In South Korea’s election this week, conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party beat progressive Lee Jae-myung by just 0.73%.
Less reported in the international press is the fact that a left-wing alternative candidate, Sim Sang-jung, also ran. She received 2.33% of the vote, which almost certainly would have gone to Lee of the ruling Democratic Party had she not run. Sim “threw” the election to Yoon, as his votes would have given Lee a clear margin of victory.
South Korean presidential elections reward the candidate with the most votes. This requirement of plurality strongly encourages all voters on the right and on the left to converge around a united candidate on each side. Small party candidates can take votes away from an ideologically similar large party candidate who might otherwise win.
This is precisely what happened. The votes from the combined South Korean left were a winning majority. But split into two parties – even one that was very small – neither had enough to win.
On the other hand, there was also an alternative conservative candidate, Ahn Chul-soon. Like Sim, his poll was very low and he had no chance of winning. But unlike Sim, he backed off and lent his support to Yoon. Even though Ahn only polled around 5%, that extra 5% put Yoon on top.
It’s an ironic result because South Korean conservatives are widely seen as devoid of good ideas, especially when it comes to domestic politics. The core of the right’s appeal is foreign policy.
South Korean conservatives seek a tougher line on North Korea and China, closer alignment with the United States, and “forward-looking” engagement with Japan. While Japan may relish Yoon’s victory, foreign policy is generally not a winning campaign strategy. In democracies, voters mostly make their decisions based on national or even local politics.
And on these issues, the South Korean left has a clear advantage. This speaks to widespread social anxiety about skyrocketing education and housing costs, insufficient childcare, the environment, social inclusion of minorities, poor employment opportunities, painful educational burdens for young people, etc. This set of questions is colloquially known as the Hell Chosunand the right has almost nothing to say about it.
Indeed, there is palpable fear on the left over Yoon’s victory. To his opponents, he looks like “Korea, Inc.” from South Korea. spent long working hours, cultural conservatism and little interest in social inclusion or openness. Unsurprisingly, the young women bowed against Yoon.
Still, the victory for the right is likely due to the fact that the South Korean left was elected on these social issues in the last presidential election, but did little about them.
Current South Korean President Moon Jae-in has campaigned on domestic policy but governed on foreign policy. His pacifist detente effort toward North Korea completely dominated his presidency. It was also deeply controversial – South Korean conservatives fiercely opposed it – and failed.
Despite all the hype in recent years about the summits between Moon, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un and former US President Donald Trump, nothing came of it.
The Korean standoff is unchanged despite Moon’s five-year effort. Worse still, this effort has alienated Americans – and the American alliance is very popular in South Korea. Moon has consistently sought to circumvent United Nations sanctions against North Korea, to which South Korea is legally bound as a UN member.
Moon also clearly manipulated Trump’s naivety and vanity. Moon told Trump he would have won a Nobel Prize if he met Kim. It was an open secret in South Korea that this was a ruse to get Trump to meet Kim. But to the American foreign policy community, this trick looked like manipulation, and when Joe Biden became president, he conspicuously avoided engaging Moon.
In short, the centrist votes likely saw the current progressive administration abandon domestic goals it had campaigned on in order to pursue a contentious foreign policy that alienated South Korea’s main ally. And indeed, Yoon led an aggressive campaign to restore the American alliance.
Foreign policy, which traditionally disengages voters, has become the main rift between Yoon and Lee. Lee promised more of Moon’s controversial politics, which had not returned much beyond a strained US alliance, while Yoon vowed to restore that crucial relationship.
What should have been an easy ideological election for the left – fought over social welfare issues close to their hearts – has been lost, as the current left-wing administration has abandoned those goals for a chimerical and divisive quest for change. final agreement with Pyongyang.
Yoon will then likely change South Korean foreign policy. Relations with Japan will improve slightly and with the Americans noticeably. But many of the quality of life issues that South Korea desperately needs change for are unlikely to be resolved. Worse, the sharp cleavages in South Korean society, which the election revealed with a margin of victory of less than 1%, will continue.
South Korea has an “imperial presidency” – a presidential office that dominates the legislature and the courts. This incites fierce right-left competition for this layering, and this zero-sum competition in turn fuels South Korean polarization.
South Korean media have called on Yoon to govern by consensus in recognition of his narrow margin of victory. But he probably won’t. Neither did its predecessors.
Moon’s outreach in North Korea has deeply alienated the South Korean right, but Moon has used the broad powers of the imperial presidency to simply ignore conservatives and continue his controversial detente regardless. Yoon will likely ignore the left the same way.
The ideal outcome of this polarized electorate and contentious election would be a tempered and restrained executive and a more autonomous and mature legislature to soften South Korea’s acute social divides. But that’s unlikely.
Robert Kelly is a professor in the Department of Political Science at Pusan National University in South Korea. Follow his work on his website or on Twitter.
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