The May 31 Local Government Elections in the ROK and South-North Relations

|Korean Peninsula

The local government elections that took place on May 31 ended in a crushing defeat for the ruling party and are assuming the nature of a political realignment. The ruling Uri Party was only able to secure one of the 7 major mayor posts and 9 provincial governorships, losing not only the capital, Seoul, and Gyeonggi-do, but also even lost the central region, where it had previously garnered increased support because of proposals to relocate the capital to that area. This article considers what impact these election results will have on South-North relations and the political power of the Roh Moo Hyun administration, which faces a presidential election next year.

Firstly, there is the question of how the election results look from the perspective of South-North relations. I would like to focus on the fact that, rather than being “a victory for the opposition Grand National Party”, these election results were “a rout for the ruling Uri Party”. Through the June 3 edition of the Rodong Sinmun, the official newspaper of the Workers’ Party of Korea, the DPRK designated these election results as “a confrontation between the pro- and anti-6.15 factions”, positioning them as “the sharp verdict of the people on the policymakers of South Korea”; it could be described as harsh criticism of the ruling party, which has no record of achievements with regard to domestic problems and has not secured the support of the people. Moreover, one could say that it strongly demanded that the government safeguard the principles of the “June 15 Declaration” and “our people together”, based on the interests of the people, and continue to promote South-North relations. Moreover, with regard to the opposition Grand National Party as well, it stated that the election was a “victory for the people”, rather than a “victory for the opposition Grand National Party”, and scathingly pointed out that the “verdict of the people” with regard to the Grand National Party had already been handed down in the ROK. The sixth anniversary of the June 15 Declaration was recently celebrated in Gwangju and representatives of both the South and the North gathered under one roof for the magnificent People’s Unification Festival. One could say that the results of this election did not represent the victory of the Grand National Party, which opposes South-North reconciliation; rather, it was a result that sternly questioned the ruling party as to whether or not it had diligently promoted South-North reconciliation from the perspective of the interests of the populace and informed it that it must rectify the situation.

Next, there is the impact that these election results will have on South-North relations in the future. It goes without saying that, although they were local government elections, the resounding defeat of the ruling party has inflicted major damage on the Roh administration on the brink of the presidential election. There are those of the viewpoint that cracks have begun to appear in the foreign policy of the Roh administration, which has emphasized relations with the North over relations with the US, based on a policy of “brotherhood” rather than “alliance”, but in view of the timetable of the administration from now until the presidential election, it is likely that relations with the North will be further promoted as a recovery strategy by the Roh administration. Naturally, a mountain of domestic problems to which importance should be attached, such as economic disparities, is also piling up. However, the Roh administration has not abandoned its previous stance of “dialogue with the North” in order to achieve the denuclearization of the Korean Peninsula, rather than “bullying the North” into it. Might it not perhaps be the case that the true intention of the Roh administration is to justify to the Bush administration the change in its policy on the North, which is aimed at achieving peace and stability on the Korean Peninsula through South-North reconciliation? Temporary setbacks are anticipated, such as the recent announcement that former President Kim Dae Jung’s visit to the DPRK had been postponed as a result of reports that the DPRK was making preparations to fire a missile, but it is likely that South-North relations will get moving again in earnest ahead of the presidential elections.

In an historic first in the Korean community in Japan, reconciliation was achieved on May 17. The North-leaning Chongryon (the General Association of Korean Residents in Japan) and the South-leaning Mindan (Korean Residents’ Union in Japan) put an end to their history of conflict and signed an historic joint declaration aimed at uniting the Korean community in Japan for a common purpose. From the perspective of a third-generation Korean resident of Japan, I would like to welcome this joint declaration from the bottom of my heart. Moreover, I will not cease to hope that, in addition to South-North reconciliation, the new 6.15 era will soon arrive in its true sense in the Korean community in Japan.

[Translated by ERINA]