Former Korean presidential hopeful Goh Kun announced today that he would not seek office in December’s Korean presidential election. The Korean Presidential election, held once every five years, was expected to be a very competitive race until former Seoul Mayor Lee Myung-bak took a commanding lead in recent public opinion polls. Mr. Lee, the leading candidate for the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), and his rival, Park Geun-hye, GNP party leader, placed first and second, respectively, in recent opinion polls. Mr. Goh, a former GNP member, left the GNP last year to run as a centrist independent. He was lobbied by members of the ruling Uri Party and the Democratic Party (DP) to serve as the presidential nominee for a unified, yet-to-be-named merged party. However, Mr. Goh resisted attempts to join Uri and/or the DP, and he may have dropped out of the race after he determined that he could not win the presidency as an independent.
Mr. Goh’s departure affects the presidential race by strengthening the hand of the GNP. Barring an unexpected popularity surge by another candidate, either Mr. Lee or Ms. Park seem assured to become the next Korean president, replacing outgoing President Roh Moo-hyun. Some speculate that despite Mr. Lee’s popularity, the GNP will choose Ms. Park over Ms. Lee as its presidential candidate, because Ms. Park is the party leader and daughter of former Korean President Park Chung-hee, making her a sentimental choice for president within her party. They point out that the GNP lost the presidency in 2002 to the Uri Party because it chose Mr. Lee Hoi-chang as its presidential candidate, even after Mr. Lee lost the presidency to Kim Dae-jung in 1997. This implies that the ruling Uri Party or the DP could capitalize on a Lee-Park schism in the GNP to win the presidency.
The GNP might choose Ms. Park as its presidential nominee over Lee Myung-bak, even though Mr. Lee handily beats Ms. Park in opinion polls. Who the GNP nominates as its standard bearer largely depends on how the GNP decides to choose its presidential candidate–an internal party primary system favors Ms. Park, or an open primary system favors Mr. Lee. Both are strong presidential candidates, and with the third-strongest candidate, Mr. Goh, departing the race, their statuses solidify as presidential front runners. Other potential candidates, including former Unification Minister Chang Dong-young and Mr. Kim Geun-tae of the Uri Party, or former Seoul National University President Chung Un-chan, do not have the stature or momentum going into the presidential election to seriously challenge either Mr. Lee or Ms. Park. It is also unlikely that Mr. Lee would run as an independent or as the presidential nominee of another political party in the event that the GNP chooses Ms. Park as its nominee. Moreover, the GNP has won the last five elections and clearly has the momentum going into this year’s presidential race. Unless a dark horse candidate comes up with a wildly popular solution to the Korean public’s biggest concerns–housing and jobs–Goh’s departure makes it even more evident that either Lee Myung-bak or Park Geun-hye will be Korea’s next president. We’ll find out in December.