24.03.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Lead-up to the Local By-elections in the Republic of Korea


On April 7, 2021 the South Korean ruling regime’s strength will be seriously put to the test. Unplanned elections will be held for the mayors of Seoul and Busan, the country’s capital and its second-largest city, which is a seaport in its southern part. In both cases, the elections were triggered by scandals related to the fact that the leaders of these municipalities, who represent the country’s ruling party, wound up on the hook for sexual harassment. And, while the story surrounding the suicide of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was a murky one, and the investigation did not find any direct evidence, Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don was forced to announce his resignation, and he is now a defendant in a criminal case.

Being the mayor of the capital, home to nearly 10 million of the country’s 52 million people, is a very important post in terms of a person’s political career. This was exactly how Lee Myung-bak entered big-time politics (and was as bad at being the president as he was good at being a mayor), but during the “candlelight revolution” it was the support lent by Mayor Park Won-soon that let the demonstrators to feel wonderful about themselves – and not be afraid of reprisals from the authorities.

In addition, the elections will be a barometer of public opinion, and an indicator of the balance of political forces in the year before the presidential elections on March 9, 2022. And while Democrats retain an overwhelming advantage in the national parliament, the conservative takeover of Seoul could plant a bomb under that.

For the sake of victory, the Democrats did not care one iota about their own campaign promises. Back in 2015, when Moon was still an opposition member, he vowed that if a Democratic representative were to go down in flames over a high-profile scandal, the party would not nominate a candidate for election to a seat that was vacant due to misconduct. For ethical reasons.  However, in November 2020, 86.64% of party members voted to nominate candidates for the elections. As party Chairman Lee Nak-yon said, “We have come to the conclusion that it would be better, and more responsible, to learn what public opinion is about our candidates instead of not nominating them”.

Conservatives had other problems – they needed a new, fresh figure with managerial and communication skills, and one who would receive massive support in public opinion polls.

Each camp had its own mini-race, but by now the candidates have already been nominated.

In Seoul, the Democrats are represented by former Ministry of SMEs and Startups Park Young-sun, a woman who has not yet been burdened by any notorious scandals. Park has run for mayor of Seoul twice, first in 2011 and then in 2018. In the intra-party race for leadership on March 1, she bypassed the veteran of democratization Wu San-ho, who has become known recently for negotiating with conservatives on the joint impeachment of Park Geun-hye. Park received 69.56% of the ballots cast by voters inside and outside the party over the phone and the Internet. The approval rating was calculated taking into account the additional points that the party awarded to Park as a female candidate.

Her most recent opponent was Kim Jin-ae, leader of the small Open Democratic Party, which includes “Moon’s beloved children”, too compromised by scandals to come from the Democrats.

And the left-wing Justice Party decided not to nominate candidates on February 3 after a sexual abuse scandal when its leader, Kim Jong-chul, resigned on January 25 as head of the party after confessing to sexually harassing a female deputy that belonged to the same party.   Unlike the Democrats, they chose not to change the rules.

The conservative People Power Party initially nominated 4 candidates: former member of the Korean National Assembly Na Kyung-won, former mayor of Seoul Oh Se-hoon, former parliamentarian Oh Shin-hwan, and head of Seoul Municipal District Cho Eun-hee.

Until a certain time, the leader of the Conservatives in the race for the mayor’s office was the former parliamentary faction leader Na Kyung-won, who lost back in 2011 to the late mayor of Seoul, Park Won-soon. Na Kyung-won is a woman, which in this situation gives her an advantage, but she is too famous and even disreputable.

She was followed by former Seoul mayor Oh Se-hoon, who headed the municipal administration from 2006 to 2011. He resigned because the citywide referendum he organized on introducing system of free meals for schoolchildren in the capital was declared invalid due to the low turnout at polling stations. Since the mayor publicly made a “careless promise to leave” if he loses the referendum, Oh acted in good faith. Then he nominated himself for the seat of parliament several times, but each time he lost, albeit by a small margin.

Oh lagged behind Na significantly in the ratings, but on March 4 during the intra-party voting he received 41.64% versus 36.31% for Na.

Interestingly, the former head of the People’s Party and contender for the third force, Ahn Cheol-soo, has demonstrated serious activity in the struggle for the mayor’s post. This is his third attempt to become mayor after the failures he experienced in 2011 and 2018.

Ahn, who is 59 and a former doctor, professor, and businessman, announced his bid for mayor of Seoul at the end of December 2020, and even offered himself as the single candidate from the opposition, but current Conservative leader Kim Chong-in has repeatedly stated that there will be no merger between People Power Party and the People’s Party – the latter has only three seats, while the former has 102, and can win the elections on its own. Moreover, in accordance with the Election Law, People Power Party will not be able to campaign on behalf of the People’s Party. Ahn, in turn, refused to join the ranks of the Conservatives.

In Busan, the Conservative side is represented by Park Hyung-joon, the former chief secretary of the president for political affairs under Lee Myung-bak, and the Democratic side is represented by former Ministry of Oceans and Fisheries, Kim Young-choon. One person who is curious is independent candidate Chung Kyu-jae, who has promised to make English the official language of Korea’s second largest city.

There is no fierce battle involving compromising evidence yet, but conservatives argue that the regime is interfering in the election for the mayor of Busan, giving the go-ahead for the project to build an international airport on Kadokto Island. From the point of view of the conservatives, this will be an unnecessary and ineffective long-term construction project, although the decision to build it may raise the rating for the ruling party. However, on February 25 President Moon Jae-in visited the site of the alleged airport, prompting backlash from the opposition.

As far as the programs of the future mayors go, they all promise to solve the array of housing, social, and economic problems facing the capital, including the crisis in the real estate market.

As noted by the media, all these kinds of high-profile plans have no practical feasibility, and may turn out to be hollow promises due to a lack of funding.

The candidates also actively nurtured their image through social media networks and popular reality shows, telling stories from their lives, or participating in challenges that went viral. All of this even raised concerns that television appearances might cast a shadow over their political and administrative suitability.  Naturally, each of the candidates showed how “close they are to the people” by eating popular street food in traditional markets to attract blue-collar voters; critics say this practice shows the hypocritical side of politicians, as most of them visit such markets only during election campaigns.

Judging by numerous polls, a rather unusual picture is emerging. In Busan, the opposition candidate has a clear advantage, while in Seoul it is more complex. On the one hand, the majority of respondents support the opposition, and any of its candidates (either Oh or Ahn) defeats Park Young-sun in the event of a one-on-one confrontation with a sufficient gap. However, if there are two candidates, the opposition electorate will be divided, and the Democratic representative will win. Of course, the aspect of force majeure must also be taken into account, for example, if another scandal flares up in the country related to the speculative activity by government officials in the real estate market. On the whole, this is a rather painful topic, and how the situation develops may have an impact on the outcome of the elections.

Nonetheless, although Ahn Cheol-soo and his party received only two mandates in parliament, and People Power Party has 103, Ahn is serious in inviting the conservatives to “renounce in his favor”. This elicits natural surprise because, despite Ahn’s attempts to position himself as a third force, his successes were more than modest, including during his previous attempt to submit his candidacy for the post of Seoul mayor. At that time, Ahn won in only one or two constituencies, although it was assumed that the city electorate would provide him with substantial support. Ahn cites polls where he is ahead of Oh as the preferred candidate from the united opposition, with a score of 34.4% 29.4%.

Ultimately, although the deadline for registering candidates was March 19, the People Power Party and the People’s Party were unable to settle on a single opposition candidate. The participants in the meeting between the leaders of the two parties held on March 18 did not manage to arrive at a consensus. They planned on holding a preliminary vote on the candidacies of Oh Se-hoon and Ahn Cheol-soo on March 17-18, but it was not possible to agree on the procedural issues.   Conservative media outlets exploded about this, with a series of materials in which Ahn was almost called a mole for splitting the electorate and opposition leaders – and missing the most important moment for victory, for which they will blame themselves for a long time to come.

All this makes the situation with the elections very critical and riveting, and the author will talk about how it ends in one of the subsequent articles.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.