Prickly consensus

December 16, 2007

The months and years ahead are likely to be momentous in South Korea. Relations with North Korea, military and economic relations with the United States, and South Korea's own sputtering economy are all front-burner questions. So why is this country, where politics is sometimes treated as a blood sport, having such an unexciting presidential campaign?

One answer is that the conservative candidate, Lee Myung-bak, has a formidable lead in the polls, and, having now been officially cleared of corruption charges by prosecutors looking into his years as mayor of Seoul, he appears to be a shoo-in.

But another answer is that South Koreans just don't disagree that much on the direction their country is heading.

Engagement with the Communist regime in North Korea is popular and, at this point, seems to be on the verge of showing real results. Mr. Lee may tinker with the policy, but he won't change course. Anti-Americanism is waning some; the U.S. military presence is being scaled back, and troops are being redeployed out of Seoul. A pending free-trade agreement with the U.S., negotiated by the current liberal government, won't run into any opposition from a conservative successor (though farmers and socialists denounce it).

South Koreans are pleased, as well, that America itself has started to engage with the North over denuclearization, and plans to send the New York Philharmonic to Pyongyang in February.

But put politics aside and South Korea is hardly the land of contentment. The price of housing is soaring even as economic growth stalls, and corruption is far too commonplace. The economy is in the grip of big conglomerations called chaebols - Mr. Lee once headed a wing of Hyundai - and social rigidity is reinforced by a highly competitive and hierarchical system of education.

Koreans have a reputation for being diligent and tough; they also have a strong nationalistic streak that helps explain why hostility to the U.S. occasionally emerges as an expression of more general discontent. Mr. Lee promises warmer relations with Washington, but don't expect the Koreans to get warm and fuzzy just yet.

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