But in advance of Wednesday’s parliamentary elections, both of South Korea’s major parties, beset by fresh controversies, have squandered the sense that they are offering something new, pundits say.
The quadrennial race to claim a majority in the 300-member National Assembly — and to gain momentum for December’s presidential election — was supposed to be a referendum on South Korea’s hot-button domestic issues, including education costs and access to welfare. Opinion polls suggested that those social and economic issues, far more than the issue of Seoul’s policy toward its authoritarian neighbor to the north, would determine the election. Both new parties, in recent months, shifted their platforms slightly to the left to capitalize on that sentiment.
Instead, the April campaign season has been driven by two scandals— one that started with a YouTube clip and one that took off because of the files on a computer memory stick. And a too-close-to-call race might be decided, analysts say, by which party better succeeds at damage control.
Both parties have said they want more engagement with North Korea, the difference only in degree. When Lee took office in 2008, he reversed the pro-engagement policy of his liberal predecessors, pulling away many of the aid packages and conditioning their return on Pyongyang’s denuclearization. North Korea has since conducted a series of missile launches, nuclear tests and military attacks, and relations between the Koreas remain testy.
The North frequently describes Lee as a traitor and a sycophant to Washington. On Tuesday, North Korea’s state-run newspaper asked South Korean voters to “punish the conservatives who are trampling down democracy and human rights.”
The YouTube clip begat the more recent, and more minor, scandal. It documented the vulgar comments of opposition Democratic United Party (DUP) candidate Kim Yong-min, a popular shock-jock podcaster, who joked eight years ago about carrying out a terrorist attack on the United States and releasing a serial killer to sexually assault then-U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. The politician also suggested that the serial killer should attack then-Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and President George W. Bush. Since the YouTube clip was posted, senior officials in Kim’s party have begged him to resign. Kim has refused.