But when the Cheonan sank, Mr. Lee’s party turned it into a dominating campaign theme to tamp down the domestic disputes, such as the river dredging project. Its candidates lambasted opposition rivals who championed engagement with North Korea.
Opposition politicians contended that Mr. Lee’s hard-line approach to North Koreahad helped provoke the North to lash out.
“Yes, people agreed with the president that the North needed punishing,” said Jeong Chan-soo, a senior analyst at the political consultancy MIN Consulting. “But when the government announced its investigative results on the same day when the election campaign began, and when President Lee chose the Korean War Museum as the venue to deliver his speech to criticize North Korea, they thought he was overreacting.
“They felt a risk of war,” Mr. Jeong added. “They thought they needed to rein in their president.” ~The New York Times
This result confirms how limited the options are for South Korea and the U.S. in responding to the sinking of the Cheonan. Given the first chance to show support or opposition to Lee’s handling of the attack, most South Koreans who voted in reportedly high-turnout local elections opted for candidates from other parties. As these are local elections, there are undoubtedly many other factors specific to different parts of the country that contributed to the GNP’s defeat, but to the extent that Lee tried to capitalize on the Cheonan sinking and made that a central issue of the campaign he has been pretty clearly rebuked. Once again, we are faced with a South Korean electorate that does not want to take the risks that some American hawks and realists want it to take in the name of changing the North Korean regime. It’s not clear why the United States should try to be more ardent in defense of South Korea than the South Koreans themselves are willing to be.
As I said last week:
South Korean President Lee may have hinted at a desire for regime change in North Korea, but it is not at all clear that Lee would be willing to risk renewed warfare to make this happen. Any sustainable policy would have to enjoy the support of a broad consensus of South Koreans, but South Korean opinion over the last two decades has generally been trending against confrontational policies and the alliance with the U.S. The sinking of the Cheonan may have temporarily changed some minds, but on the whole Haass is arguing that the U.S. should press the South Korean government to pursue a course that is increasingly unwelcome in South Korea.
The latest election results suggest that this view of South Korean opinion is correct. Lee’s more confrontational approach wins him admirers in the U.S. because confronting North Korea and being seen as “pro-American” go hand in hand. We could stand to think more critically about whether a government’s “pro-American” alignment as defined by its support for confrontational policies vis-a-vis its neighbors is necessarily the wisest thing for many of our allies around the world. It is also long overdue to recognize that the people who have to live with the consequences of such policies are not therefore “anti-American” when they object to a course of action they believe might plunge their country into ruin.