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PoliticsSouth Korea

South Korea elections: Yoon's government under pressure

April 8, 2024

President Yoon Suk Yeol is deeply unpopular with the electorate ahead of Wednesday's parliamentary vote. The left-leaning Democratic Party looks to take advantage amid public fears over the economy and national security.

South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol casts his early vote for the April 10 parliamentary election
President Yoon's party is facing a big challenge from the opposition partiesImage: picture alliance/Yonhap /AP

A record number of South Koreans have taken advantage of early voting ahead of parliamentary elections on Wednesday, underlining the public's investment in a political landscape that analysts suggest is more fractured and polarized than in many decades.

Government data shows that 31.28% of the 44.28 million eligible voters cast their votes on Friday or Saturday, with no previous early voting period in South Korea reaching the 30% threshold. It's not clear whether these early voters will help President Yoon Suk Yeol and his People Power Party or his Democratic Party adversary, Lee Jae-myung in the upcoming polls.

The remaining voters will have a chance to cast their ballot on Wednesday, with 300 seats up for grabs. Analysts have suggested there are a handful of issues that have galvanized the public.

"It can be narrowed down to two key issues; the state of the economy and the personal vendetta between Yoon and (Leader of the Rebuilding Korea Party) Cho Kuk," Lee Sang Sin, a political science expert at the Korea Institute for National Unification, told DW.

He said the political intrigue and depth of dislike between Yoon and Cho is worthy of a Shakespeare drama and can be traced back to when Yoon was head of the national prosecution during the previous Democratic Party government of President Moon Jae-in.

Moon appointed Cho as his justice minister in September 2019, but he remained in the post for just 35 days after a series of accusations quickly surfaced.

Scandal and vendetta

Claims of repeated cases of plagiarism from Cho's university days were brought up, along with accusations that he had failed to pay taxes and associated legal costs. Cho's younger brother was charged with embezzlement and bribery in connection with investments in a company that won computer network contracts.

Leader of South Korea's main opposition party attacked

Further digging by prosecutors determined that Cho and his wife, Chung Kyung Shim, had falsified academic achievements of their daughter, Cho Min, to help her obtain places at top universities and a leading medical school.

Cho was fired from the law faculty of Seoul National University, while Chung Kyung Shim was sentenced to four years in prison and fined 638 million Korean won (€435,172/$471,226).

Far from being cowed, however, Cho has created the new Rebuilding Korea Party and is seeking revenge on the man who punished him and his family, said Lee Sang Sin. "Cho lost his job, his status and his honor and still insists that Yoon carried out a coup d'etat against him and his family — and now he is seeking revenge."

Economic and security concerns dominate voters' concerns

Away from vendettas and political scandals, the greatest source of concern for many Koreans are rising prices, said Ms. Lee, who works for a human rights NGO in Seoul and requested that she only be identified by her family name.

"Everyone that I speak to is worried about economic stability and increasing prices for even the basics, such as food," she told DW. "Whenever I go shopping at the supermarket, I'm always surprised at the price and I don't go to restaurants nearly as much as I used to."

What's behind new tensions between North and South Korea

Lee is also dismayed at the worsening political polarization within society. "My family always used to talk about politics among ourselves, but we cannot do that anymore because it always leads to bad arguments," she said.

For Song Young Chae, a conservative-leaning academic, the priority should be national security in the face of a heavily armed and unpredictable neighbor in North Korea and a similarly threatening near-neighbor in China. And he fears another left-wing government will weaken the nation's defenses.

"Implicitly or explicitly, those who have supported North Korea and China have systematically organized and incited the public to pursue a strategy aimed at socialization of the Korean Peninsula and unification based on North Korean rule," he said.

"Many people of my generation are still supportive of a Korean Peninsula unification strategy that is centered around socialism," he added. "People who are concerned about this, like me, or those who oppose a unification plan for the peninsula under socialist principles tend to support a strong right-wing agenda in reaction to the agenda of leftist politicians."

With just days before polling, Lee Sang Sin said the indications are that the opposition Democratic Party will emerge with a solid majority and will reinforce its control of the legislature by partnering with Cho Kuk's new party, leaving President Yoon as a lame duck for the remaining three years of his single five-year term.

'Decisive blow' to Yoon

"I think Yoon's party is going to do badly and that will be a decisive blow to his government," said Lee Sang Sin, estimating that the opposition forces could very well win "a historic" 200 of the 300 seats available.

"With a large majority, there will be little that Yoon can achieve, and we may even see the opposition attempt to remove Yoon from office before his term is up," he said. "This vendetta is deeply personal, and they will try to leverage his unpopularity and the state of the economy."

If the People Power Party does suffer a devastating defeat on Wednesday and Yoon is hobbled for the next three years, Lee said, the party may move to distance itself from his policies and encourage him to step down to rebuild support ahead of the next election.

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Edited by: Shamil Shams

Julian Ryall
Julian Ryall Journalist based in Tokyo, focusing on political, economic and social issues in Japan and Korea