By Juni Kim
Since the revision of voting laws in 2009, parliamentary and presidential elections have been open to South Koreans living abroad. The South Korean National Election Commission estimated in 2014 that 2.47 million South Koreans live overseas, and about 1.98 million Koreans are of voting age (19 years and older). Over 158,000 Koreans abroad cast their ballots in the last presidential election, and though it was not the deciding factor in the 2012 election, previous presidential elections have been decided on relatively thin margins of 570,000 and 290,000 votes.
Early indications suggest that the overseas turnout for the upcoming 2017 election may be higher than 2012. In the first open registration day, more than seven times the number of voters abroad (23,304) registered compared to the same period in the past election (3,181). As of last Friday, more than 152,000 Koreans overseas are registered for the upcoming election, which is fast approaching the total 222,389 tally from the 2012 election.
With a likely higher voter turnout, it is worth examining the voting preferences of Koreans abroad in prior elections. The voting results of the presidential election displayed below shows the difference in candidate preferences between overseas South Korean voters and the overall South Korean vote. Liberal candidate Moon Jae-in, the current frontrunner of the 2017 presidential election, enjoyed greater support overseas (56.38% of voters) compared to the overall vote (48.02%)
Last year’s National Assembly elections also demonstrated greater support for left-leaning politicians by overseas South Korean voters. The liberal Democratic Party of Korea (also known as the Minjoo Party) and the progressive Justice Party both received a larger share of the overseas vote (37.53% and 16.56% respectively) compared to the overall vote (25.55% and 7.24%). Conversely, the conservative New Frontier Party (also known as the Saenuri Party and recently rebranded as the Liberty Korea Party) received less support among overseas voters (26.93% compared to 33.50% overall).
During the 2016 elections, the highest overseas voter turnout rates were for those in their 30’s and late 20’s, while older demographics over 40 saw a corresponding decline in voter turnout with increasing age groups. In comparison, the highest voter turnout rates for Koreans overall were among voters in their 50’s, 60’s, and 70’s. These older voters, which are sometimes dubbed “5060” voters, tend to vote more conservatively while younger voters, dubbed “2030” voters, vote more liberally. The greater support for left-leaning parties overseas could be attributed to the differences in voting turnout by age compared to the general Korean population.
The significance of the overseas vote is not lost on Korean politicians. During the previous presidential election, officials from both major South Korean political parties toured the United States, China, and Japan to campaign for their respective candidates. Candidates from last year’s parliamentary elections also appealed to voters abroad by making campaign stops overseas. The shortened election cycle this year may prevent presidential candidates from doing the same, but some surrogates have already made overseas trips on behalf of their candidate’s campaign.
Regardless, the larger voter registration numbers this year signal greater enthusiasm among Koreans abroad in participating in the upcoming election. While there are certainly a myriad of other factors that will shape the election narrative in the coming weeks, overseas voters will play an influential part of the election outcome.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). Juho Choi, an intern at KEI, also contributed to this blog. The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics done by Juni Kim.