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Saturday, Dec. 15, 2012
Choices in South Korea
As the campaign for next Wednesday's South Korean presidential election enters its final stage, the feud between Ms. Park Geun Hye of the ruling New Frontier Party and Mr. Moon Jae In of the opposition Democratic Unity Party is heating up.
The most important election issues should be how to lend stability to people's lives by rectifying the rich-poor economic gap and how to deal with North Korea, which launched a long-range rocket and placed a satellite into orbit on Wednesday.
Ms. Park is the daughter of the late Park Chung Hee, who led an authoritarian regime backed by the military and laid the foundations for South Korea's economic development as president from 1963 until his assassination in October 1979. Mr. Moon, a civic activist turned lawyer, served as chief secretary to the late Roh Moo Hyun, who served as president from 2003 to 2008.
Incumbent President Lee Myung Bak, a former CEO of Hyundai Engineering and Construction as well as a former mayor of Seoul, pushed policies favorable to conglomerates and promoted export-oriented industries. Although South Korean enterprises have increased their presence in overseas markets partly as a result of the falling value of the won, the gap between the rich and the poor has widened. And South Korea's suicide rate is the highest among the 34 OECD member countries.
Both Ms. Park and Mr. Moon call for democratizing the economy — more control of conglomerates, expansion of job opportunities and a reduction in the disparity between haves and have-nots.
Both call for prohibiting the complex practice of mutual shareholding among enterprises of the same conglomerate group. The prohibition is aimed at preventing a conglomerate from necessarily coming under the control of family members of the group founder. But the candidates' approaches are a bit different.
Mr. Moon thinks that such a prohibition should cover old and newer conglomerates, while Ms. Park pays some attention to the economic contributions conglomerates are making; she would apply the prohibition only to long-standing conglomerates.
The two candidates face the tasks of correcting the problems of an economy in which conglomerates appear to play excessively big roles, and of building a nation that has been relatively slow to improve ordinary people's welfare.
As for dealing with North Korea, Ms. Park has proposed pushing economic cooperation with Pyongyang as long as trustful relations are established. Mr. Moon has called for providing economic assistance to the North even without progress in getting the North to abandon its nuclear weapons development program. But this week's launch of the long-range rocket by North Korea will likely have an impact on their thinking.
Japan and South Korea face difficult bilateral issues, including the territorial dispute over Takeshima, Japan's past colonial rule of Korea and the use of "sex slaves" by Japan's Imperial armed forces during World War II. Korean enmity toward Japan over these issues has long cast a negative shadow over bilateral relations, sometimes to the point of affecting the cooperation needed to stabilize the economic and political situation in East Asia. Both countries must strive to improve bilateral ties.