May 24, 2024

The April 10 legislative elections in South Korea loom especially large for President Yoon Suk-yeol. After winning his election in March 2022 by the narrowest margin in the country’s history, the conservative Yoon inherited the National Assembly elected in 2020, in which South Korea’s liberals won a historic landslide thanks to the Moon Jae-in administration’s strong response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Out of the legislature’s 300 seats, the liberal coalition won a 180-seat majority, the largest margin of victory in South Korea’s democratic history.

Two years into his five-year presidential term, Yoon has left a mark in areas that are down to the president alone. Yoon made profligate use of presidential decrees, executive orders that don’t require legislative approval. In his first year, Yoon issued 809 presidential decrees, while his two immediate predecessors, Moon and Park Geun-hye, issued 660 and 653 decrees, respectively, in their first years. Yoon also exerted influence through his appointments—most notably Park Min, the new head of the state-owned broadcaster KBS who sacked popular liberal journalists as soon as he took office. In foreign policy, Yoon capitulated to Japan’s demands to sideline World War II-era Korean forced laborers and release wastewater from the failed Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant, paving the way for U.S.-Japan-South Korea trilateral cooperation.

But in areas that require legislative assent, Yoon has been stymied. The South Korean Constitution allows the executive branch to directly propose a bill to the legislature. For the first six months of Yoon’s presidency, the National Assembly refused to pass a single bill proposed by the government. Yoon’s campaign pledge of abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, pandering to the toxic misogyny rampant among young Korean men and fueling their conservative turn, has not come to pass because a reorganization of cabinet ministries requires passing a law. (Yoon has responded by simply refusing to appoint a gender equality minister.)

Meanwhile, the opposition Democratic Party has leveraged its commanding majority to pass laws that could have been highly damaging to Yoon, such as providing for special prosecutor investigations of the Itaewon Halloween disaster, in which 159 partygoers died in crushing crowds in Seoul’s popular nightlife district, and the alleged stock pump-and-dump scheme on the part of first lady Kim Keon-hee. Each time, Yoon responded by exercising a presidential veto, quickly racking up nine vetoes in the first two years of his presidency—equal to the total number of vetoes exercised by six of his predecessors combined.

Naturally, the Yoon administration and the ruling People Power Party (PPP) are heavily focused on recapturing the legislative majority in elections this month. Yoon was able to win the presidency by flipping a significant part of Seoul from liberal to conservative between 2020 and 2022, by pandering heavily to grievances over rising property tax. The real estate slump since Yoon’s election—Seoul’s condominium prices dipped by more than 7 percent in the past year—threatened to erode that support, as the lower condo price damaged upper-middle-class Seoul residents’ primary investment while the decreased profits and higher interest rate pushed large construction companies to the brink.

In response, South Korea’s Financial Supervisory Service audited banks for charging what the regulators claimed were overly high interest rates, in a move seen as a tactic to pressure banks to extend loans to companies that posed a credit risk. The government also delayed the publication of major economic indicators such as the previous year’s budget deficit and the rising price of consumer goods until after election day on April 10.

For its interim leader in the run-up to the election, the PPP tapped Han Dong-hoon, Yoon’s justice minister and heir apparent. Because of his patrician air and relative youth at 51 years old, Han has been hailed as representing the next generation of conservatives. In the words of conservative columnist Kim Soon-deok of Dong-A Ilbo, Han stands in contrast to Yoon in three ways: “First, he does not drink. Second, he is not a stinky old man. Third, he dresses well and speaks with refined language.” With Han at the center, the conservative party has been able to distance itself from the deeply unpopular president.

The Yoon administration also enjoyed a bump in popularity with its proposal to increase the number of medical students by 2,000—a significant jump from the current level of around 3,000. South Korea has a very low number of doctors, which has resulted in a lack of access to medical care especially outside the Seoul metropolitan area. At just 2.6 doctors per 1,000 people, it’s as low as in the United States, which also has a significant and artificially created shortage, and less than half of the number of most developed countries. Doctors reacted strongly, with more than 90 percent of interns and residents going on strike. Nevertheless, the Yoon administration effectively painted doctors as money-grubbers who wished to artificially restrict the size of their ranks to protect their bottom line. With all these moves, by late February it appeared that Yoon and the conservatives had put themselves in the pole position.

Meanwhile, South Korean liberals have been mired in a civil war. Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the Democratic Party and a former presidential candidate who opposed Yoon, began as a member of the minority faction within his party. As the Democratic Party finalized its slate of candidates in February, the legislators not aligned with Lee found themselves sidelined from running for their seats again. Many of them—including high-ranking members such as Assembly Deputy Speaker Kim Young-joo—quit the party, casting their lot with the PPP or seeking a third-party bid with former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, who lost a bitter presidential primary against Lee in 2021.

But the campaign landscape changed dramatically in March as a new third party, the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), took the scene by storm. The RKP was founded by Cho Kuk, who was widely considered to be the heir apparent to Moon as the liberal president’s justice minister. Instead, Cho’s short time in office fueled the rise of Yoon.

As South Korea’s prosecutor general at the time, Yoon conducted a massive investigation campaign against Cho and his family, eventually putting his wife in prison for forging a service certificate that was included in their daughter’s college applications. Yoon’s prosecution of Cho galvanized the conservatives, who saw Cho as a symbol of liberal hypocrisy. Liberals, on the other hand, saw Cho as a martyr whose family was destroyed for the sake of Yoon’s quest for power.

With Yoon’s unpopularity, the latter narrative began to win out. The RKP’s slogan is not subtle: “Three years is too long,” referring to the remaining term of Yoon’s presidency. The new party quickly became the rallying flag for South Korean liberals critical of Yoon but disappointed with the Democratic Party’s internal squabbling. Even moderates began joining the RKP ranks, attracted by the clear message of punishing the Yoon administration. Within weeks of its launch, the RKP became South Korea’s most popular party with approximately 25 percent support.

A major turning point came on March 18, when Yoon made a highly publicized visit to a supermarket—a photo op to show that the president was tending to the wild increase in food prices. In January and February, the cost of food in South Korea increased by 6.7 percent year over year, with popular items like apples rising by as much as 121.9 percent in the same period, resulting in some supermarkets selling a single apple for 19,800 won (about $15).

At the supermarket, Yoon held up a bundle of scallions and said: “I do a lot of grocery shopping, and 875 won for a bundle seems reasonable.” But in most grocery stores around South Korea, a bundle of scallions typically sells for between 4,000 and 7,000 won; the supermarket that Yoon visited just happened to be running a suspiciously well-timed promotion on scallions.

Yoon’s attempt at Potemkin produce, over a household item whose price is common knowledge, instantly became fodder for viral mockery. Especially in the Seoul metropolitan area, where partisanship is relatively weak and election results tend to alternate, support for the conservatives began crashing. Yoon’s gaffe, and the rise of his nemesis Cho, is threatening to reverse the gain that South Korea’s conservatives have made in Seoul in the past two years.

Seeking to recapture the momentum, Yoon took to the bully pulpit on April 1 to exhort the striking doctors to return to work. But the government’s standoff against doctors is now losing popularity, as the public is facing the consequences of a lack of medical care, such as emergency rooms rejecting ambulances and cancer surgeries being delayed indefinitely. The newly elected head of the Korea Medical Association vowed that the doctors would not negotiate unless Yoon apologized and sacked the health minister.

In his April 1 statement, Yoon offered no compromise—a stance that has done little for conservatives as election day approaches. After the president’s address, one unnamed conservative legislator despaired: “I feel like a dinosaur looking up at the oncoming comet, sensing our extinction.”

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