The Presidential Campaign Heralds a New Era of Political Competition in South Korea
South Korean voters will elect a new president on Wednesday, March 9, as President Moon Jae-in comes to the end of his five-year term. As South Korea’s constitution limits presidents to a single term, there is now a heated race to succeed Moon. The Moon administration’s negative image has exerted a strong influence on the race, creating difficulties for his Democratic Party of Korea (DPK). The widespread perception that Moon failed to deliver on his great ambitions for South Korea’s economy; its relationship with North Korea; and its place in the world colored the nomination fights in the leading parties, with Moon’s choice of successor losing the DPK’s nomination to a populist rival, and opposition party members capitalizing on the Moon administration’s failures to press for a change at the Blue House. The opposition People Power Party (PPP) recruited South Korea’s former prosecutor general, an independent whose battles with the Moon administration led to his resignation. Despite the DPK’s landslide victory two years ago when it secured a supermajority in National Assembly elections, the increasing apathy and distrust toward the Moon administration could help deliver the presidency to the conservative PPP.
In the wake of the National Assembly elections in April 2020, it looked as if Moon had positioned the DPK to dominate Korean politics well into the 2020s. Despite anxieties surrounding the COVID-19 pandemic, voter turnout surged to 66.2 percent—the highest level since 1992—and the DPK took 180 seats in the 300-seat legislature, the largest majority won by any party since South Korea transitioned to democracy in 1987. And the conservative opposition—then called the United Future Party—suffered its third straight electoral defeat, following the 2017 presidential election and 2018 nationwide local elections, appearing rudderless and divided with only two years until the next presidential election.
Now, as election day approaches, Yoon Suk-yeol—the conservative candidate—has managed to become a strong contender for the presidency, with various polls showing him tied neck and neck with DPK candidate Lee Jae-myung. If Yoon wins, it will forestall the consolidation of DPK dominance and mark the arrival of a new period of heated competition between progressives and conservatives.
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The PPP has seen a reversal of its fortunes since 2020
The conservative PPP made some strategic decisions to revive its fortunes. When the party regrouped after the 2020 National Assembly elections, it eventually turned to Lee Jun-seok—a 35-year-old Harvard University graduate—as its leader, presenting a fresher, more moderate face and appealing to the estimated 90 percent of South Koreans who want greater generational diversity in politics. At the same time, the PPP embraced anti-feminism and a backlash to the Me Too movement in South Korea, appealing to younger male voters who are opposed to feminism. Although President Moon had an approval rating of 90 percent among those in their 20s at the beginning of his term in June 2017, four years later in 2021, he had an approval rating of 31 percent among voters ages 18 to 29 and an abysmal 17 percent among men in their 20s. Although the PPP’s appeals have alienated many Millennial and Generation Z female voters, they may have helped the party prevail in the 2021 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan; these wins were the first sign of improvement in its fortunes, with 72.5 percent of male voters in their 20s voting for the PPP. Finally, the PPP’s decision to back Yoon as its candidate signaled a desire to appeal beyond its electoral base. Yoon, who was appointed prosecutor general by Moon in May 2017 and served until a series of skirmishes with the justice minister ultimately led to his resignation, was not known as a conservative before declaring his candidacy for the PPP nomination in 2021. However, the party’s leadership saw Yoon as an opportunity to unseat the DPK and embraced him.
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Perceptions of the Moon administration have weakened the DPK
Yoon’s campaign has been marred by a series of gaffes, scandals, and mistakes; as recently as January, he was forced to reorganize his campaign. Yet he has a strong chance to win the presidency, a fact that suggests the PPP’s stronger position in this year’s presidential election may have more to do with Moon’s and the DPK’s missteps than with the PPP’s own rebuilding process. Moon’s failures in office created an opening for Lee Jae-myung, the populist governor of Gyeonggi province surrounding Seoul, to win the DPK’s nomination over former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yon, Moon’s choice of successor. Lee Jae-myung and Moon are long-standing rivals: Lee lost to Moon in the race for the DPK nomination in 2017. Lee Jae-myung has called for a more aggressive response to economic inequality than the Moon administration, centered on a universal basic income. But it has been difficult for Lee to distance himself entirely from the Moon administration without alienating the DPK’s base. He has had to embrace the outgoing president while signaling that he will succeed where Moon has failed.
Although Moon enjoyed historically high approval ratings after taking office, his proposed economic reforms failed to improve the quality of life for working Koreans, weakening support for his administration and the DPK. Under Moon, South Korea saw weak economic performance even before the COVID-19 pandemic, as well as high youth unemployment, and real estate prices have doubled since 2017, when Moon took office, leaving many young Koreans convinced they will never be able to own homes.
The Moon administration’s marks for its handling of housing issues were not helped by a scandal in which the administration’s housing agency officials were suspected of profiting from government development projects, a major factor in the DPK’s 2021 mayoral by-election defeats. Moon has also been criticized for the slow rollout of COVID-19 vaccines and for abuses of power by members of his Cabinet, particularly his justice ministers. Yoon rose to prominence as an impartial and independent maverick—the prosecutor general investigating Moon’s justice ministers and uncovering corruption despite being part of the administration himself. The upshot is that although Moon led his party to historic electoral victories, he and the DPK have struggled to lay the groundwork for long-term political success.
While voters will not necessarily be making their choices based on foreign policy—although rising anti-China sentiment among younger voters could matter on the margins—the PPP has used foreign policy as another issue to highlight Moon’s ineffectual leadership. Yoon has criticized Moon for his weak response to international challenges and has articulated a return to a more traditional conservative foreign policy, promising to bolster the U.S.-ROK alliance; join U.S.-led coalitions to counter China, including participating in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue in some form; and expand South Korea’s role as a regional power. In an essay in Foreign Affairs, Yoon accused Moon of being overly accommodative toward China and caving to Chinese pressure. When Beijing launched an informal economic boycott of South Korea in response to the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile system, Moon offered his “three no’s” policy: no additional THAAD deployment, no trilateral military alliance with the United States and Japan, and no participation in the U.S. missile defense network. “These pledges undercut South Korea’s sovereign right to protect its people,” Yoon wrote. He has also criticized Moon’s willingness to use dialogue with North Korea “as an end in itself,” signaling a return to a firmer, more militarized approach to Pyongyang. Lee Jae-myung, meanwhile, has been on the defensive on foreign policy, promising a pragmatic approach that balances among the United States, China, and others to maximize South Korea’s national interest. However, Lee’s foreign policy has yet to develop a compelling narrative of its own. Yoon’s critiques of Moon’s—and, by extension, the DPK’s—approach to foreign policy, meanwhile, are somewhat overstated. For example, Moon and U.S. President Joe Biden outlined an ambitious vision for a “comprehensive partnership” extending to cooperation on climate change, advanced technology, and global public health when they met in 2021—hardly a sign of a neglected relationship. Nevertheless, Yoon and Lee have presented voters with distinct visions for South Korea’s foreign relations.
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With a week before the election, the outcome is still difficult to predict. Neither candidate has an easy path to victory on March 9. Lee must differentiate himself from the outgoing Moon administration while being careful not to alienate traditional DPK supporters. And while the nomination of Yoon, a popular independent, ultimately spared the struggling PPP from grappling with a dearth of potential standard-bearers, it remains to be seen if the party’s strategic calculations will pay off. The polls have been volatile: Some show Lee with the lead, while others show Yoon ahead. It is unclear how robust a mandate the winner will receive.
Yet regardless of which candidate wins, both parties are likely to emerge from the presidential election facing long-term identity crises. Lee Jae-myung is not universally loved within the DPK and could struggle to command the party despite its robust majority in the National Assembly. And if the PPP wins with Yoon, it will face a divided government at least until the 2024 National Assembly elections; it is also still grappling with lingering public distrust following the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye in 2017. Nevertheless, the period of conservative weakness that followed Park’s impeachment is over. This presidential campaign has marked the beginning of a new period of intense political competition between progressives and conservatives that will shape the Korean government for years to come.
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