By Sangbo Park
In the wake of the abuse of power scandal involving South Korean President Park Geun-hye and her confidante, Choi Soon-sil, Park announced on November 29 that she would accept a timeline for her resignation from the National Assembly. Facing the rage of both the political arena and the public, Park had earlier apologized for her inappropriate relationship with Choi. However, massive rallies demanded her resignation and opposition parties commenced the impeachment process, along with prosecutors’ investigation. The scandal is expected to bring about continuing political upheaval, impacting in particular three potential candidates for the presidential election in 2017: Ban Ki-moon, Moon Jae-in, and Ahn Cheol-soo. While the scandal has an enormous negative impact on Ban, it provides an exceptional opportunity for the possible opposition candidates, particularly Moon of the Minjoo Party.
As Ban Ki-moon finishes his tenure as U.N. Secretary General in December, he emerges as a potential presidential candidate. Even though Ban has not explicitly expressed his willingness to run for president due to his current position, he alluded to the presidency in an interview with Reuters. Given his impeccable reputation, he has been courted by the political arena, particularly the ruling Saenuri Party. However, the speculation over whether Ban might join Saenuri is now suspect in the wake of the scandal.
According to Realmeter polls, his approval rating fell from 26.80% in late September to 17.70% in late November. Saenuri, which lost its majority status in the National Assembly in April, has recognized that it has fallen into disfavor with the public. Thus, Saenuri’s hope of leveraging Ban as a new face will not likely change despite the abrupt fall in his approval rating. Ban, highly regarded as an exemplary diplomat, has sufficient potential to resurrect Saenuri, but it is not certain whether a prudent figure like him will risk his reputation by choosing the ailing party.
Moon Jae-in, the 2012 presidential candidate of the Democratic United Party (now the Minjoo Party), is emerging as a candidate again. Moon, a former human rights lawyer who was arrested during a pro-democracy movement as a university student, has a decent reputation with the public. Following the scandal, Moon urged Park to immediately resign before being impeached. More importantly, his approval rating outpaced that of Ban in November.
The biggest question about his presidential bid is his ambiguous stance on North Korea. As a former chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, who adopted the Peace and Prosperity Policy toward North Korea, Moon supports a peace-oriented policy using dialogues and economic aid — despite North Korea’s continuing provocations. He recently was in the hot seat because a former foreign minister, Song Min-soon, claimed in his memoir that Moon sought North Korea’s opinion prior to abstaining from a U.N. resolution on North Korea’s human rights in 2007. Though Moon asserted this was not true, his pro-North Korea attitude generally hurts his candidacy; yet, this controversy is not likely to outweigh the fallout of Park’s scandal. Since the scandal is a golden opportunity for the Minjoo and Moon, they need to evince a strong will to contain North Korea in the face of serious provocations and public concern. It is important to note that even the unpopular Park’s approval rating immediately increased from 31% to 34% following North Korea’s fifth nuclear test in September.
Ahn Cheol-soo made a meteoric rise from obscurity to candidacy in the 2012 presidential race, similar to Ban today. His previous careers as a philanthropic software entrepreneur and professor were unrelated to politics, but he emerged as a refreshing new player in the political arena, bolstered by the public’s desire for new politics. In contrast to high expectations, though, he lacked clear policies and withdrew from race in the wake of the televised debate with Moon. Though Ahn then endorsed Moon, his endorsement was too late to turn more voters away from Park.
Ahn, however, ran and won a parliamentary seat as an independent candidate in the by-elections in 2013. He joined a main opposition party as a co-chair in 2014, but left to form the People’s Party in 2016, which upset the two-party system by winning 38 seats in the 20th general election. Despite his resignation as his party’s co-chair over the party’s corruption scandal in June, he is in the spotlight as a presidential candidate. Though he is in line with public opinion in demanding Park’s resignation, his approval rating is currently not high enough to compete with the other two potential candidates. A feasible breakthrough for Ahn would be cooperating with Ban not only to compete with Moon, but also to promote his policies to the public.
The Fallout Continues
According to a Gallup Korea poll, Park’s approval rating has plummeted from 25% to 4% since news of the scandal broke. Whereas the scandal is deeply harmful for the ruling Saenuri, it is advantageous to opposition parties. Ban has expressed concern over the scandal, but it has already had a large adverse impact on his popularity. Saenuri floor leader Chung Jin-suk, a pro-Ban politician, even expressed deep doubt on November 4 that Ban would join the “beleaguered party.” On the other hand, while Moon has been hard put until now to solidify the divided the Minjoo, the scandal is the perfect opportunity for him to increase both public and intraparty support. Similarly, Ahn has a rare chance to make a prompt but careful maneuver to increase his own credibility. Regardless of the timing of Park’s resignation, the fallout of the scandal will continue to impact both the future of the Saenuri and the dynamics of the 2017 presidential election.
Sangbo Park is an intern with the East Asia program at the Stimson Center and a fellow at the Asan Academy.