No matter which direction the electorate turns, the choices seem to be disintegrating with each passing day.
The presumptive first woman president, conservative Park Geun-hye, has
watched her chances for election fall just short of going down in
flames. First, there were the corruption scandals among her campaign
organizers that did a brilliant job of reminding folks that Ms. Park
comes along with all the sordid baggage of the conservative camp. Then
her belated apology to the victims of her father’s excessive abuses of
power as president, which came across as too late and too cynical as a
means to prop up her sagging polls numbers. And now, there is the
least-expected development - major infighting in her campaign, as a
result of Ms. Park trying to widen her appeal to the anti-Park family
During the recent holidays and at a relative’s wedding, I talked with
my in-laws, who have generally supported the opposition camp even though
they hail from arch-conservative Daegu. They are ardent Ahn Cheol-soo
supporters. When I asked them about whether Ahn was truly qualified to
serve as president given his absolute zero experience in government and
politics, I was told that Ahn is very intelligent and that they expected
him to surround himself with equally intelligent advisers.
Okay, I said, but can Ahn beat Park if Moon Jae-in is also running? Of
course not, was the reply, but Moon will certainly join up with Ahn in
order to beat Park; or in a worst case, Ahn will join forces with Moon.
I responded that both Ahn and Moon are exceptionally intelligent men,
but no one has really tested their emotional intelligence. High IQs are
often dwarfed by giant-sized egos. If this was a game of chicken to see
who would succumb first and offer to join forces, we would have major
blood on the highway. And so far, my dire forecast seems to be
The fundamental problem, however, may not be the individual
psychologies of these leading candidates. The underlying problem is the
relative immaturity of Korean democracy that lacks strong political
platforms on which candidates stand and for which they volunteer to
support. Instead, we have strong personalities that form cliques with
lesser politicians. And surrounding these cliques are many hopeful
hangers-on who have much to lose should their candidate bow out and
support another candidate.
These low-profile power groups place huge amounts of pressure on their
candidates that often preclude the politicians from being adequately
flexible enough to do the right thing for overall good of the country,
or to risk taking turns holding power, by chancing deals where this
year’s dominate candidate will support the subordinate candidate during
the next major election.
In some ways, one may say that the candidates are figureheads for large
vested interest groups that may not actually be all that different on
policies but fiercely competitive to gain power. Picture if you can, a
three-team rugby match with scrums made up from three teams. The primary
difference is one cannot easily see the whole team but only the team
captains in these scrums.
Sadly, most of the electorate would very much like to see a change from
the current administration of corrupt conservatives who overly favor
chaebol and seem incapable to adequately serve the rest of society -
regardless of their actual intentions. At the same time, the so-called
progressives are proving to be remarkably unreliable and possibly
But right now, the electoral choices look much less appealing than they
did even a month ago. The only person who has proven to be universally
popular in Korea these days is, of course, Psy. I joked with my in-laws
that perhaps he should run for president. The more I quipped about this
outrageous idea, the more practical it seemed, much to my surprise and
dismay. But consider the following:
First, Psy does not have a cadre of hangers-on, expecting political
spoils. Sure, some want to share in the current limelight. But Psy is
not closely affiliated with any political camp.
Second, Psy has as much experience in governance as Ahn Chol-soo. The
two men share rock star-like fame. But if only because fame is more
recent, Psy seems to be handling his popularity better, recognizing that
while his global recognition is well earned, his fame is also a bit of a
Third, across political lines and generations, Psy is someone that almost everyone in Korea is proud of.
Fourth, Psy has proven exceptional leadership around the world in
motivating hundreds of thousands of people to do the horse dance.
Fifth, if elected, we could have one of the most amazing North-South
summits. Kim Jong-un is about the same age, size and build as Psy - and
has only a year or two more of political experience. What we could be
witnessing would portend the future of a unified Korea. Eventually we
may even see a “cool” walk-off on live television. We could see who has
the better moves, postures and body language - with and without sun
While I’m not genuinely sincere about a Psy presidential candidacy, we
need to also look at where are today. If the election were to be held
today, we might expect low voter turnout with the conservatives
retaining power as those who desire stability are more likely to turn
out in greater numbers than the disheartened idealists who are looking
for genuine change in governance.
But it is still a long, long while in political time until the December
elections, so matters could very well turn upside down quite
unexpectedly. Perhaps Psy entering the fray on one level or another is
just what this election needs.
* The author is a Senior Adviser to IPG. The article appeared in the Korea Joonang Daily on October 16, 2012.
Sean Hayes may be contacted at: SeanHayes@ipglegal.com.
Sean Hayes is co-chair of the Korea Practice Team for one of the leading international law firms. He is the only non-Korean to have worked as an attorney for the Korean court system (Constitutional Court of Korea). IPG is engaged in projects for companies and entrepreneurs doing business in Bangladesh, Cambodia, China, Korea, Laos, Myanmar, the Philippines, Vietnam and the U.S. www.ipglegal.com