South Korea, Asia’s fourth-largest economy and a key U.S. ally in the region, stands on the eve a pivotal election. The contenders are Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in. Both are marked out by their backgrounds: Park is the daughter of Park Chung-hee, the military dictator who ruled South Korea from from 1962 until 1979, dying at the hands of his own security services; Moon the child of immigrants from North Korea who served as chief of staff to the late president Roh Moo-hyun, a champion of the so-called “sunlight policy” of aid to Pyongyang without preconditions.
It is no surprise that the Pyongyang question is a central point of friction between the two candidates. It would be wrong to characterize Park as a belligerent and Moon as an accommodationist. Both advocate a firm but measured stance towards their unpredictable, secretive and economically depleted neighbor, pulling back from the insistence of the deeply unpopular current president, Lee Myung-bak, that any engagement be linked to unilateral nuclear disarmament on the part of the Kim regime.
The devil is, as always, in the details. Moon clearly leans towards open dialog with the North, calling for an early summit with Kim Jong-un in the event of his victory. He has spoken publicly of the need for what he called a politics that “does not divide.” Which might, ironically, prove divisive among the trio of other actors with deep interests in the North Korea question: The U.S., Japan, and China. The latter two of which have undergone, of course, their own leadership shifts in recent months.
North Korea is a deeply unknown unknown — sit venia verbo — in the realm of global politics. The way its next-door neighbor, a far more integrated player, positions itself vis-a-vis Kim Jong-un and his aspirations is perhaps the closest the rest of the world can get towards establishing any certainty in that arena. Small wonder, then, that this historically resonant electoral contest has become an internationally fraught one.