By Linnea Logie
South Korea’s local elections and parliamentary by-elections took place on the heels of the much-hyped June 12 summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in Singapore. Nearly 43 million South Koreans were reportedly eligible to vote in the local elections, where ballots were cast for over 4,000 posts, including 17 mayors and governors of cities and provinces, 824 seats in provincial and metropolitan assemblies, 226 heads of smaller administrative units, 2,927 lower-level local councilors, and 17 superintendent-of-education positions. Simultaneously occurring with local elections for the first time, parliamentary by-elections decided an additional 12 seats in the National Assembly.
Though unlikely to have an immediate or dramatic effect on national politics, quadrennial contests of the type held June 13th carry major implications for everyday South Koreans and the communities in which they live and work. The intensity of campaigning confirms that local and by-elections came at a critical moment in Korean domestic politics. They are being regarded as a referendum on the presidency of Moon Jae-in, who hoped to strengthen his mandate by translating the overwhelmingly favorable public reaction to his post-Olympics summit with Kim Jong-un into large-margin victories for the ruling Democratic (Minjoo) Party of Korea (DP). The liberal-minded DP seemed poised for a dominant performance prior to the vote, entering June with a 53 percent approval rating that dwarfed major competitors the Liberty Party of Korea (11 percent) and Bareunmirae Party (5 percent). Exit polls project DP victories in 14 of 17 mayoral and gubernatorial races and 10 or 11 of 12 National Assembly constituencies, respectively. These results will likely be confirmed by early Thursday morning at the latest, and they raise questions as to the future of the conservative cause. The leaders of Liberty Party Korea and Bareunmirae Party are widely expected to step down from their posts in the face of an overwhelming defeat.
In spite of these numbers, election outcomes were far from preordained. Members of the Democratic Party expressed concern during the campaign that expectations for a decisive DP showing could depress voter turnout, particularly among younger Koreans. Their unease was understandable, given that the liberal-leaning youth cohort comprised a larger share of eligible voters than in previous election cycles and turned out in force during the 2017 presidential election. Absent strong youth participation, the persistent reluctance among many older Koreans to support the liberal cause (in spite of a splintered conservative camp) could have narrowed DP victories, even jeopardizing tighter races. Ultimately, however, the National Election Commission estimates that voter participation exceeded 60 percent, a level not seen in local South Korean elections since 1995 and higher than the 56.8 percent recorded in 2014.
Faced with the challenge of a generationally bifurcated voter base, many candidates contesting the June 13th election tapped into pop culture and highlighted issues of common concern to broaden their appeal. Below are a few notable tactics and policy proposals from the campaign trails:
Local U.S. politicians, including mayors and governors, rarely have the funds for flashy transportation. They prefer to invest precious campaign dollars in costly TV or internet campaign ads, community events, and so on. But not so in South Korea.
Be it a national, parliamentary, or local South Korean election, one can always count on there being a crush of campaign vehicles jockeying for position around heavily trafficked, highly visible areas throughout the country for the duration of the brief official campaign blitz.
Campaigns in South Korea exercise little restraint when it comes to outfitting their specially remodeled trucks, plastering candidate names and slogans along the exterior and outfitting them with speaker systems to allow for high-quality audio during candidate speeches and, as discussed below, the blasting of upbeat music.
Canvassing vehicles reflect the need for South Korean electoral candidates to achieve a high level of visibility during a fleeting official campaign season. The major political parties contesting recent local elections waged “all-out war,” dispatching candidates in tight races to subway stations, markets, and even elderly dance classes to shake as many hands as possible before voting began.
The Korean popular music phenomenon, better known as K-pop, extends well beyond the realm of entertainment within South Korean society. Students and special interest groups nationwide have politicized various hit tracks to bolster their cause in recent years, and many political hopefuls in South Korea have come to regard K-pop as a valuable campaign tool.
K-pop politicking reaches a fever-pitch in South Korean campaign cycles where ample resources are at play, such as the 2017 presidential election. Performers bedecked in candidates’ signature colors take to parade floats and mobile stages to belt out well-known tunes, sometimes altering lyrics to incorporate candidate names and key platform themes. The overall effect is a concert-like atmosphere in major cities across the country, promising unusual amusements such as a human-sized blue Smurf performing choreography alongside other campaign dancers.
Campaign theme songs enable candidates who might otherwise resemble members of the old political establishment better connect with younger voters. Using a personalized version of the song “Cheer Up” by K-pop girl band Twice as an anthem, for example, helped freshen up the image of then-presidential hopeful Moon Jae-in, a “64-year-old lawyer in a gray suit who may be the antithesis of a K-pop star.” Candidate Moon apparently had 11 other songs on rotation to appeal to a broad range of audiences. For Moon and others in South Korea, these songs often double as soundtracks for playful campaign ads, contrasting starkly with the typically humorless, reflective tone of political ad spots in the U.S.
K-pop was no less a feature of the recent local election campaign effort. Music started at high volume early each morning, building throughout the afternoon. Not everyone in Korea is fond of the raucous campaign atmosphere; residents of North Jeolla Province filed 28 complaints over loud noise between 7 am and 12 pm on the first day of official campaigning, alone. These sentiments are widespread, with locals throughout the country expressing annoyance at the clamor and illegal parking, while also wondering over the seeming lack of regulation surrounding the conduct of campaign vehicles. Others simply reject the notion that a song or amplified speech could sway their vote.
South Korean electoral candidates have only days to share their message with constituents. As a result, the start of official campaigning in South Korea sets off a visual assault of bright colors and graphic imagery. Banners, posters, online ads, and vehicles emblazoned with candidate names and smiling faces crowd public areas, fighting for the attention of passers-by. Many candidates incorporate slogans into their signage in an effort to stand out from their competitors, though doing so sometimes elicits less-than-enthusiastic responses from members of the general public.
Shin Ji-ye, twenty-seven-year-old Green Party Korea candidate in one of the most significant races in the June 13th election, the mayorship of Seoul, experienced this firsthand. Vandals targeted her posters, which promoted Shin in seemingly typical fashion: name, photograph, and candidate number set against a vivid green background. But Shin believes it was her decision to describe herself as “Feminist Seoul Mayor” on the posters that prompted the backlash, and she denounced the mischief as “crimes violating the election law” and “misogynic terrorism against a feminist politician.”
Though true that unjustifiably disrupting the installation of, or subsequently tampering with, campaign paraphernalia is a punishable offense in South Korea, it is Shin’s assessment of what earned her posters unwanted attention that carries broader implications for the ROK and Asia-Pacific region.
Gender roles that subordinate women to inferior positions within society are deeply entrenched throughout Asia. So while Shin leveraged her situation to gain support at the polls, her comments nevertheless highlight an issue sure to have a major impact on South Korea’s economic development and global standing in years to come. Much like neighboring Japan and China, South Korea is home to an aging and contracting population. These inexorable demographic trends imperil national interests, undermining productivity while adding to social welfare costs. Robust female participation in the workforce will be essential for East Asia’s major powers as they navigate this difficult period, requiring policy and cultural changes.
Even in periods of strong economic growth, jobs, wages, affordable housing, family planning, and upward mobility are rarely far from voters’ minds. More than a few of the candidates contesting key mayoral races in the June 13th South Korean local election outlined proposals to establish local cryptocurrencies as a means of stimulating local economic growth and fostering more civically responsible communities.
Such proposals are perhaps best understood as social-benefits programs funded by individual cities, wherein “points” or “credits” would accrue to businesses and citizens who demonstrate environmental responsibility, participate in volunteer or charitable work, or provide other services to the local community (some of the plans include pension points for seniors and unemployed workers, as well as incentives for child-rearing). These credits could then be cashed in for city-funded services. Candidates gave their proposals catchy abbreviated titles, such as “S-Coin” from incumbent Seoul mayor Park Won-soon, “B-Coin” from Park Min-shik of Busan, and “Local Coin” from Kim Kyocheung of Incheon, among others. With Park Won-soon expected to retain his post, becoming the first to win a third term as mayor of Seoul, time will tell whether S-Coin becomes a reality.
In short, interest in the historic Trump-Kim meeting should not come at the expense of developments below the 38th parallel. The local election campaign process now coming to an end offers a fascinating glimpse into South Korean democracy and the challenges elected ROK officials will confront in the years to come.
Linnea Logie is an incoming graduate student with the Security Studies Program at Georgetown University. She is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.