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BUSAN, South Korea -- Just in case you didn't know, South Korea has a presidential election coming up December 19. It's a pretty big deal. The Sixth Republic of South Korea has only had five presidents so far, and the current Blue House resident—Lee Myung-bak—has been around since February 2008, which is a huge chunk of Korea's 24-year-old democracy.

Inside Look: Who is Running for President? Part One – Ahn Cheol-soo

Just in case you didn’t know, South Korea has a presidential election coming up December 19. It’s a pretty big deal. The Sixth Republic of South Korea has only had five presidents so far, and the current Blue House resident—Lee Myung-bak—has been around since February 2008, which is a huge chunk of Korea’s 24-year-old democracy.

It’s helpful to look at the ROK as an adolescent democracy, not quite politically sure who it is yet and going through an awkward pubescent stage, all while struggling with pimples like North Korea, Japan, an ever-expanding China and a long, sometimes prickly alliance with the US.

On September 19 at around 3:00 p.m., a man named Ahn Cheol-soo, multi-millionaire founder of AhnLabs Software, ended a year’s worth of speculation and proclaimed his presidential candidacy. Thousands of young Koreans rejoiced, while a sheepish Ahn told reporters, The people have thus far expressed wishes to achieve political reform through me… I’ll run for president to realize their desire.

At a glance, Ahn’s entrance is nothing but roses. He’s not a politician, he’s unaffiliated, he’s got an ear to the public. He’s a Mr. Smith stereotype, and he wants to go to Washington. But can such an idealist actually survive in the political world?

Who is this guy?

Originally from Busan, Ahn Cheol-soo is a popular philanthropist, former doctor, leftist millionaire, dean of the Graduate School of Science Technology and Convergence at Seoul National University and titanic software mogul. (You know that AhnLab antivirus security system you probably have on your Korean computer? That was him at 33.)

Ahn’s a big deal among younger voters because he’s really, really loud about his disenchantment with the ickiness of mainstream politics. His social philosophy runs lockstep with recent global political sentiments by, to cite extreme but popular examples, Occupy Wall Street or the Arab Spring. To quote Korean news aggregator Junotane, As a medical doctor, professor, self-taught computer entrepreneur, and corporate leader—Ahn is representative of everything mainstream Korea dreams of becoming.

Ahn-o-mania began last fall, when thousands of (mostly younger) Koreans pressured him into running for mayor of Seoul as an independent. He considered it, but ultimately backed out, choosing instead to support another independent, Park Won-soon, a social activist and lawyer who wound up winning, in part thanks to Ahn’s endorsement. Rumors immediately began to spread about Ahn’s own presidential aspirations, but he denied them repeatedly, telling reporters, My goal is not the presidency.

Ahn’s flip-flopping hasn’t helped him in the long run, though, nor has the fact that he’s totally politically inexperienced—a fact which he himself tries to invert into a very self-aware, Lookit, I’ve got no political debt! I’m different from the others! public image, to mixed effect.

Where does he fit in?

Ahn is the second of two major left-wing candidates. (The other is Moon Jae-in of the Democratic United Party, a reputable former presidential chief of staff, who we’ll write up in Haps next week.) But Ahn doesn’t want to be shoved together with the DUP, advertising himself instead as an independent moderate. Problem: he sort of stands for nothing, or at least his that’s how critics are interpreting his public statements. So far he’s anti-small government, anti-big government, anti-secrecy and anti-politics in general. The only thing he’s firmly pro- is free speech and a socially helpful government.

On North Korea, Ahn floats noncommittally between reconciliation (Moon’s big thing) and national safety, erring on the side of cooperation. On the economy, he calls for a new economic model that would restrict the country’s mighty chaebol titans like Samsung and Hyundai. It’s not strong enough, though. He’s easy to see as an all-bark-no-bite candidate, who might be in way over his head unless he turns his values into practical ideas.

Who would vote for him?

Some liberals, including the DUP factions not wooed by Moon (more on that in next week’s article). But Ahn is mostly gunning for that elusive undecided vote. When he announced his candidacy on September 19, he proposed ending the politics of division and confrontation… criticizing both ruling and opposition without distinction. Basically, he’s calling both the left- and right-wing failures, and wants to reform the system for a new future. (Echoes of Occupy much?)

Ahn is labeling himself as a moderate, vying for voters who share his middle-of-the-road mindset. But journalist Kim Bo-hyeop put it best: Though the ground separating liberals and conservatives may look wide, as the election approaches and competition heats up, instead of the middle growing larger, it gets smaller with many moving toward the ends of the spectrum. Entering politics with the illusion of receiving support from the moderates and non-partisans is like building a house on sand.

What’s his next move?

The first hurdle is DUP candidate Moon. One of them’s gonna have to quit. Their conservative opponent, Park Geun-hye, can safely claim a rough 50 percent of the country’s vote in appealing to Korea’s older generations. Neither Moon nor Ahn will want to split the liberal vote, but neither yet wants to work with the other, either.

So far, Ahn’s biggest asset is his reputation. He’s stirring up the masses with Obama-like orations, and though now’s the time to back his words up, they’ve worked wonders so far.

Ahn Cheol-soo is only one who insists about talking about the problems, said professor and political theorist Kang Joon-man in a recent interview with the Hankoryeh. But even if he isn’t elected, we will have done something of tremendous importance simply by putting the message out there that we need to bring the antipathy era to an end.

Cover photo: Yonhap News.

South Korea Presidential Primer: Who are the Candidates?

 September 21

September 28

October 12



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