14.03.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

The run-up to the 2024 Parliamentary elections in South Korea. Part seven

South Korean politics

The last article dealt with a number of groups that had split off from the Democratic and Conservative Parties to form a third force in South Korean politics, called the Reform Party. However, it seems that in the run-up to the elections both Democrats and Conservatives are likely to face yet another defection – although in reality it will not be a defection at all. Because we are likely to see a repeat of what happened with the 2020 elections.

It will be recalled that the National Assembly has 300 seats, of which 253 are voted for by constituencies and 47 allocated by proportional representation. The new electoral system was introduced before the 2020 elections, and was dragged through with great difficulty by a bloc of small parties. This new system “compensated” small but popular parties for their inability to win in single-mandate constituencies – the fewer single-mandates seats a party gained had in the National Assembly, the more “compensatory” seats it received. But first the Conservatives and then the Democrats created so-called satellite parties, which did not run in the constituencies, while the parent parties, in turn, refused to participate in the list voting. Thus, the idea of filling the party lists with small parties failed – out of the 47 seats reserved for proportional representation 36 were won by the “satellites” of the leading parties, which won the seats they needed without running in the constituencies. And then each satellite was reunited with its creator.

As a result, the small parties got even fewer seats than they would have received without this system. For example, the left-wing Justice Party, which could have counted on winning 20 mandates in a fair game given a level playing field, got only six.

Many people assumed that following this failure the system would be changed before the next election, and the use of satellite parties would be banned. But, of course, such a change would have to be passed by the National Assembly, in which the necessary decision depended on the votes of the Democrats, who, as readers may remember, currently hold more than 50% of the seats and can thus pass any law they want.

Of course, Democratic leader Lee Jae-myung used to be highly critical of such practices and promised to abandon them. Naturally, when the Democratic Party was “caught red-handed” those promises were abandoned, just like the party leader’s defense against criminal charges.

In a New Year’s Eve press conference, talking about the election rules Lee Jae-myung said his party is still “making a careful study of opinions.” But February 5, 2024 he decided to retain the current system of proportional seat allocation and, what is more, announced that the Democratic Party would create a satellite party for proportional voting. As Lee Jae-myung said in an emergency press conference, “The system is not perfect, but it is still a valuable achievement and represents a step forwards. We will seek our path to victory within the (current) system.

Lee’s hypocrisy has reached new heights. First, the situation is entirely the fault of the Conservatives, who, one assumes, deviously planned the whole thing in advance, and the poor Democrats therefore have no chance. Secondly, it was the People Power Party (the Conservatives) that “refused to implement a bill banning satellite parties and is now seeking to hijack the election victory by creating its own. There is no way we can stop them… I apologize for failing to set up a law banning the satellite party system and thus we too have decided to create a satellite party.” The Democratic Party “had to choose between returning to parallel voting or coming up with measures to counter the PPP’s [the Conservatives’] foul play.

Viewing the situation with a cynical eye, however, Lee’s position is understandable. The Democratic Party has suffered more than its opponent as a result of the defections, and by launching satellite parties, Lee will be able to kill two birds with one stone. He will gain votes and significantly reduce the chances of third force parties, as happened with the Justice Party 4 years ago.

Conservative [People’s Power] Party head Han Dong-hoon was initially harshly critical of Lee’s decision, saying, “It’s hard to understand that an election system that affects 50 million people is determined based on the feelings of one person named Lee Jae-myung”, but, given the situation, he had no alternative…

On February 8, the People’s Power Party announced its intention to create a satellite party with the provisional name People’s Future. An official ceremony to mark the occasion is scheduled to be held on February 15, at 11 a.m. Representatives of the committee responsible for preparations for the establishment of the new party said they intend to continue the fight against the destruction of democracy caused by the opposition’s domination of the National Assembly.

To distinguish itself from the two main parties, the Reform Party announced that it would not form a satellite party solely to gain more proportional seats. That is a promising, although part of the problem is that it is still unclear whether the reformists are a niche of a big party or a small party.

After the democrats’ decision, the present author was ready to bet that the Democrats’ satellite party would include corrupt politicians like Cho Gook or Yoon Mee-hyang, or those who have been implicated in corruption scandals, like Choi Kang-wook. But the reality turned out to be rather more interesting. The present author was about to submit this article for publication when reports appeared concerning preparations for the creation of yet another party – which may take a further bite out of the Democrats’ support. The leader of this party is Cho Guk, the Justice Minister whose investigation for corruption catapulted Public Prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol into the presidency.

On February 12, 2024 Cho Guk paid a courtesy visit to former President Moon Jae-in, during which he announced his intention to form a new political party and do whatever he could to denounce Yoon Seok-yeol’s dictatorial regime. Moon Jae-in responded by saying that he understood the need to form a new party and expected the opposition to win, and that this would also lead to the reform of the Public Prosecutor’s office.

On Feb. 13, Cho Guk once again announced his intention to form a party and run in the April 10 general election, despite concerns that his move could exacerbate factional in-fighting in the Democratic Party: “I will stand in the front line in a bid to put an end to the incompetent autocracy of the Public Prosecutor.”

Cho said he has yet to determine the details of his proposed party or campaign plan – he still has not even decided whether he will seek a proportional parliamentary seat or run in a constituency.

However, he definitely ruled out the possibility of joining the Reform Party.

Significantly, five days before this announcement Cho was sentenced to a two-year prison term following his trial on thirteen (!) charges of corruption and other offences. More precisely, the Court of Appeal upheld his two-year prison sentence for academic fraud committed with the involvement of his children and for unlawful interference in the anti-corruption investigations into his conduct. However, Cho Guk was not immediately detained because the court deemed that the chances of his absconding were slim, and he announced that he would appeal to the Supreme Court.

According to reports in the media, Cho’s decision to run in the general election was prompted by the escalation of the rivalry between the mainstream Democratic Party and supporters of former President Moon Jae-in. For instance, on February 6, Lim Hyuk-baek, chairman of the Democratic Party of Korea’s nomination management committee said:

“Those who contributed to the birth of Yoon Suk-yeol’s administration should show some sign that they accept responsibility.” In response, Ko Min-jung, Moon Jae-in’s former press secretary, said the recommendation of a candidate should not depend on faction, previous career and remarks. To resolve these conflicts, Democratic Party parliamentary faction leader Hong Ihk-pyo said: “If the birth of the Yoon administration is the result of the failure of the Moon administration, then all DPK lawmakers should be blamed.”

Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung criticized Cho’s election bid, and ruled out the possibility of the two parties joining forces. Park Hong-keun, who is leading the party’s effort to launch a satellite party, wrote in a Facebook post that the Democratic Party would not consider Cho’s new party as a possible partner because “Cho’s involvement would end up creating unnecessary contradictions, conflicts and political offensives.”

However, it seems that the reason for Cho’s decision may be the internal rift between Lee Jae-myung’s supporters and Moon Jae-in’s supporters. It is worth recalling that during Moon’s presidency the relations between the two politicians were strained, and he was only forced to support Lee Jae-myung because his own faction failed in the primaries.

Not surprisingly, in the Democrat camp Moon’s former supporters are now trying to find their own path. They want to separate themselves from Chairman Lee’s fans in good time, so that after his failure they will be able to serve as a rallying point for Korea’s progressives. After all, there is still a chance that before the election, the investigators may find the evidence they are looking for and the opposition leader will be arrested in connection with at least one of the criminal cases that have been brought against him.

However, a man who became a symbol of corruption while serving in Moon Jae-in’s government is a rather strange choice, and, rather than being a cunning plan, it probably is just a sign of his ambition to return to national politics. Therefore, Cho Gook’s initiative to rally Moon’s former supporters around him may further split the Democratic Party’s vote, thus playing into the hands of the Conservatives. But maybe not. After all, given Cho Gook’s personality and the kind of figures he is likely to bring on board, it is unlikely that his party will really become a serious competitor to the Democrats.

Who knows? With the election still two months away, we are likely to see plenty of new developments.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences and Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies at the Institute of China and Modern Asia of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook

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