Avoiding leftover mud in relations between Korea and Indonesia

On July 22, the Indonesian General Elections Commission announced Joko Widodo, popularly known as Jokowi, as the victor in Indonesia’s presidential elections. Jokowi, a former small businessman and currently governor of Jakarta, will assume the Indonesian presidency in October 2014.

Two days later, President Park Geun-hye sent the Indonesian president-elect a congratulatory message. This would normally go unnoticed, if not for an unexpected event that briefly brought South Korea to the front pages of Indonesian reporting.

Jokowi’s opponent, Prabowo Subianto, a former army lieutenant-general and special forces Kopassus commander, refused to accept defeat. On the day of the General Elections Commission announcement, his camp declared his withdrawal from the election, accused the victor of massive vote rigging and, most unexpectedly, claimed foreign intervention ― that a team of Chinese and South Korean hackers had stolen votes.

Mudslinging to one degree or another is normal in most democratic elections. Indeed, it was a feature in the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections. Since mid-May, Jokowi battled a social media smear campaign based on an allegedly forged marriage certificate, which claimed the president-elect was of Chinese ethnicity and originally a Christian ― two things that despite Indonesia’s impressive contemporary record of multiethnic and multifaith tolerance, remain politically sensitive.

Arguably, Indonesia’s still young democratic system is vulnerable to rumors and mudslinging. There remains a healthy distrust of authority, courtesy of generations of authoritarian rule under military leaders, and there is a technically savvy population more ready to trust peer-shared information than official communications. Yet, claims that any country is more vulnerable than another when it comes to mudslinging fall apart when you think that even today, around 1 in 7 Americans believes President Barack Obama is Muslim. Mudslinging has an eerie persistence and strength, which affects all democracies.

The most unexpected aspect of this case of mudslinging was South Korea’s involvement. On the same day of the election announcement, a contemporaneous police investigation came to a close with the arrest of 37 Chinese and Taiwanese nationals in a case relating to online financial scams targeting China. How this turned into a team of Chinese and South Korean hackers stealing votes in the presidential election remains a mystery.

To be fair, South Korea is on the surface an ideal target. It has been involved in a number of spying cases targeting Indonesian interests. In February 2011, the global press reported on a bungled operation to access computers in the hotel room of an Indonesian delegation visiting Seoul to negotiate defense and trade deals. In November 2013, South Korea, along with Singapore, was accused of aiding Australia and the U.S. to listen in on Indonesian communications. Yet, undoubtedly it was South Korea’s own goal ― the 2012 presidential election influence peddling by the state spy agency ― that relates most directly to the Indonesian rumor.

The South Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs reacted quickly to the claims that South Korean hackers were involved in vote stealing, and did not let the rumor grow. Korean embassy staff visited the Prabowo camp to express their concern about the claims and made a rare intervention in Indonesian domestic politics with a press release stating that “the South Korean embassy strongly denies any allegation of the country’s involvement in the case.” The rumor collapsed shortly after this swift action. Indeed, it hardly spread into the Korean language, with only a limited number of political blog posts referencing the connection between the 2014 Indonesian elections and the 2012 South Korean presidential elections.

On the surface, the rumor that a team of South Korean hackers had stolen votes is unlikely to affect bilateral relations. The South Korea-Indonesia bilateral relationship is strong. In 2013, South Korean exports to Indonesia were valued at $11.6 billion while imports stood at $13.2 billion. Bilateral trade is highly complementary. Indonesian raw materials are sent to Korea and manufactured goods return. Gas, coal, unrefined petroleum, natural rubber, pulp and copper ore come to Korea, while refined petroleum products, clothing, steel, processed rubber products and motor vehicles return to Indonesia. While the trade volume fell from the high it achieved in 2012, the two states have high hopes for the future relationship. They aim to increase the trade volume to $50 billion by 2015 and $100 billion by 2020.

In July 2012, South Korea and Indonesia commenced negotiations toward a closer economic partnership agreement (CEPA), in a bid to move the bilateral economic relationship beyond the level of trade liberalization achieved under the South Korea-ASEAN Free Trade Agreement, which bound the two states together with the nine other ASEAN member states in June 2007.

A CEPA would give an added bonus to South Korea-Indonesia bilateral relations. Free trade agreements have a head-turning effect. As the trade deal hits the media, more and more exporters become aware of the potential market. South Korea and Indonesia have often suffered from only limited public interest in each other’s country.

Part of the reason for this is political. Historically, South Korea’s relations were much closer with countries sharing a similar political outlook. The Philippines, as a U.S. and Korean War ally, was deemed more favorable than Indonesia, a member of the nonaligned movement, which held diplomatic relations with North Korea. Today, South Korea’s affinity for the Philippines remains. The head-turning effect of a CEPA would increase awareness of the opportunities available to small to medium-sized enterprise exporters in both countries.

The negotiations have to date proved challenging with disagreements rising over South Korean investment in Indonesia and Indonesian access to South Korea’s agricultural market. The negotiations finally broke down in June 2014 in the lead-up to the Indonesian presidential elections, with both sides agreeing to a suspension in order to investigate alternative approaches.

Beneath the surface, the rumor that a team of South Korean hackers had stolen votes will inevitably affect bilateral relations. Decision makers will be aware that any bilateral agreement, which appears to overly favor the Korean side, will potentially once again stir up rumors: Is Jokowi paying back his Korean supporters? South Korea’s MOFA will have to remain vigilant to avoid the leftover presidential election mud. Somewhere in the backrooms of the Korean embassy in Jakarta, this op-ed will be added to a recently opened file to record media reports and rumors about the alleged team of South Korean hackers who stole the 2014 Indonesian presidential elections.

Photo by Republic of Korea

"Avoiding leftover mud in relations between Korea and Indonesia", Korea Herald, 22 July 2014