The South Korean rally-round-the-flag effect…. NOT

My latest diavlog  is with the man in the black hat LGM’s Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally.  One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea’s government played things pretty damn well.  The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK ...

By , a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University.
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images
Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images

My latest diavlog  is with the man in the black hat LGM's Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally.  One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea's government played things pretty damn well.  The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately.  They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes.  They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week. 

And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with... a trouncing at the ballot box:

South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.

My latest diavlog  is with the man in the black hat LGM’s Rob Farley about Israel, Turkey, the Koreas, and patron-client relationships more generally.  One of our areas of agreement was that, with regard to the Cheonan incident, South Korea’s government played things pretty damn well.  The Lee government went slow on blaming the DPRK even though they knew it was a North Korean torpedo almost immediately.  They boxed China into a corner by issuing a report that no one except Pyongyang really disputes.  They took measures to indicate that they thought this was a serious breach, but also dialed down the rhetoric when things got particularly nasty last week. 

And for all of this, the Lee government was rewarded with… a trouncing at the ballot box:

South Korea’s left-wing opposition has unexpectedly mauled the ruling conservative party of President Lee Myung-bak in regional elections, boosted by surging discontent about the way Seoul handled the alleged sinking of a warship by North Korea.

According to preliminary results on Thursday, the leftwing Democratic party confounded opinion polls to win seven mayoral or gubernatorial seats, compared with just six for Mr Lee’s Grand National party. The ruling conservatives narrowly held the mayoral seat in Seoul, where the challenger had styled herself as the “peace” candidate. Her campaign slogan was: “The last chance against war”

South Korean voters regularly punish governments in mid-term polls, but some of Thursday’s results sent shockwaves through political circles and prompted the leader of the ruling party to resign.

The Democratic party won the eastern province of Gangwon-do, on the border with North Korea, for the first time in 16 years.

In its campaign, the opposition had condemned Mr Lee for risking war by taking too hard a line against the North, despite the death of 46 sailors in March in the alleged torpedo attack on the Cheonan corvette. Two previous liberal presidents had engaged in a “sunshine policy” of rapprochement with the North, which Mr Lee ended.

This is about as far from a rally-round-the-flag effect as you can get — which, it should be noted, B.R. Myers called last week.

What does this mean for the future?  Unfortunately, more North Korean provocations. 

As Kenneth Schultz demonstrated in Democracy and Coercive Diplomacy, opposition parties can send a powerful signal in world politics.  If they go against the ruling party in a crisis, it signals the domestic vulnerability that these governments will face if a crisis escalates.  The lesson that North Korea will draw from this electoral outcome is that it can engage in further provocations and the Lee government will be forced by its own domestic constraints to act in a more conciliatory manner. 

Daniel W. Drezner is a professor of international politics at the Fletcher School of Law and Diplomacy at Tufts University, where he is the co-director of the Russia and Eurasia Program. Twitter: @dandrezner

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