Elections cast doubt on South Korea’s outreach to Pyongyang

The future of South Korea’s pursuit of rapprochement with nuclear-armed Pyongyang has been thrown into doubt after the ruling party suffered a stunning defeat in mayoral by-elections in the two biggest cities.

Voters in the capital Seoul and the southern port of Busan handed comfortable victories on Wednesday to candidates from the opposition conservative People Power party, dealing a blow to President Moon Jae-in’s progressive Democratic party ahead of presidential elections next year.

Analysts said the mayoral races were fought mostly on domestic issues, including property speculation scandals involving senior officials which deepened national outrage over rapidly increasing house prices.

The polls were not viewed as a bellwether of support for Moon’s overtures to North Korea’s Kim Jong Un. But they have raised uncertainty over Seoul’s foreign policy direction.

June Park, a Seoul-based political economist with George Washington University, says the political situation is “disturbing” with a lack of charismatic presidential candidates and the direction far from clear on issues such as relations with North Korea, China and the US.

“South Korea is in a very challenging environment but thinking there may not be a strong candidate makes a lot of citizens very worried about the future,” she says.

South Korea is deeply divided along political lines. Progressives traditionally favour engagement with North Korea and closer ties with China but the close US ally, at the heart of Asia’s technology supply chain, is also increasingly under pressure from Washington to join its regional and multilateral initiatives geared towards countering China’s rise, analysts said.

The questions now hanging over South Korea’s approach to North Korea come with nuclear talks having stalled between Pyongyang and Washington and President Joe Biden’s administration reviewing US policy on the nuclear state.

Moon, who is serving a single five-year term, spearheaded a period of international summits with Pyongyang after he took office in 2017. His government has urged the international community to ease sanctions and boost aid for North Koreans suffering from the severe downturn amid the coronavirus pandemic which has further isolated their country.

But Kim has also cut engagement with Moon, an effort to pressure the South Korean president into offering bigger concessions.

The victories for former mayor Oh Se-hoon in Seoul and Park Hyung-jun in Busan were viewed as the first signs of a revival in the political fortunes of opposition groups. They have mostly languished since the downfall of Park Geun-hye — the president who was ousted from office and later imprisoned over corruption.

John Delury, an Asia expert at Yonsei University in Seoul, believed, however, there would not be a “radical turn” if conservatives returned to power next year given most South Koreans generally support forging closer ties with North Korea.

“Are the conservatives going to come in with a confrontational approach to North Korea? I don’t think that is very popular,” he said.

Still, the election results were a striking turnround from a year ago when the Democratic party stormed to its first legislative majority in 16 years on the back of resounding public approval of the Moon government’s handling of the coronavirus pandemic. Beyond the two high-profile mayoral races on Wednesday, People Power won 13 of 19 other local posts contested.

The election campaigns also returned the spotlight to South Korea’s struggles with women’s rights and homophobia.

The mayoral by-elections were needed because Park Won-soon, the former longstanding popular mayor of Seoul and once favoured presidential frontrunner, committed suicide after allegations of sexual assault from a staff member and Oh Keo-don, the former Busan mayor, resigned following a sexual misconduct allegation. And during the campaign several candidates drew criticism from LGBT+ rights groups over responses to questions on gay rights.

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