By Eunjung Lim
On April 13, 2016, the legislative election for the 20th National Assembly of South Korea (hereafter Korea) was held. Like many Korean dramas that have earned popularity across different continents, this election was full of dramatic turnovers that made Korea experts on the other side of the world, in Washington, D.C., surprised and excited as well. The election result was a fiasco for the ruling conservative Saenuri Party whereas the major opposition Minju Party that was predicted to lose outright showed an unexpected success and the newly-born People’s Party accomplished a meaningful outcome. The Minju Party won 123 out of 300 seats against 122 seats of the Saenuri Party. Meanwhile, the People’s Party gained 38 seats, the Justice Party got 6, and 11 independents were elected.
Three issues help to better understand the election. First, this legislative election was perceived as pseudo primary for the upcoming presidential election to be held in December 2017, not only by Korean politicians but also by Korean voters. This is why there was an unprecedented level of factional competition within the Saenuri Party. Many ambitious leaders angling to be the ruling party’s presidential candidate next year, including Kim Moo-sung (who served as the Chairman of the Saenuri Party), Kim Moon-soo (who served as the Governor of Gyeonggi Province), and Oh Se-hoon (who served as the Mayor of Seoul), tried to survive in this Hobbesian competition. Kim Moo-sung succeeded in maintaining his own seat in Busan, but his leadership was seriously damaged during the nomination process and he resigned his party chairmanship a day after the election. Both Kim Moon-soo and Oh Se-hoon were not elected this time, which implies they are unlikely to be the ruling party’s presidential candidate next year.
Second, in this environment, Korean voters experienced three-party competition that is not completely new to many Korean voters but has been often regarded as unsustainable in the Korean political system, i.e. a presidential system checked by the National Assembly, most of whose seats (253 out of 300 for this time) are from single-member electoral districts. The People’s Party received a significant amount of criticism, especially among traditional supporters of the opposition party. They viewed the People’s Party as a Trojan horse of the conservative party because they assumed that the third party would split votes for liberals, ultimately reducing the number of seats liberals would win in the National Assembly. However, in fact, a number of Korean voters performed “twisted voting” this time; approximately 6.35 million chose this third party though many of them still supported their preferred candidates from either of the two major parties for their local seats. The result was interesting enough. In terms of party support rate, the People’s Party won 26.74% even higher than the Minju Party’s 25.54%, which translated into 13 PR (proportional representation) seats for each party whereas the Saenuri Party gained 17 PR seats with 33.5%.
Third, Taegu and Gwangju, the two symbolic cities for the ruling party and the opposition parties respectively, restored their political attention. Taegu, the hometown of several conservative presidents including the incumbent President Park Geun-hye, and Gwangju, the Mecca of Korean democrats, have been gradually losing attention from the Korean public who have been fed up with the cliché of Korean politics, factionalism and regionalism. Even Korean politicians did not show abundant respects to these two cities any longer because voters of the two cities have been too loyal, coherent and predictable over decades. This time, however, these two cities became the interesting arena to watch. In Taegu, Yoo Seung-min, who stepped down from the position of floor leader of the Saenuri Party last July after confrontation with President Park, ran as an independent and won. Now, he is trying to rejoin the Saenuri Party that lost its party leadership after the election. Another politician who received a spotlight in Taegu is Kim Bu-gyeom of the Minju Party. This was his third challenge to run with the opposition party affiliation in Taegu, and he finally fixed the flag of the opposition party in the middle of Taegu. On the other hand, the people of Gwangju, who have sincerely advocated Kim Dae-jung and his successors including Roh Mu-hyun and Moon Jae-in, unanimously supported the third party this time. It looks like the people of Gwangju adopted Ahn Cheol-soo, a co-founder of the People’s Party, as a new successor of the Kim Dae-jung’s genealogy, which implies that they are likely to continue supporting Ahn as their presidential candidate next year.
What does this election result mean? Is there any major impact on Korea’s current foreign policy, or is it more the domestic agenda that will be affected by the surprising outcome? The immediate impact on foreign policy is likely to remain limited because there are many controversial domestic issues that require urgent attention from the 20th National Assembly such as the Special Sewol Law and the labor market reform. However, the following foreign policy issues are susceptible to volatile public opinion and could be affected by the new power configuration in the 20th National Assembly: first, how to deal with continuous nuclear and missile threats from North Korea; second, whether or not to deploy the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) in spite of strong opposition from China; and third, how to manage the post-Comfort Women Agreement relationship with Japan, including resuming negotiations on the signing of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA).
Answers still remain vague, and the key variable will be how much President Park Geun-hye can persuade the National Assembly where three parties with spirited leaders who want to run in the coming presidential election will be competing.
Eunjung Lim is a Lecturer in Korean Studies at the Paul H. Nitze School of Advanced International Studies at Johns Hopkins University.The views expressed here are the author’s alone.
The above contents are based on remarks previously given at an April 14 Sejong Society event on the Korean National Assembly elections.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.