South Korea’s Opposition Parties’ Win: What It Means
from Asia Program

South Korea’s Opposition Parties’ Win: What It Means

Lee Jae-myung (middle), leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, stands with supporters at a campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea on April 9, 2024.
Lee Jae-myung (middle), leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, stands with supporters at a campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea on April 9, 2024. Kim Soo-hyeon/Reuters

The center-left Democratic Party added to its legislative majority after the recent parliamentary election, which would deal a blow to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s domestic reform agenda and possibly his efforts to improve ties with Japan.

Last updated April 11, 2024 9:40 am (EST)

Lee Jae-myung (middle), leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, stands with supporters at a campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea on April 9, 2024.
Lee Jae-myung (middle), leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, stands with supporters at a campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea on April 9, 2024. Kim Soo-hyeon/Reuters
Expert Brief
CFR scholars provide expert analysis and commentary on international issues.

What are the major takeaways from the National Assembly elections in South Korea?

South Koreans went to the polls on April 10 to elect every member of the unicameral National Assembly. To the chagrin of President Yoon Suk Yeol, his conservative People Power Party (PPP) did not secure a majority. PPP lost six seats from 114 to 108 and DPP and allies gained thirty seats from 157 to 187.

More From Our Experts

The election was a litmus test of Yoon’s popularity as he reaches the midpoint of his term. Ever since he came to office with a narrow majority of just 0.8 percent in 2022, Yoon has been hindered by the DP-controlled legislature. With these election results, Yoon’s remaining three years in office are likely to be characterized by the same legislative gridlock that has severely limited his ability to implement his priorities in labor, education, and pension reform, or his measures aimed at boosting the private sector. A strengthened opposition could also try to impede Yoon’s plans to strengthen bilateral ties with Japan.

More on:

South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol

Elections and Voting

Since he cannot seek reelection, Yoon will leave office in 2027 having been essentially rendered a lame duck in domestic politics for his entire presidency. But he is lucky that the opposition did not win a two-hundred-seat supermajority, which would have made it possible to override his veto, amend the constitution, or even impeach him.

A map of South Korea with important data points, such as household debt, one of the highest among OECD countries, and fertility rate, one of the lowest among OECD countries

How will the results of the elections affect South Korea’s foreign policy, especially as it relates to China, Japan, and North Korea, and the U.S.-South Korea alliance?

The main effect could be on policy toward Japan. Foreign policy has been the defining characteristic of the Yoon presidency due to the executive branch’s wide powers over diplomacy compared to the legislature. Yoon’s foreign policy priorities have been to raise South Korea’s profile on the international stage while drawing closer to the United States and Japan, deterring North Korea, and moving away from an overreliance on China. Yoon’s foreign policy vision has revolved around making South Korea into a “global pivotal state” (GPS) by playing a greater role regionally and globally in embracing the defense of values such as democracy, freedom, human rights, and the rule of law. 

More From Our Experts

As part of his GPS policy, Yoon has revitalized ties with Japan by making the unpopular decision to compensate South Korean victims of Japanese forced labor without demanding Tokyo’s participation. During the remainder of his term, Yoon will look to establish his legacy by deepening bilateral ties with Japan, including through intensifying cooperation on the economy, technology, innovation and infrastructure; cultural exchanges and educational partnerships; joint military exercises; and intelligence sharing. However, the opposition parties in the National Assembly, backed by some 60 percent of the public, will try to block his growing closeness with Japan. Improving relations with Japan will be the biggest foreign policy challenge for the remainder of Yoon’s term.

Meanwhile, South Korea-China ties have been under strain since before Yoon came to power. Public opinion polls continue to show that more than 80 percent of voters have negative sentiments toward China. The South Korean public continues to be deeply concerned about Beijing’s foreign policy assertiveness and acts of economic coercion—for example, blocking tourism, entertainment, and other trade in 2016 after Seoul agreed to host a U.S. missile defense system. Nevertheless, China is South Korea’s largest trading partner and pulling back from China poses real risks for South Korea’s economy, including supply-chain disruptions. Opposition leaders in the National Assembly have been critical of Yoon’s China policy, exacting a toll on South Korea’s economy. The Yoon administration will thus continue to pursue a “de-risk” rather than a “decouple” strategy, with plans to cut imports of Chinese critical minerals from 80 percent to 50 percent of South Korea’s requirements by 2030. 

More on:

South Korea

Yoon Suk Yeol

Elections and Voting

On the North Korea threat, Yoon will continue a more hawkish stance, and the more dovish assembly majority will have limited leverage to obstruct his agenda. Yoon’s North Korea policy differs sharply from the previous, progressive administration’s approach focused on negotiations and engagement. For the remainder of his term, Yoon will focus on bolstering deterrence by preparing for preemptive strikes and retaliatory measures that could incapacitate Pyongyang’s leadership in the event of a North Korean attack. (Yoon has promised to punish North Korea “multiple times as hard” if such a provocation occurred.) The Yoon administration will also continue to prioritize strengthening U.S. extended (i.e., nuclear) deterrence of North Korea. With North Korea likely to ramp up provocations this year, which could include more missile tests or limited conventional clashes such as the shelling of a South Korean island—the threat of conflict on the peninsula is growing.

While the PPP is more aligned with U.S. foreign policy priorities in the region (including on China) than the DP, both parties are in favor of U.S.-South Korea security cooperation. Expect the current state of bilateral relations—a strong alliance, centered on both allies’ focus on China, North Korea, and Russia—to continue for the remainder of Yoon’s term. The public support for the U.S. alliance is high among the South Korean public: nearly 87 percent of those polled say South Korea should develop closer ties to the United States than to any other nation.

What will the new National Assembly mean for South Korea’s domestic policy?

As the South Korean government remains divided, important domestic concerns will likely continue to be at an impasse. For instance, political gridlock has prevented meaningful legislation to resolve the ongoing junior doctors’ strike stemming from a government proposal to increase annual medical school enrollments from three thousand to five thousand. 

Beyond this short-term crisis, Yoon will be forced to find compromises with the opposition to enact some form of his policy agenda. Korea’s aging population, low birth rate, and high levels of youth unemployment have intensified fears regarding the country’s future. Yoon promised to reinvigorate Korean industry by weakening unions, prosecuting corruption cases, and reducing state intervention in the business sector. But without the backing of the legislature, Yoon’s reforms will find little traction.

One of the more urgent priorities for the Yoon administration in dealing with this deepening demographic crisis is taking steps to create a public pension plan to provide more income to the elderly. The share of the population aged sixty-five and older living in poverty exceeds 40 percent in South Korea—nearly triple the average of Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) states. Last month, Yoon rolled out comprehensive measures to benefit seniors, including increasing the supply of public rental housing units, expanding residential complexes for seniors called “silver towns,” and subsidizing nursing-care costs and medical treatment. 

Additionally, the growing polarization between men and women in Korean society has been a fault line in Korean politics, as Yoon and the PPP have taken the position that feminism has gone too far in South Korea. During his presidential campaign, Yoon made a controversial proposal to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, arguing that “structural discrimination against women no longer exists.” Yoon’s stance on gender issues alienated women but earned the votes of young men in the presidential election. Many Korean women’s activists warned that Yoon and the PPP are undoing years of progress in women’s rights, and it appears that Korean women expressed those concerns in this election by voting heavily for the opposition and third parties. Now Yoon will find it difficult to eliminate the gender equality ministry.

How do these election results inform South Korea’s next presidential race?

The loss for the PPP raises significant questions for the next Korean presidential election in 2027. Heading into the elections, former Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon, now the PPP’s interim leader, emerged as a potential front-runner for the presidential nomination, but following the PPP’s disappointing performance, the party could look elsewhere for a new leader.

The PPP loss, however, does not necessarily signify a ringing endorsement of the DP. Both the PPP and the DP have suffered from scandals, controversies, internal divisions, and low approval ratings in the run-up to this election. The DP is still led by Lee Jae-myung, the candidate Yoon narrowly defeated for the presidency in 2022. Lee is beset with accusations of facilitating corruption within the party, and he is facing growing dissatisfaction with the DP among Korea’s youth. Lee himself survived an assassination attempt on January 2, 2024, and he will likely focus on what he sees as the PPP’s attempts to misuse the justice system to wage “lawfare” against him and other members of the opposition. Thus, South Korea will likely be in for a period of even greater division and partisan animosity.

Cho Kuk, leader of Rebuilding Korea Party, addresses a campaign rally for the South Korean parliamentary elections, in Seoul, South Korea.
Cho Kuk, leader of Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), celebrates at a campaign rally ahead of the National Assembly election. Yonhap News Agency/Reuters

One notable winner from the election is former Minister of Justice Cho Kuk, the leader of the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), a major third party that won twelve seats. He was previously forced to resign as justice minister and sentenced to two years in detention (he has yet to go to prison) over a scandal involving allegations of him falsifying records. He returned to politics under his newly formed party just a month before this election. The RKP gained support largely from middle-aged, progressive Koreans who strongly oppose the PPP but are also fed up with the ineffectualness and unceasing corruption scandals within the DP. Cho has set himself up to be an important kingmaker in the National Assembly and will most likely cooperate with the DP to obstruct Yoon’s agenda. He opposes Yoon not on ideological grounds but also bears a personal grudge against Yoon for prosecuting him on corruption charges. In addition, Cho had promised to investigate First Lady Kim Keon-hee for alleged stock manipulation if DP and his party won enough seats.

Will Merrow created the graphic for this article.

Creative Commons
Creative Commons: Some rights reserved.
Close
This work is licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International (CC BY-NC-ND 4.0) License.
View License Detail
Close

Top Stories on CFR

Election 2024

The European Union (EU) began implementing the Digital Services Act (DSA) this year, just in time to combat online disinformation and other electoral interference in the dozens of elections taking pl…

Taiwan

In his inaugural address, Taiwan’s new president Lai Ching-te signaled broad continuity on cross-strait issues. China, however, is likely to respond with increased pressure. 

Kenya

During Kenya’s state visit, the United States should work toward building a more resilient model of U.S.-Africa partnerships.