17.04.2021 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The Future of Korea’s Domestic Policy Following the April 2021 Elections


On April 7, early elections were held in the Republic of Korea for the heads of four administrative units, including the mayors of the country’s two largest cities: Seoul and Busan, as well as 17 deputies of local legislative assemblies. According to the results of the vote count, the opposition Power of the People party bypassed the ruling Democratic Party of Toburo by a significant margin. In Seoul, opposition candidate Oh Se-hoon received more than half of the popular vote. The ruling party’s representative Park Young-sun failed to win in any of the 25 administrative districts. In Busan, Opposition People’s Strength candidate Park Hyung-joon overtook the ruling opposition, Kim Yong Chun, to win all 16 administrative districts in Busan.

As you can see, in this case, the polls did not lie particularly, and the winning results of the conservatives, plus or minus, corresponded to the figures given by the polls.

The author’s previous text on the April 7, 2021 by-elections covered preparations for the elections and briefly spoke about their outcome. The ruling party suffered an offensive and crushing defeat: in Seoul, its candidate did not receive a majority in any of the constituencies, and a gap of almost 20% ruled out any talk about incorrect counting or falsification. There are several reasons why the Democratic Party, which literally a year ago secured itself an overwhelming advantage in the national parliament (176 out of 300 seats) in the parliamentary elections, has gone so wild in a year.

First of all, it is the accumulating fatigue from disappointed expectations. Last year’s victory in April was largely based on two factors: a successful victory over the first wave of coronavirus, as well as the absence of prominent leaders and a positive program among conservatives. Like a year later, they tried to turn the elections into a trial of Moon and his policies, without putting forward an alternative course of action. The elected mayor of Seoul then ran for deputy, but lost, albeit with a small gap.

Over the course of a year, the pendulum swung in the opposite direction, and perhaps the point was that after the first wave of coronavirus came the second and third, and the fourth looms on the horizon. Each time, the authorities introduced tough social distancing measures, which more and more hit small and medium-sized businesses, but the war against the pandemic, meanwhile, became protracted. Moon has been criticized for both the slow pace of vaccination and the inconsistent policy on the AstraZeneca vaccine, which has been banned and allowed again. At the same time, if previous outbreaks were attributed to conservative Protestant sects or to representatives of sexual minorities who did not want to share contacts, then it became clear that neither one nor the other actually play a decisive role in the spread of the virus.

It was also an alarming sign for Moon’s administration that both the retirees and the youth turned their backs on him. Only people over the age of 40 showed relative support for the ruling party. This is the generation whose youth fell in the 1980s and the opposition to the military dictatorship. But five years ago, young people in their 20s and 30s took a very active part in mass protests.

According to a number of experts, including the author, by such actions the youth voted not so much for the conservatives as against the Moon administration. Young people tend to have a heightened sense of justice, which prompted them to speak out against Park Geun-hye. But by now, it seems, it has finally become clear to them that Moon Jae-in’s stay in power corresponds to the plot of the tale of how the victor of the dragon turns into a dragon himself. It is not surprising therefore that after their landslide victory in the parliamentary elections, the Democrats lost any sense of restraint, which resulted in the spike in scandals involving them.

There were many of them, but the most important trigger was the crisis in the real estate market. Prices are rising, bans fail to cut them as well, and government officials are trying to cash in on it. The last straw was the scandal with the state corporation LH, whose representatives, using insider information, bought the territories on which promising projects were to be deployed for resale when the price of the sites soared several times. The scandal has just been unfolding, the first arrests began, and not only representatives of the corporation itself, but also people from the Blue House began to be dragged into interrogations.

It is believed that the topic of sexual harassment also influenced the choice of young people. The authorities actively promoted it themselves, hoping in this way to hit the conservatives, but judging by all the high-profile trials on this topic in recent years, the hands and other bodies were mostly dismissed by representatives of the ruling party. The attempt to compensate for this by nominating a female candidate failed.

Moreover, Toburo’s charter forbade nominating candidates for a particular post if the previous appointee from the party got burned by a scandal, especially a sexual one. Moon actively flaunted this position while he was in opposition, but as soon as they talked about such fat pieces as the mayorship in Seoul or Busan, the charter was changed.

Even before the elections, four sociological services (Embrain Public, KSTAT Research, Korea Research International and Hankook Research) gaps in the survey, as a result of which 86% of respondents said that the government should reconsider its political line completely (35%) or partially (51%). The government’s course in the field of real estate was called erroneous by 80% of respondents.

When asked what issues the government should focus on before the end of its term, 29% of respondents indicated a recovery in the economy, followed by stabilization of the real estate market (24%), measures to combat COVID-19 and the provision of vaccines (23%), cooperation with opposition parties (10%); and social welfare and distribution policies (7%).

Of course, conservatives are trying to portray the matter as if the people voted against Moon Jae-in’s policies in general, including lack of loyalty to the United States, flirting with the North, or a law passed in 2020 banning anti-North Korean leaflets. However, in fact, this topic was practically not sounded.

Some believe the Democrats made a tactical mistake by expecting Na Kyung Won to be the main opposition candidate and counting on a “two-woman competition.” But, compared to other Democratic candidates, Ms. Park was no better or worse than the rest. She displayed no negatives signs.  Rather, the Democrats did not have such a heavyweight politician in reserve to face Oh Se-hoon, and those who did had presidential ambitions and therefore did not go to the mayoral elections.

Meanwhile, despite his conservative views, Oh was a good mayor of Seoul, and his voluntary resignation against the background of a lost referendum positioned him as an honest politician. Although, of course, in itself a good attitude towards Oh did not play a decisive role. In 2020, Oh Se-hoon, with a small gap, lost to the former press secretary of Moon Jae In Ko Min Jun with a score of 47.8-50.3. The protest factor played a major role.

In general, it could be said that the vote revealed that: Korea is unhappy with the level of hypocrisy that Moon and his team have displayed.

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”.