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South Korea’s Populist Turn – OpEd

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By ANU Editorial Board*

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South Koreans will head to the polls to elect a new president this Wednesday, 9 March. With campaigning characterised by mudslinging and populist rhetoric, the contest has been dubbed the ‘unlikeable election’.

Leading the race is Yoon Suk-yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP) and a former prosecutor general under the current Moon Jae-in administration. Yoon jumped ship after clashing with the administration over prosecutorial reform, and his reputation as a tough investigator who doesn’t bend to political pressure has propelled him to the top of many pre-election polls.

Closely following Yoon is progressive ruling Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung, a former mayor and governor in Gyeonggi province. Starting out as a factory worker who then injured his arm in an industrial accident before turning to politics, Lee is promoting a rags-to-riches story as part of his promise to roll out a universal basic income and address wealth inequality.

Trailing the two leaders was Ahn Cheol-soo, a renowned former doctor and software entrepreneur of the centrist opposition People’s Party. This positioned Ahn to play the role of spoiler or kingmaker.

Just six days out from the election, Ahn withdrew from the race and threw his support behind Yoon. With Sim Sang-jung of the small opposition leftist Justice Party unable to gain traction, the four-way contest has now been stripped down to two.

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The issues that voters are most concerned about are the cosy relationships that breed corruption between political elites and the chaebol (the family-owned conglomerates that dominate the South Korean economy) and socioeconomic and standard-of-living issues such as housing affordability and jobs. These issues gained traction against the backdrop of the 2016-17 candlelight protests, which saw millions take to the streets to demand the ouster of then president Park Geun-hye who was ultimately impeached.

While Moon Jae-in promised hope and change, many in South Korea feel too little has been done. It is unclear whether Yoon or Lee can do much better in the areas where voters demand the most progress. Neither of the two leading candidates have any experience as legislators in the National Assembly – a first in South Korea’s democratic history. Yoon and Lee each routed nominees from their own parties with more experience and pedigree, helped by scandals that tarred their opponents.

Both are also beset by scandals and drama of their own.

Lee’s wife is accused of using a government employee as her personal assistant and misappropriating public funds, while Lee himself is under scrutiny for a suspicious land development deal and rumours of ties to organised crime.

Yoon has been forced to apologise for his wife’s fraudulent CV, and to deny accusations of connections to a cultist shaman and a predilection for anal acupuncture.

The negative style of campaigning that has characterised the election has left a significant number of swing voters and younger voters still undecided in the lead up to the poll.

In our first lead article this week, Myungji Yang explains that Yoon’s tactics to win the presidency are focused on winning young male voters through a ‘divisive “us-versus them” strategy’. This involves demonising gender equality as the cause of South Korea’s economic woes. Yoon has promised to ‘abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, among other anti-feminist signals’.

Yoon’s approach is to tap into the frustrations of young men surrounding social mobility and the continuing widening of wealth inequality, themes portrayed so starkly in the South Korean global smash TV show Squid Game. Skyrocketing housing and rental prices in Seoul and an unemployment rate of nearly a quarter of South Koreans aged 15-29 highlight the problems. It is an approach that appears disingenuous given that South Korea is a male-dominated society which ranks 108 out of 153 countries in the World Economic Forum’s Gender Gap report.

Lee’s core pledge of a universal basic income has also been labelled populist. To his supporters it is the sort of radical fix needed to address the growing wealth gap. But his detractors say he is seeking to buy votes with free money and the economics of his policies don’t add up.

Amid the populist pledges and mudslinging, both Yoon and Lee have failed to outline how they will address chaebol reform. Neither candidate has touched on the issue in their campaign manifestoes or shown signs in campaign debates that they will bring serious pressure to bear on chaebol elites.

The populist turn in South Korea politics also comes at a time when South Korea’s geopolitical position is becoming more challenging than ever.

As Peter K Lee explains in our second lead this week, ‘the next South Korean president will face a difficult conundrum between North Korea and China. South Korean leaders on both the left and right have long claimed that North Korea’s denuclearisation was the foremost priority for the region and world peace … Yet North Korea is increasingly of secondary importance to the United States’, behind dealing with China, and now behind Russia too in the wake of its aggressive war against Ukraine.

How the next leader in the Blue House decides to balance the continuation of Moon’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea with policy towards China and Russia ‘will inform South Korea’s position on the Indo-Pacific, wartime operational control, trilateral cooperation with Japan, participation in groupings like the Quad, and prospects for deeper cooperation with partners like Australia’.

If a turn to populism is the way of the future in South Korea politics, the country will again need to rely on its strong culture of civic participation and protest, which gave rise to the 2016-17 candlelight protests, to safeguard the quality of its democracy.

*About the author: The EAF Editorial Board is located in the Crawford School of Public Policy, College of Asia and the Pacific, The Australian National University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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