South Korea’s new president-elect officially took office on May 10, 2022. But the presidential office chosen by the new government is not currently located in the Blue House, the traditional residence of the South Korean head of state. The president and his staff are located on the fifth floor of the Ministry of National Defense, a long way from the previous headquarters. This article closes Blue House 22, the Geopolitica.info column dedicated to the 2022 presidential elections.
A seat “closer” to the people
It is not just a matter of actual physical distance. The Blue House is located in the historic centre of Seoul. It is near the buildings that ruled the country from the formation of the Joseon dynasty (1392) to the Japanese annexation and near the capital’s city hall. Syngman Rhee was the first South Korean president to use the building as a government seat in the wake of the Japanese colonial administration. The change of name in 1960, from the one assigned by Syngman Rhee, indicated the desire to shake off an image of the South Korean centre of power linked to both the colonial and the authoritarian, almost dictatorial, period of the first president of the Republic of Korea. A legacy so heavy that he is not the first to propose to find a new location: Others have tried, and all have given up for costs and reasons related to security.
South Korea is a state where parties tend to merge and change names much more than others, making the political landscape difficult for non-specialists to follow. The theme of closeness with the people has been deliberately implanted within the current party of the president, the Gungminuihim, literally “The Power of the Nationals” but “People Power Party” in English. This political coalition was born three years after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye, deposed following several scandals in 2017. Maintaining the core of President Park’s party, the Saenuri first, the Liberty Korea Party after, in 2020 it merged with other conservative groups to form the United Future Party. However, the United Future Party is the name given to a conservative party for the shortest time in Korean history: Just six months.
Although conservatives are traditionally close to South Korean multinationals, the image of themselves they want to project is that of politicians close to the needs of ordinary people. The first economic initiative of the current administration is to support small businesses and the most vulnerable sections of the population and excluded from the support issued by the previous one. However, it is difficult to quantify the economic policy’s “authenticity”. The economic science is now quite unanimous in considering income support measures necessary in the post-Covid 19 period. Economic well-being is what the new administration firmly intends to consider the utmost priority. In fact, during the parliamentary hearings for the ministers appointed by the president, this desire clearly emerged while listening to the Minister for Defense: there is no mention of increasing the THAAD system for the risk of retaliation by Beijing is too high.
The way to go until 2024
The victory of the current president came by a margin of less than one per cent. Progressives still hold the majority in the National Assembly. The geopolitical context requires a particular caution that the newly elected president did not show during the election campaign. However, his cabinet is very likely to exercise it in the short term. In 2024, the country will return to the polling booths to appoint its representatives to parliament. In this period, therefore, it is reasonable to think that the goal of the Conservatives is to consolidate their electoral base, preferring domestic rather than foreign politics. So, in these two years, it will be challenging to understand which path South Korea will take in the long term. Still, one thing is sure: the Country of the Morning Calm is the touchstone of the situation in the Indo-Pacific.