Two polarizing choices in South Korea’s presidential election

As the mainstream parties offer competing visions for South Korea’s future, the fractured progressive left finds itself without real influence.

March 01, 2022 by Ju-Hyun Park
Korean Women's Peasant League representatives gathered in Seoul for the Jan 15 "People's Primary" of progressive parties. Progressive forces however, were unable to consolidate a ticket in the upcoming elections.

More than 40 million eligible South Korean voters will go to the polls on March 9 to elect the next president. In a race that’s been dubbed by the media as the “unlikeable election,” a clear leader still has yet to emerge just days away from voting day.

The two mainstream candidates represent a departure for their own parties. The Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-Myeong is a former governor of Gyeonggi province with a reputation for expanding welfare services, but considered somewhat untested on the national stage. On the other side, the right-wing People’s Power Party’s Yoon Seok-yeol is none other than the former Prosecutor General for the incumbent liberal Moon Jae-In administration. Yoon is a political novice and outsider to his adopted party.

Lee and Yoon represent divergent paths forward for South Korea at the crossroads of a changing economy and world. Overlapping crises of housing, personal debt, elder poverty, labor casualization, and privatization are squeezing working people from all directions. Simultaneously, heightened US aggression against China and a new chill in relations with the north have given new weight to foreign affairs. How South Korea navigates these shifting tides could have far-reaching consequences for the region and the wider world.

Yoon Seok-yeol

Conservative candidate Yoon Seok-yeol’s political journey leaves some scratching their heads. As Prosecutor General for President Moon, he helped convict disgraced former President Park Geun-hye. In 2017, millions of furious South Koreans ousted Park from office during the Candlelight Movement to end government corruption and demand an investigation into her role in the 2014 Sewol Ferry disaster, which claimed the lives of over 300 people, mostly high school students. Yet today, Yoon finds himself as the nominee for Park’s old party, with increasing scrutiny in the media and among the electorate regarding his family’s many scandals and alleged financial crimes.

Yoon’s support comes not only from the conservative old guard, but also from a new social force of young men politicized by the anti-feminist backlash against South Korea’s #MeToo movement. In January, Yoon stirred controversy with a Facebook post calling for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He advocates a free market approach towards creating a “happiness economy”, promising to lower real estate taxes and make exceptions to South Korea’s recent reduction in working hours from 68 to 52 hours a week. He’s also leaned heavily on xenophobia to rally his base, railing against Chinese residents of South Korea (most of whom are ethnic Koreans that form the bulk of the migrant labor force) as parasites on the national healthcare system. In reality, Korean Chinese immigrants pay more into the national healthcare system than they receive. Last fall, Yoon faced criticism from even within his own party for his comments about Africans.

The potency of Sinophobia in this election reflects sharpening international tensions. While China is South Korea’s largest trading partner, the US is South Korea’s military ally, and depends on its bases in South Korea to provide a bridgehead into continental East Asia. The incumbent Moon administration maintained good relations with the US but avoided its more explicit anti-China alliances. Unsurprisingly, Yoon is a strong proponent for an uncompromising alliance with the US against China and North Korea—advocating further joint military exercises and deployments of the US’ controversial THAAD anti-missile system. He also supports a preemptive strike against North Korea, and has generally disparaged the Moon administration’s diplomatic approach, while promoting his own model of “peace through strength.”

Lee Jae-Myeong

Representing the more liberal Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myeong’s platform represents a slight leftward shift from the incumbent Moon administration. Lee’s flagship proposal is to make South Korea the first capitalist state to implement Universal Basic Income. Responding to widespread demands to resocialize public services after almost four decades of neoliberalism, Lee has also proposed rapid construction of 3 million public housing units and promised to tax landowners. Like his predecessor, he also emphasizes South Korea’s carbon-neutral transition, and advocates a carbon tax to bring emissions under control and fund social services.

While Lee’s proposals to expand the welfare state certainly speak to many voters, his platform falls far short of the demands pushed by the workers’ movement in the election season. Since last fall, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions has pushed for a platform that includes the conversion of 50% of national housing stock into public units, socialization of healthcare, childcare and eldercare, nationalization of key industries, the abolition of casual labor contracts, a jobs guarantee, and joint worker-management control of economic transition decisions. Taken in comparison, Lee’s platform leaves much to be desired. The differences reveal the material interests at play—while the demand on the streets is to “abolish inequality,” Lee proffers up UBI as a way to avert the “breakdown” of capitalism.

On foreign policy, Lee’s positions largely reflect those of current President Moon Jae-In. Moon is best known for his efforts at rapprochement with North Korea, the crowning achievement of which was the 2018 Panmunjom Declaration, in which the two Korean governments pledged to increase cooperation and establish a “robust peace regime” after nearly seven decades of division and civil war. Relations with North Korea have soured since then, as further talks with the US failed to progress. Lee, like Moon, is eager to return to the negotiating table, and has argued South Korea should play a more “independent and active” role, rather than hedging its bets based on Washington’s preferences. Criticizing the Trump administration’s approach to denuclearizing North Korea in a sweeping “Big Deal,” Lee has proposed rolling back sanctions in a “phased manner” conditional to concrete denuclearization steps. On China, Lee has emphasized the necessity of a strong relationship and criticized his rival for using “anti-China sentiment to estrange Korea-China relations and gain political interest.” While Lee is likely to keep South Korea out of Washington’s more explicit anti-China alliances, he’s also rejected claims that South Korea’s stance amounts to “strategic ambiguity,” flatly pointing out that “the United States is [our] sole treaty ally.”

Despite Lee’s efforts to set himself apart on international affairs, his platform contains many of the same contradictions as Moon’s before him. Current President Moon oversaw a record increase in defense spending to 54 trillion won, or about 46 billion USD. Like Moon, Lee is a defense hawk who supports South Korea’s plans to acquire nuclear-powered submarines and establish its own Space Force. Moreover, Lee’s approach to North Korea contains a serious flaw: South Korea has no power to revoke US sanctions, and therefore cannot provide the economic relief or security guarantees which North Korea demands in potential denuclearization talks. Lee’s pursuit of an independent foreign policy might still rankle some in Washington. Yet like Moon before him, Lee’s goals might flounder on the structural reality of South Korea’s subordination to the US. As long as US troops remain on the peninsula, and its military remains a market for US defense contractors under a US command structure, South Korea’s ability to pursue a truly independent foreign policy will be limited.

Left out in the cold?

While Yoon presents an unacceptable option to most South Korean liberals and the more radical mass movements, this has not translated into a clear majority in support of Lee’s candidacy. Corporate media has been quick to fixate on the various scandals looming over both candidates and their families as the source of this lack of voter enthusiasm. Although the nonstop cycle of controversies has certainly played its part, bitterness over the reversals of the incumbent Moon administration has also tempered passions.

Just five years ago, millions of South Koreans mobilized in a series of candlelight vigils that lasted for months to topple far-right President Park Geun-hye in what became known as the Candlelight Movement. Rising to power in a landslide victory with the support of a “candlelight coalition,” the Moon Jae-In presidency quickly became mired in its own scandals and failed programs. Progress has been tepid, and many of Moon’s top promises, such as eliminating casualized labor contracts, have gone unfulfilled. The administration’s decision last December to grant President Park a full pardon from her 20-year corruption sentence has only compounded many voters’ sense of betrayal.

In recent years, mass progressive movements in South Korea have exerted greater influence on culture and civil society, but this has yet to translate to real political power. Beginning with a one-day general strike last October, a broad united front of workers, peasants and the urban poor known as the National People’s Alliance sought to unify South Korea’s various minority progressive parties under a common platform. This endeavor did not succeed. Though Lee signals a leftward turn in the Democratic Party to accommodate progressive demands, these efforts have not translated to a full embrace of a party that has disappointed millions since the last, far more hopeful election.

Though the possibility of real change seems remote to many, substantial differences remain between the candidates. Lee will not challenge capitalism, but his more independent approach towards South Korea’s stance on East Asian politics could prove consequential as tensions rise in the region. And if implemented, his domestic platform would alleviate conditions for millions of desperate people, at least in the short term. On the other hand, Yoon presents a more familiar path resonant with South Korea’s autocratic and anticommunist history — one that would likely have great peril in store given the volatile international situation. Whether voters trudge or sprint to the polls on election day, history marches on.

Ju-Hyun Park is a writer and member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development.