The American Interest
Policy, Politics & Culture
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The World’s Vote
Published on November 1, 2008

With the approach of the election, an interesting trend has been detected some 7,000 miles away from the Heartland: Both North and South Korea are rooting for Barack Obama.

Of course, neither the North nor the South has taken this stance publicly. North Korea’s state-run press, for example, has typically described the U.S. election as a “fight between two beasts over a prey.” But last February, when Korean-Americans visited the North’s capital to watch the historical performance of the New York Philharmonic Orchestra, they also had a chance to visit Pyongyang Middle School No. 1, one of the top-notch schools there. When the visitors asked the school’s view of the U.S. election, a 15-year-old student came up and said that “given the issues of racism in America, it is better that Obama become the President.”

Considering how much “education” the North’s schools go through before greeting foreign guests, we can safely assume that this is the basic stance of the North Korean authorities—but this is surely not the whole story. Pyongyang’s preference for Obama over McCain no doubt flows from Obama’s statement that he has every intention of meeting with the leaders of Iran, Cuba and North Korea. Dear Leader Kim Jong-il seemed to have liked that idea a lot. After all, he has been searching for ways to contact the United States through nuclear issues for more than a decade.

Seoul has shown much interest in the U.S. election, too. The President’s Office has sent people to the States several times to check out the two presidential candidates, their respective aides and their views of Korean Peninsula policy. Although South Korean President Lee Myung-bak himself is on the conservative side and boasts a close relationship with President Bush, Lee’s diplomatic circle has different ideas, largely because of the unforgettable period immediately after Bush’s inauguration. Back then, Seoul was actively encouraging Washington to speak with Pyongyang in order to prevent its development of nuclear weapons. Bush instead declared the North part of the “axis of evil” and insisted on regime change. Five years and one nuclear detonation later, John McCain’s hardline approach to the North—harder even than the current Bush policy—doesn’t sound very attractive.

Average South Koreans are less concerned with security policy and much more interested in the prospect of America having its first black president. Obama’s personal biography reads like the poor-boy-rising-to-glory stories that Koreans absolutely adore. Even my wife, who is a homemaker, said at the breakfast table the other day, “Obama has a humane quality that could help ease certain anti-American sentiment.”

McCain is virtually ignored here. His political message sounds as outdated as his advanced age. He is backed by many right-wingers in Korea, including some 14,000 North Korean defectors, and human rights activists here, too, claim that Obama’s North Korea policy is naive. One of them called Obama a fledgling and expressed the conviction that “[t]he North Koreans would eat Barack Obama for breakfast and wash him down with shot of 10 a.m. Soju.” Then there is the matter of the Korea-U.S. FTA (Free Trade Agreement). Most of the South Korean middle-class who support Obama also tend to support the FTA, but Obama opposes the deal and McCain supports it. Has anyone told them? Certainly not the South Korean media.

Brent Choi is a North Korea specialist and author of several books on North Korean affairs.