The Contentious State of South Korean Democracy: Pitfalls and Hopes
A Tight Race with Centrist and Younger Voters Likely to Decide the Election Outcome
On March 9, South Korean voters will choose a president who will run the country for the next five years. Many voters view this election as choosing the less unfavorable candidate between former Governor Lee Jae-myung, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) candidate, and former Prosecutor-General Yoon Seok-youl, the People Power Party (PPP) candidate. Lee built his credentials through his administrative leadership as mayor of Seongnam city and later as governor of Gyeonggi Province. Yoon served the Moon Jae-in administration as a powerful chief of the prosecutor’s office but emerged as an icon of opposition after investigating charges made against President Moon’s inner circle. Both candidates are outsiders to party politics. Lee initially pushed for the introduction of a universal basic income and later the easing of housing-related taxes, proposals that have generated opposition or reluctance from his own party. Yoon, less prepared than Lee due to his lack of public policy experience, also proposed policies that were not well coordinated with his party. However, major policy differences between Lee and Yoon drew scant attention as their past personal records and family problems dominated the news outlets.
The Moon administration has not received positive praise in terms of economic policies. In fact, the administration’s housing policy is regarded as its biggest failure, resulting in soaring housing prices. However, public anger was subdued with the outbreak of COVID-19 as South Korea gained international recognition with its successful quarantine policies in early 2020. Aided by the pandemic-driven nationalism, the ruling DP won 180 of 300 seats in the April 2020 general election, while the opposition PPP gained only 103 seats. Controlling the National Assembly by winning a super-majority of over sixty percent of seats, the ruling party was able to push controversial policies. A year later, the political atmosphere turned rapidly against the ruling party. The scandal of the public Land and Housing Corporation (LH) helped the opposition PPP win in the April 2021 mayoral by-elections in Korea’s two biggest cities, Seoul and Busan. The much more explosive Daejang-dong development project scandal erupted in the fall of 2021. Since the incident occurred when DP candidate Lee was serving as the mayor of Seongnam city, both the ruling and opposition parties called for an investigation by special prosecutors with the opposing goals of showing his innocence or proving his responsibility. Angry voters wanted to replace the government on the grounds of policy failures and scandals. However, the Yoon camp and the PPP fell into disarray and could not seize this opportunity to their benefit. In early January, two months before Election Day, Lee led with a margin of six to ten percent over Yoon. A significant number of disappointed supporters wanting government change turned to the third candidate, Ahn Cheol-soo of the People Party (PP). But Yoon regained support after quieting internal disputes between his campaign body members and the PPP leaders. Several polls taken around the third week of January revealed a neck and neck race between Lee and Yoon. Older voters aged 60 and over have shown solid support for Yoon, while middle-aged voters tend to lean toward Lee. It is said that the votes of centrists and the younger generation are likely to determine the result of the election.
Major Features of South Korean Democracy
No matter who wins the election, Korean politics will be characterized by three unchanging elements.
First is the centralized power of the presidency. The Blue House is able to not only mobilize a vast bureaucracy but also politically utilize the Supreme Prosecutor’s Office and the intelligence bureau. Neither the National Assembly nor the several independent inspection agencies can check the powerful presidency. Using enormous executive power, Korean presidents often engage in institutional reforms that are seen by the opposition as politically biased. The political elite-level division has been increasingly hardened in South Korea with no signs of moderation and forbearance. Under this environment, reformist drives by a “righteous” president are often viewed as partisan unless preceded by serious deliberations that include different views. President Moon’s correction drive against the “accumulated evils” was no exception. Punishing court judges for their relations with the previous government was viewed as excessive, undermining the public trust in courts. The prosecutorial reform has resulted in controversy as well. President Moon attempted to reform the prosecutor’s office by breaking its monopoly on indictment rights and establishing independent agencies to investigate high-ranking officials, including the president and direct family members involved with alleged corruption charges. However, this was met with PPP opposition as they argued that this whole process could be used to weaken the opposition. The fall 2019 scandal of Justice Minister Cho Kuk, whose mission was to enact reform of the prosecutor’s office, further contributed to politicizing the whole process. Unless the Korean presidency changes in the direction of more inclusive and collaborative governance, the same mistakes of being subject to partisan politics will be repeated and the many reforms measures are likely to be derailed.
The second characteristic is weak party politics that cannot meet the demands of diversifying voters. The complacency of the two major parties that have enjoyed advantages due to election rules makes them less accountable to public demands. The electoral system elects 253 constituency seats out of the total 300 seats by the simple majority rule in which the top vote-receiving candidate is elected, which gives an advantage to the two major parties. Under this electoral system, smaller parties like the Justice Party and the PP cannot win a sizable number of assembly seats, and breakaway third parties from the two major parties have subsequently been absorbed into the latters. The last general election held in April 2020 experimented with a new rule intended to give a larger pie to smaller parties for the forty-seven proportional seats. In spite of the reform, the two major parties established their own satellite parties to maintain their portion of the proportional seats. With the veto power of the two major parties, there is little chance of forming a sizable third party. Facing no serious competition from other parties, the two major parties have become polarized, making the National Assembly immobile due to futile partisan fights. Conventionally, the DP support is based on liberals and the Jeolla region, while the PPP gets its support from conservatives and the Gyeongsang region. Centrist voters with no ideological leaning or regional loyalty, making up about one-third of voters, are not well represented in this system.
Third, South Korean civil society tends to mobilize during critical junctures in which the strong presidency and weak party politics are immobile. South Korea’s emblematic candlelight protests originate from the Status of Forces Agreement revision movement of 2002 over the killings of two schoolgirls by a U.S. armed vehicle. The most recent massive candlelight protest in 2016 resulted in the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye and the change to the Moon Jae-in government. This civic activism has functioned by directing the governing system to follow public demands. Bypassing legislative representatives, however, has undermined the development of party politics. This disjuncture between civil society and political society tends to make Korean politics less stable and somewhat populist. The antidote for one-sided populism is a complex internal fragmentation of civil society itself across ideology, regions, class, and gender. South Korea’s active citizens who participate in protest movements to fix social problems are likely to continue to be disappointed unless the structures of institutional politics change.
Future of South Korean Democracy
South Korea has emerged as a leading consolidated democracy in Asia. The Economist Intelligence Unit’s 2020 report listed South Korea as one of five full democracies in the Asia and Australasia region. However, the Korean public regards its domestic politics as backward compared to their economic and social levels. South Korea has shown democratic resilience through constitutionalism, electoral integrity, and citizen activism during governing system crises. People deserve a better-performing representative democracy. The younger generation is expected to set the course for change. This is because they are free from ideological baggage and are more pragmatic with a deeper embrace of liberal principles such as individual and minority rights. The next decade will be a critical period for the new era of South Korean democracy.
This publication is part of the Diamonstein-Spielvogel Project on the Future of Democracy.
Sook-Jong Lee is professor of public administration at Sungkyunkwan University's Graduate School of Governance.