[East Asia Forum] Tough tests for South Korea’s next president

By: Hyung-A Kim, Australian National University

With less than a hundred days to South Korea’s presidential election on 9 March 2022, the contest appears to be turning into a quasi-life-or-death round of Netflix’s Squid Game amid scandals between the frontrunners: the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyunggi province, and the main opposition People Power Party’s (PPP) Yoon Seok-youl, former prosecutor-general. Both are campaigning on fairness and justice, prompting political cynicism especially among young people.

A recent Gallup survey (over 2–4 November 2021) suggests that 57 per cent of respondents reckoned that ‘it is better to elect an opposition candidate to replace the government’. At the same time 33 per cent thought that ‘it’s better for the ruling party candidate to be elected to maintain the current administration’, a 24 per cent gap — the largest in Gallup surveys since the inauguration of the Moon Jae-in administration. But in the very same survey, in answer to a free question about the preferred political leader, the ruling DP candidate Lee was ahead with 26 per cent, above the conservative PPP candidate Yoon with 24 per cent.

This contradiction dramatically resolved itself in the latest Gallup survey (over 16–18 November). In this survey, 42 per cent preferred Yoon over Lee (with 31 per cent) and two other presidential candidates from minor opposition parties, Ahn Cheol-soo (7 per cent) and Shim Sang-jung (5 per cent). The two surveys reflect the South Korean voters’ disillusionment with Moon’s administration and their distrust about the scandals surrounding both Lee and Yoon.

Three key issues are likely to have a major influence on how the election turns out.

The biggest is voter demand for fairness in South Korean politics and society. President Moon’s widely criticised ‘one-way’ national management, combined with his double standard ‘rules for thee, not me’ are exemplified by his tight control over real estate investment for South Korean citizens while members of his own government have engaged in wild land speculation. The South Korean young voters at the April 2021 mayoral by-elections, which led to sweeping victories by the opposition PPP, laid down a clear warning for the 2022 presidential race.

The Cho Kuk scandal, which forced the then justice minister to resign after his wife was found to have rigged the university admission process in favour of their daughter, in particular, incensed young voters who struggle for upward mobility in South Korea’s rapidly ageing and competitive society. They demand fairness in the processes that determine advancement.

There are vast generational differences, not only in political preference and narrative, but in what constitutes fairness within South Korean society. Voters in their 40s and 50s, beneficiaries of South Korea’s rapid industrialisation focus on fair outcomes. Fierce generational clashes are expected. therefore, in the election over the ability to restore fairness and justice in face of South Korean democratic decay. South Korea’s two living ex-presidents are both in jail.

The second major question is about the competence of both Lee and Yoon to assume the presidency. Both are trying to project a strong image of fairness, but neither has parliamentary experience. Lee pledges to introduce a universal basic income and Yoon promises to restore justice and the rule of law through regime change. Neither Lee nor Yoon have track records that are unblemished.

Lee narrowly secured a party primary victory over former prime minister Lee Nak-yon in October amid a snowballing land development scandal in Seongnam, Gyeonggi province, while he served as Seongnam mayor. Lee’s defiant response to his alleged involvement in this scandal, however, led many supporters of the ruling DP to turn their backs on both the DP and Lee and reduced his stock of voter ‘goodwill’. Since his nomination, the DP’s approval rating in South Korea’s southwest Honam region — a historic leftist stronghold — has plunged by 13.9 percentage points from 63.3 per cent a week earlier to 49.4 per cent. Lee’s ‘approval’ rating is stuck at 32 per cent, while his ‘disapproval’ rating rose to 63 per cent from 60 per cent a month earlier, according to Gallup.

Yoon is no less entangled in scandal. Allegations of abuse of power have emerged about his time as the country’s top public prosecutor. As a newcomer to politics, he doesn’t appear to appeal to young voters either, with many of the under 30s preferring Yoon’s opponent, a veteran politician, in the presidential primaries.

The third and arguably most sensitive issue is COVID-19 management. Despite the Moon administration’s early success at containing the virus, daily cases have recently skyrocketed, with 2618 deaths and 337,679 new cases recorded as of October. In November, with almost 79 per cent of the population fully vaccinated, the Moon administration rolled out a series of measures under its Living with COVID-19 plan to nudge the country back to normalcy. In less than three weeks, however, the country’s number of daily COVID-19 cases reached almost 4000 while the number of severely ill patients reached an all-time high of 549 on 23 November. With a dozen new Omicron cases, the administration has tightened anti-virus controls, including on social distancing.

Unless Moon’s living-with-COVID-19 plan succeeds, the public backlash against the government and the ruling Democratic Party will be costly given the host of other problems that South Koreans have faced over the past five years.

Which factors ultimately dominate the outcome in the election is still difficult to predict but, if the recent past is any indication, South Korea’s middle class, especially young swinging voters in their 20s and 30s, will be decisive in the final judgment. The outcome is likely to lean towards the candidate who persuades voters that he captures the voters’ demand for fairness and justice.

Hyung-A Kim is Associate Professor of Korean Politics and History at the School of Culture, History and Language, The Australian National University.

A version of this article appear in the most recent edition of East Asia Forum Quarterly, ‘The Korean Way’, Vol 13, No 4.

Link to the original article: https://www.eastasiaforum.org/2021/12/05/tough-tests-for-south-koreas-next-president/

「국제관계와 국제기구」소논문 발표회

액튼국제사회연구회(이하 ‘액튼소사이어티’)는 알리나 쉬만스카 회원이 강사로 참여한 <국제관계와 국제기구> 수업에서 학생들이 작성한 소논문 중 우수 논문으로 선정된 7편의 글을 선보일 자리를 마련하였습니다.

<국제관계와 국제기구> 수업은 2015년부터 경기도교육청이 시대의 변화에 따른 지식의 성격 변화와 학생 선택 중심의 교육과정의 중요성 증대를 고려하여 추진한 교육과정 프로그램의 일부로서, 안양여자고등학교, 양명고등학교, 양명여자고등학교에 재학 중인 2학년 학생들을 대상으로 진행되었습니다. 해당 수업은 학생들이 국제기구의 역할, 국제질서의 변화, 국가의 외교전략 등 국제정치와 관련한 다양한 이슈들을 중심으로 공부할 수 있는 기회를 제공하였습니다. 구체적으로 우크라이나 사태, 에스토니아에 대한 사이버 공격, 미중 무역 갈등, 화웨이 사태와 5G 기술을 둘러싼 패권 경쟁, 우주 안보와 우주 국제법, 아프가니스탄 미군 철수 문제 등이 다뤄졌으며, 국제관계사의 주제로 1, 2차 세계대전 발발 원인과 유엔, 북대서양조약기구 등 국제기구들의 출현 배경을 함께 공부하기도 하였습니다.

여기 소개된 7편의 소논문은 1년 간 <국제관계와 국제기구> 수업을 수강한 학생들의 시각을 담아낸 결과물입니다. 국제정치 현상에 대한 어린 학생들의 지적 호기심과 진지한 고민이 담겨있는 만큼 의미있는 성과라 할 수 있겠습니다.

액튼소사이어티는 이러한 의미있는 시도에 함께 할 수 있어 기쁘게 생각합니다.


일시: 2021년 12월 3일 오후 7:00 ~ 9:00
장소(화상회의): https://snu-ac-kr.zoom.us/j/81818661404


알리나 쉬만스카(Alina Shymanska)

  • 서울대학교 대학원 외교학 박사과정
  • 경희대학교 평화복지대학원 국제평화전공 석사
  • 우크라이나 키예프 국립대학교 문학사(한국어·문학·번역학 전공)

발표 논문 및 발표자


  • 신승휴 서울대학교 대학원 외교학 박사과정
  • 정유진 연세대학교 대학원 정치학 박사과정
  • 곽시원 서울대학교 대학원 외교학 석사과정

‘호주-중국 관계의 현재와 미래’ 라운드테이블

라운드테이블 주제: 호주-중국 관계의 현재와 미래

일시: 2021년 8월 6일 오후 7-9시
장소: (줌 화상) 추후 공지

※ 액튼국제사회연구회는 매년 두 차례 “호주”를 주제로 라운드테이블을 개최해오고 있습니다. 이번 라운드테이블 주제는 “호주-중국 관계”입니다.

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[ANU SDSC Public Lecture] Competing Strategic Imaginaries in Asia – Prof. Evelyn Goh

The contemporary struggle in Asia is as much about competing strategic ‘imaginaries’ as it is about military or economic power. Geopolitics is a way of framing the world; it rests on imagining and prioritizing some form of connectivity: which parts are connected to each other more importantly than with others? Thus, geopolitical competition is essentially a contest over which imagined connected community is most important.

Goh analyses the three main competing strategic imaginaries of Asia today: the ‘Asia-Pacific’; a revived ‘Greater Asia’ made possible by China’s resurgence; and the ‘Indo-Pacific’ visions. All three will persist for the foreseeable future, and will affect how international actors deal with Asia.

Date: Wednesday 21 July 2021, 6-7 pm (AEST)

Evelyn Goh is the Shedden Professor of Strategic Policy Studies at the Strategic & Defence Studies Centre, ANU, where she is also Deputy Director (Research) of the Coral Bell School of Asia Pacific Affairs. Her research expertise lies in Asian security and international order. Her latest book (co-authored with Barry Buzan) is Re-thinking Sino-Japanese Alienation: History Problems and Historical Opportunities (Oxford University Press, 2020). She is the Lead Chief Investigator of SDSC’s research and engagement program on ‘Strategic Policy for the Asia-Pacific in Transition’, and CI of the ARC Discovery Project on ‘The Infrastructure of China’s Influence in Southeast Asia’.