The Bumpy Road Ahead in South Korean Politics
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Democracy in Asia

The Bumpy Road Ahead in South Korean Politics

by Eunjung Lim
April 24, 2024

Eunjung Lim discusses the role of economic factors and communication issues in the crushing defeat for the ruling People Power Party in South Korea’s legislative election. In considering the implications for domestic politics, she maintains that the Yoon government still has public support on several key issues.

On April 10, South Korea held one of the most competitive elections in the country’s political history. The 22nd National Assembly election used a one-person, two-vote system to elect 254 local constituency seats and 46 proportional representatives. The result was a crushing defeat for the ruling People Power Party (PPP). Of the 254 constituency seats, the conservative PPP won only 90 seats and the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) won 161 seats. The New Reform Party (NRP) led by Lee Jun-seok, a former president of the PPP who left the party because of conflicts with President Yoon Suk Yeol, and the New Future Party led by Lee Nak-yeon, a former prime minister who left the DPK because of frictions with Lee Jae-myung, also won one constituency seat each.

Meanwhile, in the seats determined by proportional representation, the People’s Future, the satellite party of the PPP, won 18 seats, and the Democratic Union, the satellite party of the main opposition DPK, won 14 seats. The Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, who acted as the biggest variable in the election, won 12 seats through proportional representation alone, followed by the NRP with 2 seats and the Progressive Party with 1. The Green-Justice Party, a coalition of the two existing parties, the Justice Party and the Green Party, won no constituency or proportional seats.

In the end, the PPP won a total of 108 seats, while the largest opposition party, the DPK, won 175 seats, and the opposition as a whole won 192 seats, solidifying its power in the four-year term of the 22nd National Assembly. President Yoon’s term is shorter than that of the 22nd National Assembly, with approximately three years remaining.

The outcome of this election is bound to be viewed as a failure for President Yoon, and the cause can be traced back to the economy and communication issues. Although South Korea’s trade balance has improved due to a rebound in exports, the bigger economic problem has been inflation. The cost of living is still too high for the average citizen, and the burden of grocery prices, in particular, has made many people feel less satisfied with their daily lives.

Yoon’s communication style was also a liability. The prolonged confrontation between doctors and the government over the issue of medical school quotas and the appointment of former defense minister Lee Jong-sup as ambassador to Australia sparked a public backlash. Minister Lee was accused of exerting external pressure during the investigation into the accident of Marine Corporal Chae Su-geun, who died during a search operation for missing persons in Yecheon County, Gyeongsangbuk-do, an area affected by heavy rains in the summer of 2023.

President Yoon commented on the election during a cabinet meeting on April 16, nearly a week after the results were announced. The public’s response so far has been quite chilly. One reason is that the remarks were not conversational, as in a press conference, but a one-sided speech to all members of the current cabinet appointed by Yoon himself. The second is that the focus was on defending the government’s policy direction. While his words were clearly meant to be apologetic and reflective, the evidence that Yoon’s communication style has not fundamentally changed from before the latest election has led to cynicism in South Korean media about the prospects for his government to work with the opposition parties to achieve its policy goals.

There were certainly times when President Yoon’s character worked positively. The Moon Jae-in administration had failed in the two areas most sensitive to Koreans: real estate and education. Failed policies under Moon caused real estate prices to skyrocket, while former justice minister Cho Kook was involved in a serious scandal over his children’s academic admissions. In this context, Yoon, a former prosecutor general appointed by Moon, was seen as having strong character and gained public favor.

Despite the rebuke of the PPP in the general election, the Yoon government still has public support on several key issues. Many people, for example, agree with President Yoon’s calls for major reforms to the pension, education, and labor systems. More generally, there is still considerable agreement about the direction of the country itself. Nevertheless, the bottom line is that South Koreans are dissatisfied with the unilateral and inflexible approach of the current leadership.

The road ahead for South Korea will be bumpy. There are wars going on in Europe and the Middle East, and North Korea shows no signs of returning to the negotiating table. The climate crisis is increasing the scale of natural disasters, and major countries are using industrial and trade policies to protect their industries. The upcoming U.S. presidential election is also a wild card.

Domestically, the situation is tremendously challenging as well. South Korea will become a super-aged society by UN standards next year, with more than 20% of the population being 65 or older. The country has one of the lowest birth rates in the world, and the gap between the capital area and the rest of the country is widening. To work with the opposition in the National Assembly, President Yoon’s leadership style must change. The leadership of the ruling party will also have to change.

The opposition parties’ landslide victory in the general election does not guarantee a bright future for the DPK and RKP either. The DPK’s Lee Jae-myung and the RKP’s Cho Kuk both have loyal supporters, but there are legal issues that remain, making them high-risk candidates. The campaign to replace Yoon as president will not be easy for any candidate. Additionally, it is still unclear how former president Moon and his aides will play the game.

Despite the hopes of many, South Korea’s domestic politics are unlikely to stabilize anytime soon. It will be a bumpy road for a while. One encouraging sign, however, is that President Yoon called Lee Jae-myung on April 19 and asked to meet at the presidential office. Yoon has not met with Lee separately since his inauguration. This meeting could be meaningful for smoothing out the road ahead for South Korea.

Eunjung Lim is an Associate Professor in the Division of International Studies at Kongju National University.