South Korea, 25.02.08: a new president is sworn in

A personal comment by Geir Helgesen, Senior Researcher, NIAS – Nordic Institute of Asian Studies

A change of leader in South Korea: does it matter much? Is it not, after all, the institutions and rules that characterize democratic governance while the president is more of a figurehead? Well, yes and no. South Korea is a democracy, as is the USA, but in both countries the president plays a decisive role, in Korea even more so than in the USA.

After two terms (and a whole decade) with centre-left leaders in the Blue House, the incoming leader is characterized as center-right. His party is called the Grand National Party (GNP), but whether it remains Grand will be seen after the National Assembly elections in April. National it is, both because the party is represented throughout the country (the South) and because the nation is an important symbol in a divided country. And of course it is a political Party, though it might not compare well with more ideologically based political organizations (what we regard as ‘real’ political parties) in this part of the world. When it has been decided who is going to run as a party’s candidate for president, that party becomes an electioneering machine; the pursuit of power overrides any ideological concerns that underpin the party’s identity. With such a pragmatic orientation, it is questionable if claims that the new president is center-right rather than center-left have any meaning.

The centre is obviously where everyone wants to be these days, and in a Confucian political culture this is more so as the centre represents the golden mean. But actually ‘left’ and ‘right’ have much the same meaning in Korea as they do in Europe. People of the left are inclined to put people first, focusing on welfare and solidarity, while those of the right prioritize the economy first, second and …That said, it is not necessarily the goal of a conservative president to ignore people and welfare. He will obviously argue that only with a vibrant economy will there be resources available to build up all the institutions that are needed to create a good society.

Korea is a divided country, and the Cold War period is barely over in this part of East Asia. For years, the 38th Parallel (the “demarcation” line between the two halves of Korea) was in effect a total barrier against any normal relations between neighbours. With Kim Dae-jung (the first centre-left president ever in South Korea) and his Sunshine Policy, some cracks appeared in the wall. During the past decade, these cracks have resulted in improved and extensive communication, collaborative projects between the two Koreas and a slow but quite steady North Korean movement towards reforms. Even so, these positive developments have not been easy, nor have they been without their interruptions and setbacks. The North Korean military-first policy, with its testing of nuclear devices and long-distance missiles, brought dramatic setbacks that upset the neighbouring countries as well as the world community. But the reason for the North Koreans to flex their military muscles was not South Korea’s Sunshine Policy, however; it was a threatening US foreign policy that considered taking military action against the North.

What will happen now, with a conservative president in Seoul and with the South naturally having closer ties with the USA and Japan? Are we approaching a new paradigm of conflict with China and Russia on the North’s side and USA and Japan supporting the South? Much depends on the new administration in Washington. Currently, even under George W. Bush there is détente between Washington and Pyongyang, not least thanks to Christopher R. Hill, who is the US Assistant Secretary of State for East Asian and Pacific Affairs, and the head negotiator for the US at the six-party talks. Although hardliners in Washington criticize the outcome of these talks, and in particular argue that North Korea has failed to fulfill their part of the deal, more sober observers know that the situation is more complex and that there are shortcomings on both sides. The question remain, will a conservative president in South Korea bring the Cold War back to the peninsula?

My guess is no. Mr. Lee may be conservative (or, at least, he ran for the presidency under the banner of the conservative party). But he is also a businessman, he is a Korean who experienced hardship during his youth, and he was (like all bright students) a progressive activist during his formative years. Let us take each of these experiences in turn, starting with the last mentioned. As a former student activist he is familiar with radicalism and radical nationalism; it is thus possible for him to understand the North Korean position. Having lived through difficult times in the post-war period, he may easily relate to the present living conditions of most people in North Korea. And as a business man, with few strong ideological bindings, he may first and foremost see the relations between South and North in terms of business opportunities. And this is exactly what he has announced.

This said, does it mean that there are no reason left to fear the immediate future in relations between South and North? Well, that may be a too optimistic conclusion. President Lee of South Korea has said that he wants a more reciprocal relationship, and also a more conditional one. Economic cooperation will continue (and it may even be upgraded) on the condition that the North Korean denuclearization continues. Another new aspect is that the new president will take up humanitarian issues, which means that the human rights situation in North Korea will be raised in future talks. This may be a non-starter, or it may be the beginning of a more real and honest relationship between South and North. That depends very much on how this issue is brought up. Will the South acknowledge their own highly problematic human rights record in the past? Will they have some understanding for the North Korean perspective that there is a direct link between the number of inmates in their camps and the amount of pressure – military and other kinds – that North Korea has felt as an isolated entity in a hostile world? Will President Lee (as did President Kim Dae-jung earlier) try to give the North Korean leader good reasons to embark on a reform policy. As a shrewd business man, I guess he could do that. I hope that he does.

Geir Helgesen


Stig Toft Madsen 

18 February 2008

For the last twelve months the telos of events in Pakistan have been the elections, postponed once, but now most likely to be held tomorrow on February 18th.

On the bumpy road towards this day, the country has replayed most of its blues. The Pakistan People’s Party now apparently stands to a landslide victory. If it really scores upwards 50% of the votes, as predicted by some pollsters, it will in no small measure be due to the cruel assassination of Benazir Bhutto, the leader of the party, on December 27th. Her murder has generated a sympathy wave.

The logic of the feud tells the aggrieved party to inflict a loss similar to its own on the opponent. Instead Bilawal Bhutto, upon being installed as the political heir of his mother, said: “Democracy is the best revenge”. In this elevated logic, an election victory – and the victory of elections – vicariously atone a murder.

Timor Leste: ‘when the crisis is over…’

Maj Nygaard-ChristensenPhD Candidate, Department of Anthropology, University of Århus

In Timor Leste, a state of emergency has been declared after the 11 February 2008 shooting of President José Manuel Ramos-Horta near his home in the capital, Dili. The president has been taken to Australia for further medical treatment where his condition is currently reported as ‘serious but stable’. Prime Minister Xanana Gusmao was targeted in a separate attack but escaped unharmed. Meanwhile Alfredo Reinado, a former major in the Timorese army, who is believed to have taken part in the attack on the two leaders was shot dead. In May 2006, in the midst of the violent crisis which broke out in Timor that year, Reinado deserted his post and has later been accused of weapon theft and murder. Throughout 2007, despite several attempts to catch him, Alfredo remained hiding in the mountains in the districts south of Dili. During last year as well as in recent weeks attempts at dialogue between the government and Reinado were unsuccessful.

Today, some international commentators and media predict renewed violence from Alfredo Reinado’s supporters who caused sporadic unrest throughout 2007 or by supporters of Ramos-Horta and the AMP government led by Xanana Gusmao. Optimists on the other hand, view a moment for change and suggest that the attack could work in favour of the government, bringing reconciliation and unity. Firstly, it is argued, with Alfredo gone the number one test of the government since its election in 2007 has been resolved, and secondly the attack could increase support for the president and government. Such views are perhaps less likely to catch on within Timor Leste, where trust in such ‘moments of change’ to actually deliver is low.

State of exceptionDuring my fieldwork in Timor Leste in 2007, a self proclaimed ‘state of exception’ seemed to be the order of the year. Upon my arrival in February, people were still recovering from the events of 2006, when the crisis resulted in some 150,000 fleeing their homes and settling in IDP camps in and near the capital or with families in their home districts. A year later, 100,000 IDPs remained throughout the country, and many had lost trust in the situation improving in the near future. In February and March of 2007, everyone I interviewed described the situation almost identically, as a continuation of troubles outside of their control: ‘First it was the trouble in the army, then it was Alfredo, then it was the conflict between east and west, then the gangs, now we don’t have enough rice in the country to feed ourselves. What will the next be?’.

The sense that if one month was calm, the next would surely bring unrest, continued throughout the year. As a result, many things were put on hold ‘until the crisis has passed’ or ‘until the elections are over’. However, presidential and parliamentary elections passed and on many fronts there seemed to be no major change of mood in the capital. There was, for instance, no big rush out of the many IDP camps in Dili’s neighbourhoods. In 2007, a sense of trouble waiting just around the corner had thus become a more permanent state of affairs among people in Dili. In December for instance, fears were again building up that January would bring clashes between disillusioned Fretilin supporters and the government. While it was obviously a rather different type of clash that occurred this week, it will no doubt have contributed to this lack of trust in quick solutions to the problems faced by the country. Although Alfredo is no longer around to stir up sentiments, the issues he spoke about and which gained him popularity – poverty, injustice and particularly a highly vocal criticism of the entire political elite – remain high on the agenda for some.Time for change?By many in Timor, the 2006 crisis and the continued instability is primarily perceived as resulting from conflicts between the leaders, particularly among the 1975-generation who were involved in the early resistance movement against Indonesia. In 2007, trust in political figures seemed at an all time low, and the sense of a widening gap between the big people (ema boot) and ordinary people deepened. Many thus put their hopes in the 2007 elections to bring about a change. Politicians too joined the search for a move towards better times. Some split from the formerly ruling Fretilin party, presenting themselves as Fretilin ‘Mudansa’ – Reform – whilst supporting Ramos-Horta presidential candidacy and later on Xanana’s newly created CNRT party. CNRT in turn waved election posters of skyscrapers and rockets over Dili’s dusty and (so far) rather skyscraper-free streets, suggesting better times in sight for Timor Leste’s impoverished population. Meanwhile, Alfredo sat in the mountains supporting neither new parties nor the old ruling elite. Instead, he waged his own versions of reform for ‘The People’ in the odd interview appearance on pirate DVDs circulating amongst his supporters around the country.

Political or independen?When asking Alfredo supporters in Dili last year why they held him in such high regard, a typical answer was that ‘he is independen’; meaning that he did not sympathise with any particular political party. Politics in Timor Leste, particularly party politics, have come to be perceived by many as something rather undesirable and dangerous. As one informant said when I asked him why he thought one particular party had gained much support in his home area: ‘oh but that is politics. I don’t mix my hands with that’. Another informant and friend who was active in a political party and liked to share his views with me about political life in Dili would repeatedly interrupt himself with a wave of the hand and a ‘Sorry, we are not talking politics here! We are just chatting’.

This view on politics did not mean that leaders were not wanted. Concerns over what was seen as a loss of figures of national unity was something expressed by political leaders and their electorate alike. In February 2007, a priest known for being highly vocal about local politics told me, ‘We have new national heroes now. Before, it was Ramos-Horta and Xanana; now it is Alfredo’. This is of course problematic in that many Alfredo supporters were also Horta- and later CNRT (party of Xanana Gusmao) voters, but the statement is important for the implicated differentiation between political leaders and national figures of unity. Not just opposition members, but also some of Xanana’s voters expressed hoped that he would leave the sphere of politics and act instead as a ‘figure of unity’ or a ‘father of the nation’; providing guidance to political leaders rather than actually being one. Someone ‘independen’, it was felt by some, was needed to steer the country in a better direction.

2008 has been dubbed the year of reform by Xanana Gusmao, but with this week’s attack on two of Timor Leste’s central leaders, it has had a rough and unfortunate start.