It isn’t often that an anti-virus software engineer has the charisma to command an entire country’s attention and paralyze its politics, but that’s pretty much what Ahn Cheol-soo is managing to do these days in South Korea.
As maneuvering begins for the December 19 presidential election, the big question is whether Ahn will run for the country’s top post. So far, the opposition lacks a compelling candidate, and many on the liberal side think Ahn is their only hope to knock the ruling New Frontier Party out of office. Ahn still hasn’t committed himself.
Ahn is a software tycoon and university professor who became a household name last October when he flipped Seoul’s mayoral election on its head by endorsing independent candidate, and
eventual victor, Park Won-soon. Many hope it was a precursor to something similar on the national level. Ahn is extremely popular among young voters and others who crave a different look in South Korean politics.
With five months left until the presidential vote, Ahn hasn’t definitively stated his plans. The will-he-or-won’t-he tale is a near-daily topic of discussion in Korean media.
If he runs, he could win and bring hope for a new kind of politics. He could also lose, which would send the demoralizing message that no matter how talented a candidate is, there is no way for an outsider to successfully penetrate South Korea’s cronyist establishment.
Ahn has seen a spike in public support recently. Last week, he released a book called Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts, which shattered sales records and was read by many as tantamount to a declaration of candidacy. On July 23, he appeared on a popular television talk show that received record ratings on the night of his appearance.
South Korea’s politics remain polarized between conservative and liberal camps. In his book and public appearances, Ahn has opted to remain ideologically unaligned, placing himself under neither label, instead referring to his approach as one of simple common sense.
If he’s looking to build public support, it appears to be working. Results of a RealMeter poll released on July 25 show 48.3% of voters responding that they would vote for Ahn over Park, who received favorable responses from 45.2% of participants. Just before his book release and TV appearance, Ahn had 47.7% to Park’s 44.8%.
With Ahn having no experience in politics, veteran politicians have been as welcoming to him as one would expect. On Sunday, NFP lawmaker Kim Jae-won called Ahn an “opportunist with the face of the Little Prince”.
Even some supporters admit Ahn hasn’t paid his political dues. If he does run for the presidency, he would be looking to jump directly into the country’s top job.
South Korea’s North Korea policy is widely expected to change with December’s transfer of power, whether or not Ahn runs and wins. The past five years of the Lee Myung-bak administration have seen some of the worst inter-Korean relations ever, with the shelling of Yeonpyeong Island and sinking of a South Korean corvette in 2010 particular low points.
The Wall Street Journal’s Korea Real Time blog has translated select portions of “Ahn Cheol-soo’s Thoughts” that discuss North Korea. The book is drawn from extended interviews with journalism professor Jeong Je-im.
On North Korea, Ahn says, “North Korea is a problem for us to solve, but at the same time it could also be a present for our future. When peaceful economic cooperation with the North is activated, our domestic market will expand. North Korea could possibly be a source of growth momentum since the [South] Korean economy is currently stagnant. We can take advantage of North Korea’s underground resources, tourist attractions and human resources, and a new way could open up for building a North-East Asia economic zone or for a land route from Busan to Paris.
“For the future North and South relationship, North Korean policy, national security policy and diplomatic policy should not be separated. They should be integrated under a consistent strategy.”
These excerpts show a more flexible approach to the North, one considerate of the opportunities for cooperation on the peninsula.
Ahn would likely be matched up against Park Geun-hye, the country’s premier old guard, establishment politician. Park draws most of her support from the parents and grandparents of those hoping Ahn will run, and planning to vote for him if he does.
Park is a veteran politician, current leader of the ruling New Frontier Party and daughter of former military dictator Park Chung-hee.
Ever the shrewd politician, Park is aware of her perceived limitations and isn’t hesitating to aim straight for them. To adjust her image as someone who has overstayed her welcome on the national stage, Park has adopted aspirational slogans that one might normally not associate with an icon of conservatism. She is campaigning under the mantras, “Park Geun-hye is changing things” and “A country where my dream can come true.”
She is also aware of young and liberal voters’ disillusionment with the corruption that is common in the halls of South Korean power. Politicians have close ties to business and illicit money moves freely between the two worlds. The current president’s older brother was indicted last week on charges of accepting bribes from unscrupulous savings banks.
“I will become a president who will break the cycle of corruption,” Park told an audience in Busan on July 28.
It may be that Ahn is waiting until as late as possible to declare his candidacy, thereby shortening the campaign period and giving critics less time to poke holes in his resume.
It has been suggested that Ahn is waiting to declare his candidacy to shorten the campaign and give his opponents less time to poke holes in his plans and resume. The NFP’s Kim Jae-won said on that strategy, “That’s a trick: To make a contest with an exhausted candidate near the finish line.”
For the time being, Ahn’s plans are still anybody’s guess. He may well choose to remain in his role as millionaire businessman and university professor over jumping into the morass of national politics. Whatever he decides, the time between now and the election should be colorful even for South Korean politics.