South Koreans may face a fascinating choice come December’s presidential election: Elizabeth I or Ross Perot? Park Geun-hye, the unmarried ruling-party candidate, touts the queen who ruled England from 1558 to 1603 as a role model. Ahn Cheol-soo is the businessman most Koreans want to take her on.
He’s Korea’s answer to Perot, the billionaire who 20 years ago ran as America’s most successful modern third-party candidate. So far, Ahn hasn’t said if he will run. Should he do so, he could stand as an independent or as part of Korea’s opposition party. Either way, his involvement may leave Asia’s fourth-biggest economy better off. Ahn has talked about narrowing the income gap, reining in family-owned conglomerates known as chaebol, and economic engagement with North Korea.
Even if he doesn’t run, he is already altering the dynamics of the election in the same vein as Perot. For all his erratic behaviour and idiosyncrasies, Perot fired up Americans disenchanted with the two major parties in 1992.
Perot surged in polls at a time of legislative gridlock and distraction. While he finished third, Perot forced incumbent George H.W. Bush and the winner, Bill Clinton, to address prickly fiscal and trade matters they might have preferred to ignore. Ahn’s criticism rests on the premise that Korea’s two main parties are ignoring the interests of the nation’s 50 million people.
The gap between rich and poor is widening; competitiveness has waned; the population is aging; and North Korea’s Kim dynasty poses a constant threat. Part of Ahn’s appeal is his quirky pedigree. He’s a physician-turned-technology-guru-turned-academic; Ahn, 50, is now the dean of Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology. His eclecticism, philanthropy and success as founder of software firm Ahnlab have made him a draw as a motivational author and speaker. What he has to say might rouse a nation that needs a collective pick-me-up.
Park, 60, is a veteran legislator and inspiration in her own right. She would be the first female leader in a nation where sexism is part of the political and business landscapes. Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, who ruled Korea from 1961 until his assassination in 1979.
Like Elizabeth I, Park lost her parents to tragedy. Many credit Park Chung-hee with reviving the South’s economy after the devastation of the Korean War. That, for some Koreans, is just the problem. Park’s policies empowered a handful of politically connected conglomerates such as Samsung Electronics, LG and Hyundai Motor to form the core of the economy. Their ambition and hard work transformed the nation into the export power it is today.
The sitting president, Lee Myung-bak, is enmeshed in that world, serving as head of several Hyundai units from 1977 to 1992. These same family-controlled businesses that did so much to help Korea get where it is today, now may be holding it back. Their dominance stymies innovation and fosters wariness of the kind of startup community that gives birth to small and medium-sized enterprises.
Park, whose father established this arrangement, would be replacing Lee, a creature of the chaebol system who has presided over rising youth unemployment and waning national confidence. (He is constitutionally barred from running run again.) Ahn, for better or worse, is coming from a different place. He calls for a restoration of “welfare, justice and peace” and advocates banning cross-shareholdings and investments in subsidiaries among the family conglomerates.
He also has a more moderate stance on North Korea. That includes expanding a joint economic zone in Gaeseong, north of the border, and resuming tours of North Korea’s Mount Geumgang. Lee’s administration, let’s face it, has achieved zero on North Korea. His government doesn’t seem to realise that Kim Jong-un, the third in a dynasty of communist dictators in the North, may be different from his father, who died in December.
Where has refusing to negotiate with North Korea’s leaders gotten the world? It is true that Ahn has no legislative experience. As president, he might be hard-pressed to get big things done. Yet Ahn’s outsider status may be an advantage, distancing him from what he calls the “outdated” practices of Korea’s dominant parties. Even if Park wins four months from now, Korea will be better off for Ahn’s participation.
He is putting the biggest challenges up for discussion: Korea’s role in an Asia torn apart by territorial disputes; its ability to prosper in the space between wealthy Japan and low-cost China; why rapid economic growth hasn’t made South Koreans any happier. It takes more than one candidate to alter a nation’s political trajectory.
Perot’s obsession with the US budget deficit was forgotten in the 2000s amid tax cuts, wars and financial crises. Yet South Korea shows how even a fairly healthy democracy can get so bogged down in party infighting that the leadership forgets whom they are fighting for: the people and anything, or anyone, who gets to the root of the nation’s malaise.