The role of think tanks in the South Korean presidential race

31 July 2012

The Korea Herald has recently published a piece on how South Korean presidential hopefuls for this year´s presidential race have been increasingly relying on public policy institutes for their campaigns. Think tanks in South Korea, according to Seoul National University politics professor Kang Won-taek, are for the most part linked to the state or to prominent political figures, such as the three strongest presidential candidates this year, Park Geun-hye, Ahn Cheol-soo and Moon Jae-in. They are closely involved in developing the candidates´ campaign strategies, and those members of the think tank that are key players in the campaign usually end up in important posts in the new administration.

Park Geun – hye, for example, is relying mostly on a think tank called the Nation’s Future Research Centre, launched in 2010. They were responsible for creating the “battle of welfare policies” that took over the general elections this year. In 2007, they were also behind Park´s pledge to reduce taxes and regulations and to create a stronger legal order.

Park´s party comrades also enjoy support from several other think tanks:

Park’s in-house rival Gyeonggi Gov. Kim Moon-soo works closely with Gyeonggi Research Institute, where Seoul National University professor Jwa Seung-hee is the head of the board of trustees. The institute has reportedly been designing strategies for Kim to differentiate himself from frontrunner Park.

As for Moon Jae – in, the candidate the for the main opposition party Democratic United Party, he is supported by the Damjaengi Forum, which is chaired by former Korean Red Cross president Han Wang – sang. And while Ahn Cheol-soo, dean of the Seoul National University Graduate School of Convergence Science and Technology, has not publicly declared his political aspirations and intentions yet, many are speculating that even though the Ahn Cheol – soo Foundation and AhnLab Inc. remains his strongest base, he will be seeking mentoring mostly from certain individuals.

It is not only these presidential candidates that are closely linked to think tanks, however. DUP senior adviser Sohn Hak – kyu has received much attention from the East Asia Future Foundation, while former chairman of the DUP Chung Sye-kyun campaigns on the platform designed by People’s Turn.

As we can see, these think tanks are acting not so much as independent research institutions but as support groups for specific politicians. While it is an interesting development, it still raises some concern regarding these institutions´ credibility and intellectual autonomy. In order to assure this, they must show that they are capable of taking the initiative and guaranteeing the quality of their research and proposals.