President Obama of the US and President Lee Myung-bak of South Korea have maintained a close relationship since taking office. Image courtesy of official website of the Republic of Korea

Korean, US Elections Likely to Reshape Relationship


South Korea and the US will both be holding legislative and presidential elections over the next ten months, setting the stage for potentially significant leadership changes. These changes may spark fresh Korean public debate regarding the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement and may also have an impact on both governments’ approach to North Korea in the wake of Pyongyang’s own recent leadership succession.

Korea will be holding its legislative election in April, when all 299 seats will be up for grabs. Come November, the US will have congressional elections as well as decide on whether or not President Barack Obama will get a second term. Korea will wait until December to hold their own presidential election, but new leadership is guaranteed there, as each president is constitutionally allowed only one five-year term.

In Seoul, 2012 is shaping up to be a year of political renovation. The incumbent Grand National Party, Korea’s conservative majority party, is facing scrutiny for a number of alleged scandals within its membership, including bribery and computer hacking. As a result, the GNP has expressed its intent to evolve to reflect the shifting social mores and political climate in South Korea. Though major policy shifts have not yet been announced, within the last few weeks the GNP has rebranded itself by adopting a new name and logo. Now known as the New Frontier Party (새누리당, Saenuri-dang), the party is trying to distance itself from its recent reputation. This interest in re-crafting their image may also have been sparked by a loss in the polls in October 2011 in the Seoul mayoral race, when independent candidate Park Won-soon was elected over GNP favorite Na Kyung-won. The mayor of Seoul is often considered Korea’s second most important elected official, responsible for governing more than 20% of the nation’s population and the bulk of the country’s economy.

The mayoral election reflects growing public concern about the future of inter-Korean relations and some aspects of the Korea-US Free Trade Agreement, as those issues where somewhat central to the campaigns. The legislative election may prove to be a point of reevaluation of the FTA, as many liberals seek to amend it because the ruling conservatives fast-tracked its ratification. Trade between the US and Korea is a major source of income for both countries, with South Korea as the United States’ seventh biggest trade partner in 2010 and the US as Korea’s second biggest. Some Koreans would like to see certain aspects of the agreement renegotiated. With the legislative elections in April, we may see the current opposition become the majority and attempt to put a hold on the FTA until its terms can be fine-tuned to their liking. However, any delays in implementation would likely cause frustration in the United States, which is seeking to reinvigorate its economy in part through an increase in exports under President Obama’s National Export Initiative.

A lot can change between now and December, however. With the death of Kim Jong-il in December 2011, North Korea has the potential to be a volatile neighbor in the coming year, which may weigh heavily when South Korea heads to the polls to choose its next commander-in-chief, particularly because the North has historically been most provocative when undergoing leadership change. Whoever becomes the next president will be the one in office when wartime operational control of Korean and US forces on the peninsula is scheduled to be transferred from the US to Korea in 2015. What remains to be seen is whether the new Korean president will continue the more hard-line approach to dealing with the North as established by the current president or return to something akin to the Sunshine Policy of past administrations.

Whatever the outcomes in April, November, and December, it will be a year of major change on both sides of the Pacific and will surely have ramifications on the continuing alliance between South Korea and the US.

UPDATE (10 February 2012): After this article was published, the Saenuri Party announced their new official English name. The former Grand National Party will now be known as the New Frontier Party, not the New World Party as indicated in a previous version of this article.