On April 15, 2024, parliamentary elections will be held in the Republic of Korea to determine the distribution of seats in the National Assembly for the next four years. This is a rather important feature of the South Korean political system as, to the extent that the President is elected once every five years, and the Parliament – once every four years, the Head of the State may work with the Parliament that was formed earlier and strictly opposes him. This is in particular occurring in the current National Assembly, where Democrats hold 168 seats out of 298. As a result, it is these elections that will determine whether President Yoon Suk-yeol can push his agenda forward or remain a lame duck, unable to seek parliamentary approval for his insiders or initiatives.
Preliminary candidate registration began in the Republic of Korea on December 12, 2023. Pursuant to election law, the National Election Commission (NEC) will accept the applications for registration from 120 days preceding the election. After the registration, preliminary candidates are allowed to conduct limited campaign activities, such as opening an election offices, hiring up to three paid staff members, launching an election fund of no greater than 160 million won ($120,000), starting paper-based dissemination and holding telephone election campaigning. The official registration of contestants will take place on March 21 and 22, 2024. The full-scale campaigning will start on March 28, 2024, and the list of the parliamentary candidates will be published on March 29, 2024.
Introduced in 2004, the preliminary registration system is aimed at giving political novices, who are less known than existing politicians, chances to promote themselves before official campaigning kicks off just two weeks before the elections.
Meanwhile, the preliminary candidate registration will begin without a clear constituencies map as the National Assembly has failed to finalize it due to political wrangling. The commission that pursues the issue under the National Election Commission has submitted a draft that would reduce the number of parliamentary seats in Seoul and North Jeolla Province by one for each and increase the number of seats in Incheon and Gyeonggi Provinces by one for each. However, the opposition Democratic Party of Korea strongly opposes the plan, affirming that it would only benefit the ruling People Power Party.
If we compare the internal politics of the Republic of Korea with a tightly-plotted series, then it seems that a new season, or at least a story arc is opening, and in theory, it will be no less fun than two years ago, when the president was elected. But first, some nuts-and-bolts course should be given so that the audience gain a better understanding.
Elections to the unicameral National Assembly are carried out according to a specific system. Since 1998, 253 members of parliament represent single-seat constituencies, and 47 are elected on party list basis. Being a member of parliament is very prestigious, and many members of the National Assembly hold their seats for four or five terms, especially those who are elected in the traditional strongholds of a particular party. And although parliamentary immunity is only in effect during sessions and in connection with the accusations brought against Lee Jae-myung, they are trying to cancel it, the situation when, on the eve of parliamentary elections, a minister or other high-ranking official resigns and registers as a potential lawmaker is very common. In this case, Foreign Minister Park Chin and Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon are planning to exchange their ministerial posts for the lawmaker career.
Moreover, two trends which can be called democratic and conservative dominate the political arena. Each is represented by a “base” or “leading” party, which can change names, and representatives of these two camps usually take an absolute majority of seats. The third force in South Korea wasn’t meant to be for a variety of reasons, although there is a request for it. However, so far all attempts to put in place a sustainable center party have ended in a fiasco.
Each of the two parties has a clear “private turf”. There is the southeastern Yeongnam region (North and South Gyeongsang Provinces and the city of Daegu, which vote exclusively for Conservatives since ancient times) and the southwestern Honam region (North and South Jeolla Provinces and the city of Gwangju, where only Democrats always win).
Usually, prior to elections, existing political parties begin the “merger”, “absorption”, “alignment” and “renaming” procedures. This is due to the fact that strong parties are coalitions of factions or political clans, each of which is grouped around a prominent leader (more rarely, a group of such leaders) and their clientele. Therefore, we will begin our story about the election campaign start with the characteristics of the factions, since only time will tell which way they will be recombined immediately as of the time of elections.
Let’s start with the ruling People Power Party, where several factions can be identified. Although Yoon Suk-yeol managed to form his own group of factions and temporarily suppress his opponents, every failure of Yoon is considered by them as a reason to contest his leadership. However, the party leader and the leader of the party’s parliamentary faction belong to Yoon’s team. People Power Party was previously led by Kim Kyu Hyun, now by Han Dong-hoon. We will report about how the Conservatives tried to reform after their failure in elections in Gangseo County.
The second faction comprises the classic Conservatives who have led the party since the time of Park Geun-hye. While ex-Prime Minister Hwang Kyo-ahn has hopefully faded into political non-being, influential members of this faction include the current Mayor of Daegu, Hong Joon-pyo, who ran against Moon Jae-in in 2017 and lost to Yoon Suk-yeol in the 2022 primaries. It could be previously said that those people were to the right of Yoon and held more traditionalist and pro-American positions. However, with the strengthening of South Korean-American cooperation, it has become increasingly complicated to keep saying such things.
The third most important faction can be nominally called center-right. It includes Yoo Seung-min and his adherent, the party ex-chairman Lee Jun-seok. The same people who had actively opposed Park Geun-hye even before it became fashionable against the backdrop of the candle revolution, seceded to create their own “party of the right”, then sided with the center-left into the “Right Future Party”, but eventually returned to the former fold. This category of Conservatives is substantially influential, but the most traditional and oppositional to Yoon. Their voice is noticeably heard as one of the largest English-language newspapers of the Republic of Korea, the Korea Times, proclaims its agenda.
In addition, there is the professional centrist Ahn Cheol-soo, who before the elections had sided with Yoon Suk-yeol and even headed the Transition Committee, but actually vanished into history, and has hardly reported independently over the past year.
Let’s move on to the Democrats. There, Lee Jae-myung took the leadership quite unequivocally. The Democratic victory in Gangseo County strengthened his leadership, although his supporters are often compared to fans of a pop idol, who believe in his being right and are willing to bully his enemies at their idol’s command.
The intrigue regarding Lee Jae-myung is whether the authorities will find enough reasonable evidence to arrest him on the third attempt. At this point, time is rather on Lee’s side, since the defense counsel is delaying the trial, and the prosecutors are slow at their work, as the opposition leader should only be imprisoned under incriminating circumstances that are absolutely impossible to be construed as a hoax.
Moreover, the factions opposing Lee, are in a nice mess. On the one hand, Lee Jae-myung is a rather objectionable character. On the other hand, weakening the party before the elections would put the Conservatives at an advantage. However, a similar situation is developing in the right camp.
Who are the Chairman Lee’s main political rivals? Ex-President Moon Jae-in opened a bookstore and has ben pointedly distancing himself from modern political life. However, there is a group of people who called themselves “the president’s favorite children.” It includes such figures as ex-Minister of Justice Cho Kuk, deputy Choe Kang-wook, known for his reports on Yoon Suk-yeol to the public authorities, and some other personalities. All of them are knit together by their relative belonging to Moon’s inner circle and having suspended sentences for corruption under both Yoon’s and Moon’s offices. They don’t hold in high regard the current leadership, especially Yoon, as then-Prosecutor General Yoon Suk-yeol and his team of assistants considerably became the reason for their legal vicissitudes.
The faction of the party ex-Chairman Song Young-gil was close to them. Although Song Young-gil and Lee Jae-myung have worked together in many ways, he represents his separate faction. Back on December 2, Son Yong Gil announced: “If I create a party that will gather forces for the “resignation of Yoon Suk-yeol” (instead of my joining the Democratic Party), we will be able to overthrow the president before expiry,” but two weeks later the investigation into the “case about the distribution of envelopes” led to his arrest. Now, it is not clear yet who his supporters will join.
Meanwhile, Lee Jae-myung’s main rival is ex-Prime Minister and the party ex-leader Lee Nak-yon, who lost to him in the primaries and has recently emerged from political seclusion. He is a democrat and administrator, but not a gasbag politician as opposed to Lee Jae-myung. He is even rather a left-of-center compared to the current line of the Democratic Party.
Finally, there are disaffected younger politicians, who are not limited to Park Ji-hyun.
In this continuous maelstrom, many experts expect “the secession of those especially disaffected in order to form an independent party”: among both the Democrats (Lee Nak-yon) and the Conservatives (Lee Joon-seok). This has already happened in the right camp just at the last hour before the article goes to press. Lee Joon Suk has left the People Power Party. The five-term parliamentarian Lee Sang-min has left the Democrats, claiming that the Democratic Party (DP) has become Lee Jae-myung’s personal party, and Lee’s cronies have too much influence.
However, to what extent the center-left and center-right will unite into something capable of becoming a third force not only by ideology, but also by number of mandates in the National Assembly, is another story, which will get its coverage in the next three months.
Kim Chong-in stands apart from these political squabbles. He is already an old man and one of the few professional political strategists in the Republic of Korea who managed to work with both the Conservatives (it is believed that he brought Park Geun-hye to power) and the Democrats (he even worked with Roh Moo-hyun). His past performance includes his attempt to reform the Conservative Party, which he left due to disagreements with Yoon Suk-yeol and the political leadership. It is assumed that he wanted to move the party significantly towards the center, which aroused the hostility of all right-wingers. In addition, he patronized Lee Jun-seok.
Of the small parties, the Justice Party is the largest one after the Conservatives and Democrats (regardless of the huge difference in the number of mandates). According to the author, they can be called real left-wingers, but the real number of mandates they will be able to get in the 2024 elections remains a matter of speculation. In 2020, the party’s prospects were promising but both the Conservatives and the Democrats created the so-called “satellite parties” that gobbled up the majority of votes and were integrated into the base parties, resulting in less than twenty non-conservatives and non-democrats in the 2020 parliament.
However, there is still some confusion here too. On the one hand, there are “old politicians” who can be called socialists. On the other hand, there is a youth wing that is ready to work with young people from other factions, forming a “third force” at least as a counterweight to those politicians who make people allergic.
On December 17, 2023, young people led by Yu/Ryu Ho-jeong broke away into a separate party, New Choice, and one of the politicians of the previous generation Kim Thae-sop became their ally.
In 2019-2020, the name of Kim Thae-sop was on many lips as an example of how much democracy there was in the Democratic Party during Moon’s time. At that time, the former prosecutor butted heads with the party leadership on many controversial issues.
Firstly, in December 2019, Kim Thae-sop spoke against the draft law introduced by the party to speed up judicial reform by Moon Jae-in, and secondly, in May 2020, he voiced negative comments concerning ex-Justice Minister Cho Kuk regarding his alleged corruption and opposed the confirmation of his appointment.
As a result, he was not only deprived of the opportunity to become a member of parliament for the next term, but was also warned for daring to abstain from such an important vote. This led to a storm of criticism by members of the Democratic Party of Korea, who referred to the point of the Law on the National Assembly, which stipulates that a representative of the people should vote for reasons of conscience, without being bound by the opinion of the party he belongs to.
Kim Thae-sop demanded that the party should revise the sentencing decision but then-Chairman Lee Hae-chan was adamant and declared: “We cannot simply let him go when a party member goes against the mandatory party line.”
On October 21, 2020, Kim Thae-sop left the Democratic Party, railing against, what he called as, its arrogance, hypocrisy, and tendency to divide the public into friends and enemies. Lee Nak-yon, who was the head of the party at that time, expressed his regret at Kim’s resignation, and said that he would take his words seriously. However, he was not allowed to act, and the party majority began to tar the defector with a brush.
Since then, he has been a lawyer and hinted at his readiness to run for Mayor of Seoul as an independent candidate, though he had no chance against the incumbent mayor.
Kim Chong-in, who was the interim head of the People Power Party at that time, said he was ready to meet with Kim Thae-sop for negotiations. Kim Thae-sop stated however that the Conservatives are still greater in need of self-reflection and changes than the Democrats, and that he would not join the party.
New Choice Party is a “coalition of rational progressives and reformist conservatives” who intend to “become a party that deals with practical issues” such as housing, education, jobs, demographics, etc. As far as we know, the new party has already recruited about 5,000 members.
The official ceremony for the creation of the new party was attended by Lee Jun-seok, and Lee Sang-min, who recently left the Toburo Party and can formally be considered as the head of Chairman Lee’s opponents, or at least his most active “internal critic”. Ex-Prime-Minister Lee Nak-yon sent a message of congratulations to the new party.
There are also independent candidates in the Parliament, and still, as a rule, these are either members of the party who were expelled from it for any faux pas, or who willingly left the party for fear of casting a shadow. Another option is a representative of an influential faction who did not get along with the current leadership of the party and therefore run in his home constituency not on the party list basis, and still won as an independent candidate.
The prospects for future elections at this point depend in part on who is counting, and these types of agencies are mostly affiliated with the Democrats. Public opinion poll results indicate that 50% of the South Korean population is confident that the Democratic Party will win. 36% of respondents want the People Power Party to win the majority of seats.
Another media outlet, YTN conducted its own opinion poll, whose results showed that 29.8% preferred the ruling party, and 38.9% preferred the opposition. 25% of voters do not intend to vote for any of the political parties, or remain hesitant.
According to a poll conducted jointly by Yonhap News Agency and Yonhap News TV earlier this month, the Democratic Party’s approval rating is 35%, while the Conservatives’ result is 34%. And if parliamentary elections were held tomorrow, the Democrats and Conservatives would receive 36% and 31% of the votes respectively, although the result would be within the margin of error of 2-3%.
Anyway, there are less than a hundred days left until the April parliamentary elections. Stay tuned. There will be a lot of thrilling news!
Konstantin ASMOLOV, Candidate of Historical Sciences, a Leading Researcher at the Center for Korean Studies, Institute of China and Contemporary Asia of the RAS, especially for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.
The case touched the possibility of creating the notorious CIO, an emergency law enforcement agency to investigate corruption and other illegal actions of high-ranking government officials, and separating it from the prosecution office that would allow Moon a) to avoid punitive measures after the end of his presidential term, b) to create a special authority body to wipe Yoon Suk-yeol out.