South Korea Election Turns Into 2-Way Race as Dark Horse Surges

April 14, 2017

By CHOE SANG-HUN

https://www.nytimes.com/2017/04/14/world/asia/south-korea-election-ahn-cheol-soo.html?smprod=nytcore-iphone&smid=nytcore-iphone-share

Ahn Cheol-soo after winning the People’s Party presidential nomination during its convention in Daejeon, South Korea, this month. His support in the polls has surged ahead of the election in May. Credit Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

Ahn Cheol-soo after winning the People’s Party presidential nomination during its convention in Daejeon, South Korea, this month. His support in the polls has surged ahead of the election in May. Credit Kim Hong-Ji/Reuters

SEOUL, South Korea — Just last month, Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul turned politician, looked like another also-ran for the South Korean presidential election in May. His centrist People’s Party held only 40 seats in the 300-member Parliament. He was barely polling at 10 percent in surveys.

Now, with less than a month to go before the election and as tensions flare on the Korean Peninsula, Mr. Ahn, 55, has suddenly become a leading contender to be the next president, offering hope to conservatives and others alarmed by the North’s nuclear and missile threats.

The election could not be taking place at a more fraught moment. The victor will be replacing an impeached president and entering office at a time when tensions between the Koreas are as high as they have been in a long time.

The outcome is likely to have far-reaching implications for international efforts to deal with North Korea, analysts say.

President Trump has been pressing China to exert its influence on the North to forestall more nuclear tests and missile launches. He has threatened to act unilaterally if the Chinese do not prevail. The North, in turn, threatened on Friday to attack American military bases in South Korea as well as the Blue House, where South Korea’s president resides.

The Chinese leadership has been calling on both the North and the United States to exercise restraint.

In the midst of this brinkmanship, Mr. Ahn’s support in polls has surged this month, turning the campaign into a two-way race with Moon Jae-in, the candidate from the largest political party, the left-leaning Democrats, who control 119 parliamentary seats. Until now, the election had seemed like a shoo-in for Mr. Moon.

Mr. Ahn, a boyish former medical doctor and relative neophyte in politics, calls himself a champion of “new politics” who would heal a country disillusioned with what he describes as a corrupt and out-of-touch elite.

But his detractors call him a “stooge” for old politics, beholden to conservative allies of former President Park Geun-hye, whose impeachment and ouster last month led to the election.

Polling experts say that Mr. Ahn owed his recent popularity to people who shunned conservative candidates after Ms. Park’s corruption scandal but did not trust Mr. Moon either, especially in dealing with North Korea’s advancing military abilities.

Mr. Ahn has wooed those people by attacking Ms. Park’s government while promising to honor its decision to allow the United States to deploy an advanced missile defense system in the country against the North, a decision that has infuriated China.

Moon Jae-in, left, of the Democratic Party, Mr. Ahn, center, and Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party at the National Assembly in Seoul, the capital, on Wednesday. Mr. Moon and Mr. Ahn have some similar views. Credit Lee Jin-Man/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

Moon Jae-in, left, of the Democratic Party, Mr. Ahn, center, and Sim Sang-jeung of the Justice Party at the National Assembly in Seoul, the capital, on Wednesday. Mr. Moon and Mr. Ahn have some similar views. Credit Lee Jin-Man/Agence France-Presse — Getty Images

“We should never recognize North Korea as a nuclear power,” Mr. Ahn said recently, emphasizing that he would prioritize national security if elected. “If the North is about to launch a nuclear attack, we should first strike the source of attack.”

The conservative camp, in power for the last nine years, was thrown into disarray when the National Assembly voted to impeach Ms. Park, a conservative icon, in December and a ruling by the Constitutional Court formally ousted her in March.

With the two main conservative candidates polling in the single digits, people who would normally vote conservative have been seeking alternatives.

Their initial enthusiasm for Ban Ki-moon, the former secretary general of the United Nations, was quashed as he barely began campaigning before dropping out.

Then, they rallied behind Ahn Hee-jung, a left-centrist provincial governor. But Mr. Ahn was eliminated this month when he lost the Democratic Party primary to Mr. Moon.

Ahn Cheol-soo’s support has since skyrocketed.

“For many centrist and conservative voters, there is no one else to turn to except Ahn Cheol-soo,” said Kim Jiyoon, a polling expert at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies in Seoul. “Whether he can win the election will depend largely on how many of the anti-Moon voters he can persuade to come out and vote for him.”

Mr. Moon and Mr. Ahn share remarkably similar views on many issues.

Both have liberal goals like narrowing income inequality and overhauling the chaebol, the family-controlled conglomerates like Samsung that have dominated the economy for decades, often through collusive ties with government, as shown in Ms. Park’s scandal.

Both promise to review the unpopular agreement Ms. Park’s government had struck with Japan on “comfort women,” the Korean women forced into sexual slavery by Japan during World War II.

And they both emphasize the importance of the alliance with the United States. But they argue that sanctions and pressure alone have failed to stop North Korea’s weapons program and that it is time to try dialogue. During a televised debate on Thursday, both opposed action by the United States that might prompt war on the peninsula, like a pre-emptive military strike against the North.

The candidates even grew up in the same town: Busan, a port city in the southeast.

But they have vastly different backgrounds and public images. Mr. Ahn is a paragon of elite success. A son of a medical doctor, Mr. Ahn quit practicing medicine in 1995 and built a fortune developing the country’s most successful antivirus software. He later became a graduate school dean at Seoul National University, his alma mater.

During the debate, he said he would use his school connections and business background to build a rapport with Mr. Trump. Both Mr. Ahn and Mr. Trump attended the Wharton School of the University of Pennsylvania.

“Like Spider-Man, once you have the power, even if you don’t like it, you have to accept the responsibility that comes with it and act accordingly,” Mr. Ahn, a science fiction fan, once said in a magazine interview.

Mr. Moon in Seoul this week. Until now, the election had seemed like a shoo-in for him. Credit Yonhap, via European Pressphoto Agency

Mr. Moon in Seoul this week. Until now, the election had seemed like a shoo-in for him. Credit Yonhap, via European Pressphoto Agency

In 2011, his plain talk about justice and the despair of jobless young citizens made him an instant political star in South Korea, where grievances over a government that served the privileged rather than the common good created a political tinderbox that would eventually explode in Ms. Park’s impeachment. In 2012, he won a parliamentary seat.

Mr. Moon, 64, a human rights lawyer and former student activist, served in important political posts in the government of his closest friend and ideological ally, Roh Moo-hyun, the president from 2003 to 2008. If Mr. Moon is elected, conservatives fear, he would revive Mr. Roh’s “sunshine policy” of trying to build trust with North Korea through aid, investment and exchanges.

The policy brought an unprecedented détente on the divided peninsula. But conservatives argue that it helped finance the North’s nuclear weapons program. They also view Mr. Moon as a replica of Mr. Roh, who once said he would never “kowtow to the Americans.”

In a book published in January, Mr. Moon said South Korea should learn to “say no to the Americans.”

“Given the tough-sounding foreign policy team of the Trump administration, some South Koreans fear that friction with Washington would be more likely under Moon than under Ahn,” said Ko Sung-kook, a political commentator.

This year, as the ballistic missile threat from the North grows, conservatives and liberals are sharply split over the American deployment of an antimissile system known as Terminal High Altitude Area Defense, or Thaad. Mr. Ahn and Mr. Moon were among the first to oppose the deployment.

But Mr. Ahn later changed his stance, saying that it was “irresponsible” for a future president to reverse a deal struck between the two governments. That shift helped him attract conservative voters, analysts said.

Because of his business background, Mr. Ahn comes across as more palatable for conservative voters than Mr. Moon, said Bae Jong-chan, research director at Research and Research, an opinion survey company.

But many consider Mr. Ahn a naïve populist. He also faces doubts about whether his small opposition party can push policies through a contentious Parliament, Mr. Bae said.

“What can you do with only 40 parliamentary seats?” Mr. Moon recently said of Mr. Ahn.

With Mr. Ahn catching up fast, Mr. Moon has redoubled his efforts to bolster his national security credentials. He said that if the North conducted another nuclear test, dialogue with North Korea would be difficult and the Thaad deployment “inevitable.”

“I will create a government most feared by North Korea, most trusted by the United States and most reliable for China,” Mr. Moon said in a nationally televised campaign speech on Thursday.

For his part, Mr. Ahn recently changed what detractors have called his feminine voice, to sound more tough and seasoned.

“If you can’t change yourself, how can you change the nation?” he told the daily JoongAng Ilbo this week.

One Comment

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