Understanding South Korea’s Tense Election

South Korea’s tumultuous political season culminates in a May 9 presidential election, with complicated ties with the United States looming and the favored candidate backing a softer stance toward North Korea.

May 04, 2017

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South Koreans will vote on May 9 to elect a new president in an unprecedented early election. The country’s constitution requires a vote be held within sixty days of the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, who was charged with bribery and corruption. Fifteen candidates are contesting the election and the five major party candidates have participated in a series of televised debates.

The elections are being held against the backdrop of rising security tensions resulting from North Korea’s pursuit of an intercontinental nuclear weapons delivery capability and efforts by U.S. President Donald J. Trump to mobilize maximum pressure to halt and reverse the North’s efforts. South Koreans also express persistent worries about economic and social challenges posed by economic inequality and South Korea’s aging society.

South Korea’s presidential candidates pose ahead of a televised debate, Seoul, May 2, 2017.
South Korea’s presidential candidates pose ahead of a televised debate, Seoul, May 2, 2017. (Ahn Young-joon/Reuters)

Major issues during the campaign centered on differences among the candidates over policy toward North Korea and the United States, the deployment of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, as well as educational, economic, and social policy. 

The race has been strongly shaped by weekly nationwide street protests from October 2016 through March 2017 to express dissatisfaction with the Park scandal and impeachment. Front-runner Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party colleagues were at the forefront of the protests, during which public support for the conservatives collapsed and Moon’s party saw its poll ratings surge from percentages in the twenties to percentages in the mid-forties. 

The Presidential Field

Moon Jae-in. As the political heir of progressive president Roh Moo-hyun (2003–2008), Moon has maintained his front-runner status as a result of Democratic Party gains during the impeachment process. However, Moon has failed to erode significant antipathy among members of South Korea’s conservative establishment who view him as too progressive and are skeptical of his eagerness to reopen dialogue and economic exchanges with North Korea. Moon has enjoyed strong loyalty among his core supporters, but has struggled to expand public support and has pledged to exclude remnants of the conservative establishment from power.

Moon has maintained his front-runner status as a result of Democratic Party gains during the impeachment process.

Ahn Cheol-soo. The reformist former physician and software entrepreneur represents the People’s Party, which broke away from the Democratic Party prior to the 2016 National Assembly election and relies on support from southwestern Jeolla Province as its political base. Ahn was Moon’s primary challenger within the Democratic Party in the 2012 presidential campaign and is running on a centrist platform that combines liberal economic policy with a pragmatic approach to North Korea that supports sanctions while seeking expanded dialogue. Early in the campaign, Ahn briefly came within two points of Moon in public opinion polls by combining centrist and conservative support, but Ahn’s uninspiring performances in debates and a turn by conservatives back toward traditional candidates have steadily drained Ahn’s flagging support. He is now no longer seen as a strong competitor against Moon.

Hong Joon-pyo. The Gyeongsang provincial governor is the candidate of the conservative Liberty Korea Party and relies on traditional hard-line views toward North Korea to reconsolidate support from conservatives despite the overhanging scandal that has beset and divided Park Geun-hye’s former party. Hong’s strong performances in debates has bled conservative support from Ahn’s candidacy.

Yoo Seung-min. The candidate of the Righteous Party, which represents a breakaway faction of the conservatives, had core supporters in the National Assembly who backed Park’s impeachment. But Yoo was weakened ahead of the elections by a strong showing for Hong.

Shim Sang-jung. The Democratic Justice Party candidate poses the main challenge to Moon from the left. Its solid labor base has ensured that past candidates from the party have consistently garnered single-digit percentages in prior presidential elections. Shim’s strong debate performances have offered an opportunity for the party to build public support and broaden its base, but that is unlikely to have a decisive impact on the election outcome.

The Issues

Despite nonstop, strictly regulated nationwide campaign rallies, the most significant opportunities to mobilize public support have come through a series of five nationally televised debates. The debates have been criticized as lackluster, in part because the format involved round-robin questions and answers on specific topics by the candidates, with minimal involvement by the moderator or audience. Ahn was the main casualty of the debates, perhaps because his training as a medical doctor and experience as an IT entrepreneur put him at a comparative disadvantage.

A heated issue is how to deal with North Korea. The conservative candidates and Ahn characterize North Korea as the “main enemy,” seeing the northern neighbor as a significant threat. On the other hand, Moon has pledged to reopen inter-Korean exchanges, supporting the early resumption of dialogue and economic cooperation with the North, and the revival of Six Party Talks on denuclearization. Ahn also supports dialogue with North Korea and was questioned closely by conservative candidates over whether he would try to revive former President Kim Dae-jung’s Sunshine Policy that advocated warming relations with the North, a tactic designed to restrain conservatives from backing Ahn. Conservative Hong backs the reintroduction of U.S. tactical nuclear weapons in South Korea and has vowed to join the United States in pursuing military action, if necessary, in response to the North Korean threat. Shim supports dialogue and peaceful resolution of the North Korean standoff.

A second major campaign issue has been the U.S. deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea. This debate was shaped by China’s ongoing economic retaliation for South Korea’s decision to accept the THAAD deployment, the unannounced early placement of THAAD components in a seeming effort to make the deployment a fait accompli for the next president, and comments by Trump that he would negotiate with South Korea to pay some or all of the $1 billion price tag for the system’s batteries, which were deployed and are operated by the United States. The conservative candidates support the THAAD deployment, and Shim opposes it. Ahn initially opposed the deployment when it was announced in July 2016, but subsequently revised his position to support the missile defense system. Moon, while not rejecting the deployment, has criticized Park’s decision-making process as not being transparent and has insisted on the next president having the right to review the decision.

[The new president will face the] challenge of resuming diplomacy following an unprecedented period of paralysis.

Trump’s demand that South Korea pay for THAAD, as well as his call for the Korea-U.S. Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA) to be revised, has evoked a strong Korean public backlash that indirectly benefits the Moon campaign. Trump’s comments have heightened suspicions about the process by which deployment decisions were made and increased the likelihood that the new administration will closely review the decision. The THAAD batteries were declared operational this week and U.S. National Security Advisor H. R. McMaster issued a statement reassuring South Koreans that the Trump administration would not demand payment. Yet the issue continued to stir local resentment because of U.S. indications that it may demand payment in future burden-sharing negotiations. Trump’s statements had emerged as an issue in the debates following revelations that an announced visit by the USS Carl Vinson to Korean waters had been delayed, prompting Hong to suggest that the Trump administration’s failures to follow through on its statements would undermine the credibility of U.S. security assurances.

The presidential candidates’ differences on economic policy have been relatively predictable, with the conservative candidates defending traditional South Korean emphasis on growth and the progressive candidates focusing on income inequality and chaebol (large business conglomerate) privilege. Moon has emphasized the need to expand public sector jobs and strengthen welfare benefits, while Ahn has made the case for economic and social policies designed to promote flexibility and innovation.

The Next President’s Inbox

Due to the unprecedented circumstances surrounding this election, South Korea’s next president will take office without the benefit of time to organize a transition. This means that, although the president will be sworn into office on May 10 at the National Assembly, he or she must rely on holdovers from the Park cabinet during the first weeks in office.

It is critical that the Trump administration extend a gracious welcome for South Korea’s new president.

The first task will be the selection of a prime minister, which will require National Assembly hearings and a formal approval vote. This task will be delicate, as no party enjoys a working majority or a viable coalition that reaches the three-fifths support threshold necessary under South Korean parliamentary rules to sidestep informal party consensus. Alongside the initiation of this process, the president will put into place his senior executive branch advisors responsible for supporting day-to-day operations and implementing policies.

If all goes well, the new prime minister will be in place by the end of May. Formal nomination of additional cabinet members is unlikely to take place until after the prime minister designate receives the National Assembly’s approval and takes office, meaning that the president will continue to operate with a holdover cabinet for at least his or her first two months in office.

Meanwhile, South Korea’s new president will face the press of business, including the delicate challenge of resuming international diplomacy following an unprecedented period of paralysis in South Korea under a caretaker government. It is likely that South Korea’s new president will send representatives to make initial diplomatic contacts with the United States, Japan, China, and Russia, a routine occurrence for new administrations. Moreover, South Korea’s new president faces the challenging task of taking control of the political and policy levers of bureaucracy.

The United States remains South Korea’s most important diplomatic relationship, but underlying concerns about chemistry between Trump and South Korea’s new president have been exacerbated by Trump’s demand for compensation for a weapons system that is not yet fully supported by South Korean progressives. Although the institutional foundations of the relationship remain strong and enjoy high public support in both countries, missteps on either side could quickly squander the currently existing reservoir of goodwill. It is critical that the Trump administration extend a gracious welcome for South Korea’s new president and that both sides embark on a constructive exchange of views to address potential new areas of difference. This will be vital to maintain the solidarity required to respond effectively to North Korea’s nuclear and missile development.

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