who defected to South Korea via Beijing and Manila in February 1997, before spending a decade on the fringes of the debate.

It is far from clear, however, why anyone arriving in South Korea from the North after 2008, when the last vestiges of the Sunshine Policy died alongside Park Wang-ja on a beach at Mt. Kumgang, would feel the same way as those first and second-wave migrants. More recent escapees tend to be young — the defector community now skews towards people in their 20s and 30s — and they have the same concerns as young people born and raised South Korean: the economy, jobs, and education. The story cited in the tweet is about a group of more than 40 young defectors declaring their support for the candidacy of Moon Jae-in. In a statement, the group said that the defector community is actually diverse and pointed out that many defectors attended the candlelight protests that led to the collapse of the Park Geun-hye government last December.

Moon’s defector supporters have attracted anger from several older defectors, who dismissed the young people as pro-North Korean sympathizers in social networking posts and even suggested that they might be spies. Perhaps they really are all embedded North Korean agitators. But this seems unlikely. Frankly, it would be odd if young defectors did not begin to turn toward an alternative vision of South Korean politics. After all, very few people found the last conservative government satisfactory, and there is no reason to think that young defectors would overlook its abundant failings.

On April 28, South Korean presidential candidates participated in their fifth televised debate. The debate was supposed to be about the economy, and indeed, many aspects of the economy such as job creation, corporate tax increase, and Kaesong Industrial Complex were discussed. However, the candidates were also blindsided by the overnight deployment of Terminal High Altitude Anti-missile Defense System (THAAD) on April 26 and US President Donald Trump’s sudden announcement two days later that he thought South Korea should pay for it.

During the debate, they differed sharply over how to handle Trump’s THAAD announcement. Conservative candidate Hong Joon-pyo suggested that Trump’s words amounted to a warning that if a leftist government were to be elected in South Korea, the US would bypass South Korea all together in future discussions (“Korea Passing”). Hong added that he would deal with Trump’s demand by importing US shale gas. Hong’s fellow conservative, Yoo Seung-min argued that Trump is using a negotiation tactic to achieve his other goal, which is to get South Korea to share more of its defense costs. Yoo said that he would persuade Trump to retract his THAAD request. Ahn Cheol-soo pointed out that THAAD is already a settled issue and that the US will pay for the system regardless of Trump’s words. Progressive candidate Shim Sang-jeong was critical of the US government for its unannounced deployment of THAAD, and said she would ask the US to take back THAAD. Moon Jae-in stated that paying for THAAD would require national assembly ratification, and that it is an issue for the next South Korean government.

Although the candidates were supposed to focus on economy, they found themselves mired in the THAAD debate yet again. The campaigns are getting ready for their final phase, but with North Korea and the US trading hawkish rhetoric, national security still lurks around the election.

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