Lee Myung-bak, above, of the Grand National Party is the front-runner in South Korea's presidential election.
South Korea and Taiwan: Economic dragons, vibrant democracies
UPCOMING presidential elections in both South Korea and Taiwan could help to improve U.S. relations with both. New leadership is assured as neither Taiwan's President Chen Sui-bian nor South Korean President Roh Moo-hyun can run again.
With the support of 60 percent of the electorate, according to the Korea Times, the Grand National Party appears to be on the road to victory in December's presidential election. The GNP stands for close relations with the United States, Japan and the West, plus it takes a hard line on North Korea; positions that are all contrary to those advocated by President Roh.
Yonhap News reports that the leading GNP presidential aspirants -- former Seoul mayor and former top Hyundai Group executive Lee Myung-bak and former GNP chairwoman Park Geun-hye, who is the daughter of assassinated President Park Chung-hee -- are responding to popular demand by focusing on economic growth. With a 40 percent favorable rating, Lee is promoting his "7.4.7 Vision." In other words, Lee aims to create a 7 percent growth rate, $40,000 per capita gross national product, and build the economy into the seventh largest in the world by 2010. Following with a 20 percent favorable rating, Park has promoted ideas to bring the Korean stock market index up to the 3,000-point level, even though it only recently passed the 1,500 point.
Things seem to be going well for the GNP; however, there are problems.
Squabbling over the party's primary candidate selection process and a stinging defeat in the September 26 by-election, amid allegations that some candidates paid bribes to secure their nominations, fuel rumors that the party will split in two. Although the dictatorial period in South Korean history is largely remembered as the era of generals and presidents Park Chung-hee and Chun Doo-hwan, it ended with the creation of direct presidential elections in 1987; unfortunately, the GNP is still often associated with that period.
The ruling Uri Party, onetime party of President Roh, registers only a 10 percent approval rating among South Korean voters. Thirty-two Uri National Assembly members recently resigned from the party, sacrificing the party's majority in the assembly and seeking to create another party with a better image. Separately, former Uri chairmen Chung Dong-young and Kim Geun-tae might bolt the party by the end of this month, resulting in an additional loss of 30 members.
Talk abounded about a possible coalition between former Uri assembly members and other South Korean political parties such as the Democratic Party and Democratic Labor Party. When no coalition could be negotiated with the DP, 20 former Uri members created a new party on May 7, which they hoped would grow in strength and ultimately be an attractive coalition partner with other parties. Besides the lack of direction displayed by all opposition entities, the GNP is the only party with viable candidates.
Given the unraveling of the U.S.-South Korean Alliance under liberal South Korean governments, a GNP victory in the December 19 presidential election would help to stabilize the relationship.
Former Taiwan premier and mayor of Kaohsiung Frank Hsieh (Hsieh Chang-ting) has been selected as the Democratic Progressive Party presidential candidate, besting outgoing President Chen's protégé, Premier Su Jen-chang, by a tally of 44 percent to 33 percent. Hsieh wants to improve relations with China and rev up Taiwan's economy. Yet, the DPP has stubbornly promoted Taiwan independence, despite a fall in popular support.
Hsieh, a founder of the DPP and an attorney, prominently defended Taiwan independence activists in the wake of the Kaohsiung Incident when Taiwan was under martial law. Moreover, his likely vice-presidential running mate is Yeh Chu-lan. According to the China Post, Yeh is the widow of Nylon Deng, a martyr who immolated himself in 1989 as a protest for freedom of the press. Yeh is closely identified with independence activists.
Under Hsieh, the DPP might develop a friendlier approach toward China; however, the Nationalist Party has consistently been more favorable to developing a long-term accommodation with mainland China. Former Taipei mayor and recently resigned president of the Nationalist Party, Ma Ying-jeou is the Nationalist presidential candidate. Wang Jin-pyng, president of the Legislative Yuan, is a likely vice-presidential candidate. Wang is a member of the pro-localization faction of the Nationalist Party. The faction advocates the study of Taiwanese history and culture, preferring not to see Taiwan as a mere outgrowth of China.
Until questioned by prosecutors regarding alleged embezzlement in November 2006, Ma Ying-jeou was considered a foregone winner in the 2008 presidential election. Recently, he seems to be regaining traction, yet his stature has been hurt, which will result in a difficult race against Hsieh.
Chen has pushed Taiwan independence too much for the good of Taiwan, his party's own aspirations and Taiwan's relations with the United States. Many supporters in his first run for president withdrew support in his 2004 run when he won by less than a percentage point. Taiwan is at a difficult economic juncture where it can no longer thrive on cheap labor. Many in Taiwan are more concerned about the island's economic future, arguing that independence would not improve the economic situation.
Unless Hsieh does an about-face on Chen's position on independence, U.S. interests are better served by a Nationalist victory, which would help to maintain the U.S. primary goal in East Asia: stability, which would benefit all countries.
Whatever the electoral results, South Korea and Taiwan are maturing democracies that are adding excitement and vibrance to East Asian politics.
Bill Sharp teaches classes about the domestic and international politics of East Asia at Hawaii Pacific University. He writes a monthly commentary for the Star-Bulletin. firstname.lastname@example.org