South Korea’s Presidential Election: What to Know

In Brief

South Korea’s Presidential Election: What to Know

The vote for South Korea’s next president is taking place in a fractious political environment and is likely to bring a foreign policy neophyte to power.

South Korean voters will likely pick their next leader from among three leading candidates in the March 9 election. Candidates from the ruling and major opposition parties have been running neck and neck for weeks in a campaign defined by scandals and a sharper focus on candidates’ personal flaws than on their policies.

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Although no minor-party candidates have emerged as viable contenders, they have collectively been enjoying around 10 percent of support in polls, reflecting voter dissatisfaction with the major parties. Record COVID-19 infection rates and deaths due to the spread of the omicron variant could be contributing to voters’ desire for a change in administration.

The Candidates

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Lee Jae-myung. The former Gyeonggi provincial governor was chosen by the ruling Democratic Party as the candidate to succeed President Moon Jae-in. He has carried the double burden of association with the Moon administration—which has experienced economic policy failures—and scandal rumors. Lee rose to national prominence five years ago when he was defeated by Moon in the ruling party primaries. He emerged as a straight-talking advocate for the working class and the expansion of public welfare.

Yoon Suk-yeol. A former chief prosecutor and candidate for the opposition People Power Party, Yoon is a newcomer to politics. His candidacy has been fueled by the need for an opposition-party rebrand following the 2017 impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye, as well as by his objection as chief prosecutor to perceived overreach, hypocrisy, and self-dealing in prosecution reform efforts by Moon’s administration. Yoon has controversially pledged to investigate Moon administration excesses if elected. But his political amateurism and inability to control political disputes within his party have weakened his candidacy.

Presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung, Ahn Cheol-soo, Sim Sang-jung, and Yoon Suk-yeol hold hands before a televised debate.
Presidential candidates Lee Jae-myung, Ahn Cheol-soo, Sim Sang-jung, and Yoon Suk-yeol pose before a televised debate in February. Heo Ran/Reuters

Ahn Cheol-soo. The former software entrepreneur leads a small third party known as the People Party. Ahn has run for president three times and has attempted to triangulate policy positions as an alternative to the main-party candidates. On March 3, Ahn withdrew his candidacy and announced his support for Yoon.

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Sim Sang-jung. The Justice Party candidate has consistently drawn 2 to 3 percent in polls, primarily from her labor constituencies, and this is her second run for president. A major pledge of hers is to bring an end to South Korea’s two-party political structure.

The Scandals

Both major-party candidates have been associated with scandals. Lee has been unable to shake a scandal surrounding a land development project in the city of Seongnam, where he served as mayor prior to being elected in Gyeonggi. Investigations to determine the level of Lee’s involvement have been stalled by obstructionism and the suicides of several principals involved in the project. There have also been allegations that his wife ordered government employees to take on personal tasks. Meanwhile, voters have questioned Yoon’s past prosecutorial roles, his seeming inability to manage his own campaign, and his wife’s political indiscretions and her inclusion of lies on past job applications.

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The candidates’ success will depend more on how they handle such scandals than on their foreign policy positions.

The Platforms

The formal platforms of Lee and Yoon generally reflect two distinct philosophies of governance.

The Lee campaign relies on government-led solutions to manage the real estate market; promote public well-being through universal basic income, housing, and access to financing; and invest in the shift toward a digital and renewable energy–led economy.

In contrast, the Yoon campaign promotes market-led solutions and a relatively light role for the government through deregulation of the real estate market, the removal of government impediments on small and medium-sized businesses, and renewed support for nuclear energy.

The Foreign Policy Issues

Neither major candidate has prior foreign policy experience, and their platforms reflect long-standing party positions. The importance of the U.S.-South Korea alliance is not up for debate given its high level of support [PDF] among the South Korean public.

Lee’s foreign policy platform offers continuity with the Moon administration’s. It emphasizes autonomy and pragmatism and avoids overt alignment with either China or the United States. It also continues Moon’s policies toward Japan, which are aimed at facilitating cooperation on future issues while insisting that Tokyo address historical grievances, as well as toward North Korea, which are focused on peaceful denuclearization and economic integration.

Opposition candidate Yoon has espoused a foreign policy vision in which South Korea would demonstrate greater international leadership through closer alignment with the United States, restore stable relations with Japan, focus on the denuclearization and transformation of North Korea, and improve ties with China.

The Implications

South Korea’s next president will have to effectively grapple with fractious domestic politics, provide international leadership to a major global economy and military power, and manage both North Korea’s expanding military capabilities and the intensifying U.S.-China rivalry.

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