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Will North Korea sway South Korea's presidential election?

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This photo carried by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, Wednesday, shows what the North says was a test launch of a hypersonic missile a day earlier. Yonhap
This photo carried by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, Wednesday, shows what the North says was a test launch of a hypersonic missile a day earlier. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

North Korea's consecutive missile tests in the new year have shifted attention to how the bellicose actions across the border will influence the March 9 presidential election in South Korea.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in expressed his concern on Tuesday over the North's missile launches taking place "before the presidential election" and debate is raging over the so-called "North Wind," which is a South Korean political term referring to Pyongyang's provocations ending up affecting the sense of security people in the South feel, thus enticing them to choose a conservative candidate.

The North's Korean Central News Agency reported Wednesday that the regime successfully tested a hypersonic missile a day earlier, and the test was overseen by its leader Kim Jong-un.

The launch came just six days after Pyongyang tested what it claims was a hypersonic missile, showing that the Kim regime is pursuing its missile program regardless of external pressure from the U.S., South Korea and other countries.

Hours after the North's missile launch, Tuesday, President Moon expressed his concern, noting that the recent missile test launches took place before South Korea's presidential election.

The remark was unusual, because Moon has been striving to refrain from comments or actions that could be interpreted as having an influence on the presidential election. His mention of the election along with the North Korea issue is being interpreted as an attempt to prevent the "North Wind" from swaying voter sentiment ahead of the election and warning the conservative opposition bloc against exploiting a heightened sense of fear to stoke anti-North Korea sentiment.

The main opposition People Power Party (PPP) is now attempting to use North Korea's threats to rally support.

"If the North loads a nuclear warhead on its hypersonic missile, it is impossible to intercept the missile," PPP presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol said during a press conference on Tuesday. "The only way to deter this threat is a pre-emptive strike using the Kill Chain."

Kill Chain refers to a South Korea-U.S. pre-emptive strike system of identifying North Korean launch sites, nuclear facilities and manufacturing capability and destroy them pre-emptively if a conflict seems imminent.

Yoon added that North Korea's escalating missile threat is attributable to the Moon Jae-in administration's negligence.

"The Moon government is obsessed with a favorable evaluation of North Korea's peace show, urging the United Nations to pre-emptively lift nuclear-related sanctions. So is the ruling Democratic Party of Korea's (DPK) candidate," Yoon said. "In the meantime, the North is upgrading its missiles and poses critical threats to our security."

PPP Rep. Tae Yong-ho, a former North Korean diplomat who defected to South Korea, shared a similar view.

"The North's consecutive missile provocations are attributable to the Moon administration, which has been tiptoeing around the provocations and responding negligently," Tae wrote on his Facebook.

This photo carried by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, Wednesday, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, looking at the monitors upon a test launch of what the regime claims to be a hypersonic missile a day earlier. AP-Yonhap
This photo carried by North Korea's Korean Central News Agency, Wednesday, shows North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, right, looking at the monitors upon a test launch of what the regime claims to be a hypersonic missile a day earlier. AP-Yonhap

Along with the missile launches, the PPP is underscoring the legitimacy of an anti-communism campaign that is going viral among PPP members and supporters.

The anti-communism campaign became a buzzword in South Korean politics in recent weeks after Chung Yong-jin, vice chairman of retail giant Shinsegae, uploaded a number of anti-communist posts on his Instagram, and PPP presidential candidate Yoon joined the move by releasing an Instagram photo of him purchasing anchovy and beans.

Anchovy is called "myeolchi" and beans are called "kong" in Korean. When the first characters of the two words are combined, it becomes "myeolkong" which sounds similar to the word "myeolgong" which means "eradicate commies." In a separate video clip released by Yoon's camp, a computer-generated imagery of the candidate appears and explains this wordplay.

A number of PPP members uploaded similar photos of them purchasing anchovy and beans with the hashtag "myeolgong." PPP Supreme Council member Kim Jae-won said in a radio interview that the campaign is about "North Korea, which is our enemy and hostile country" and "the members of the DPK made a fuss about it."

Historically, North Korea-related events have affected South Korean elections. When North Korean agents bombed Korean Air Flight 858 in 1987, the terror attack helped conservative candidate Roh Tae-woo become the country's president.

In 1997, an allegation was raised that three people, including a former Cheong Wa Dae official, contacted Pyongyang to ask North Korea's military to stage an armed protest in the border area in order to help conservative candidate Lee Hoi-chang's presidential campaign. This, however, did not result in Lee's election victory, and a court ruling found the three people did not conspire with Lee's side.

Pundits showed mixed views on whether the recent developments in North Korea are a plus or minus for the ruling party.

"We may call the current situation 'new North Wind,'" said Eom Gyeong-yeong, director of the Zeitgeist Institute, a private political think tank. "As seen in the increase in Shinsegae Vice Chairman Chung's Instagram followers after the controversy, it seems true that young people are now having anti-North Korea and anti-China sentiment, and they are accepting this idea as a play.

"Given the PPP is considering voters in their 20s and 30s as its stronghold, the North's recent missile threats are also becoming an advantage for Yoon, and the candidate appears to be exploiting this as momentum."

On the other hand, Park Sang-byeong, a professor at Inha University Graduate School of Policy Science, said North Korea's influence on the election will depend on the level of provocations.

"The majority of South Koreans no longer considers North Korea's missile tests as an imminent threat to their lives. Unless there is a direct attack on South Korean soil or the North resumes its nuclear development programs, the public will not consider events in North Korea as a decisive factor in the election." Park said. "The public knows about the past North Wind cases, and whoever seeks to abuse the current situation will face backlashes."


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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