11.05.2024 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

ROK After Parliamentary Elections

Yoon Suk-yeol

South Korea’s parliamentary elections have resulted in the presidential-parliamentary confrontation remaining alive until the end of Yoon Suk-yeol’s presidency. The Conservatives failed to deprive the Democrats of the majority in the parliament while the Democrats did not manage to increase this majority to 2/3 in order to impeach the president. Nevertheless, the situation is generally perceived as a defeat for the Conservatives, because until the end of his term, President Yoon will have to deal with the parliament existing in the logic of factional struggle.


The Democrats are consolidating their position and engaging in populism

The Democrats have used the situation to increase pressure on the president, declaring that “it’s not a victory for the Democratic Party but a great victory for our people” and proposing the election of all chairmen of the National Assembly’s standing committees by ballot. This would allow the Democrats to put their own members in all the posts, although the previously accepted practice was to conform to a percentage balance of power in which the People Power would get a third of the posts, and the audience is hardly surprised by the news that while the Democratic Party did not have a qualified majority, it was this party that pressed the president for “shared governance.As conservative media noted on this occasion, “the DP must not distort the meaning of the election victory. Though the party won 175 seats — 67 seats more than the PPP — their gap in voter turnouts is just 5.4 percent. Voters certainly voted for the opposition, but it doesn’t mean it can do whatever it wants.”

That said, it’s not Lee Jae-myung who is trying to play the leading role, but Cho Kuk. The factional struggle between the two parts of the Democratic camp is quite intense and the only link that unites them is their hatred for Yoon, which is why, in order to gain political capital, Cho has rolled out a series of demands to the president, which, taken together, amount to a demand for unconditional surrender intermingled with insidious rhetoric questions. Yoon must agree to a special prosecutor’s investigation of allegations related to the First Lady, pass a number of bills he previously vetoed, expel the ‘New Right’ from the government, etc.

In addition, on April 16, in an attempt to be more populist than the Democratic Party, the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP) decided to ban its lawmakers from playing golf during parliamentary sessions, flying business class and owning cryptocurrency. Party lawmakers will also have to abstain from using VIP lounges at airports or making new equity investments, and will be required to consult the party in advance before buying real estate.

It reminds the cynical author of a farcical political advert saying “our candidate is the least corrupt one because he hasn’t stolen anything yet,” for Cho Kuk himself is an exemplary embodiment of double standards.

Lee Jae-myung has more important things to do: Lee was elected chairman in August 2022 for a two-year term, and his term ends this year. Of course, this has the potential to exacerbate factional struggles. Therefore, some MPs particularly loyal to Lee have already put forward their candidacy for the role of chairman, saying that his election as faction leader would establish a ‘two-leader system’ and Chairman Lee is best suited to push for reform. On the other hand, Democratic Party lawmaker Jung Sung-ho said on April 16 that it would be a good idea for Lee Jae-myung to be re-elected as party chairman once again: Lee’s return as leader would help strengthen unity. After all, in such harsh times of opposing the dictatorship of prosecutors, “don’t change horses in midstream” and Chairman Lee should stay on for a second term. Former intelligence chief and now Democratic Party lawmaker Park Ji-won also said Lee should hold the post for two consecutive terms because there are no party rules prohibiting such a transition.

Cho Kuk, however, does not try to challenge his leadership and, indeed, states that “Chairman Lee should be the leader among the 192 seats,” not just the 175 seats that the Democratic Party proper won in the election. Although 192 represents “everyone who isn’t a Conservative” and Chairman Lee’s enemies outside of the DPK and RKP are plentiful.

The new Democratic Party leadership is also made up of individuals closely associated with Lee.

On the other hand, Sim Sang-jung, the spiritual head of the Justice Party, announced her retirement from politics because, for the second time, the practice of creating satellite parties annihilates election opportunities for small but genuinely leftist parties. The left-wing could have claimed about 20 mandates, but they got 6 in 2020 and none at all this year.


Han Dong-hoon’s future

As it was noted earlier, everyone from the Prime Minister to the head of the Conservative Party left office after the defeat. The author had certain hopes for the young, energetic and rather independent Han Dong-hoon, but now it is not clear when he will return to active politics. After a defeat, one is supposed to show shame and take a timeout, and only Lee Jae-myung avoided this practice.

“I apologize to people on behalf of our party, which fell short of receiving people’s support,” Han said during a press conference. “I solemnly accept the will of the people and deeply reflect on myself. I take full responsibility for the election results and step down.”

According to Shin Yul, a professor of political science at Myongji University, Han is likely to decide to disappear from the public eye for a while, distancing himself from the looming domestic turmoil, and may ‘resurface’ for the 2026 election, when the Conservative Party will again need a powerful and untainted figure.

On April 21, Yoon Suk-yeol offered to hold a lunch meeting with Han Dong-hoon and party members who worked for him, but Han declined to attend, citing his health. ROK political analysts saw Han’s negative answer as an attempt to distance himself from Yoon and strategize his future political endeavors. Thus, Kim Jong-in, the Reform Party’s campaign chief, said that Han would have no political hope if he did not distance himself from Yoon.

But who should replace Han? On April 16, the People Power decided to form an emergency steering committee tasked with organizing a national assembly to elect a new party leader, whose place has so far been taken by the leader of the parliamentary faction, Yoon Jae-ok. This is the fourth emergency committee after the previous one, headed by Han Dong-hoon, disintegrated following his election defeat.

The Emergency Committee has led the PPP since August 2022 after former party chairman Lee Jun-seok was ousted as leader, but the People Power plans to hold a party primary on May 10 to elect a new leader.

Therefore, it is interesting to what extent this will provoke factional struggle and whether it will happen that the party head will not be a representative of the pro-presidential group.

It is understandable that “old” conservatives like Daegu Mayor and former party leader Hong Joon-pyo have harshly criticized the election outcome and Han Dong-hoon’s performance as the People Power’s vice-chairman. Hong actually accused Han of betraying President Yoon Suk-yeol, after which Han Dong-hoon wrote on Facebook that the only thing politicians should never betray is the people. Meanwhile, Yoon Suk-yeol met with Hong Joon-pyo on April 16 to discuss election-related issues, including the future management of government affairs and personnel appointments. According to sources, the meeting with Hong was not scheduled to offer him a position in the government, although it was reported that Hong advised the president to reorganize his cabinet and staff as soon as possible, stressing that the next presidential chief of staff should be politically savvy and loyal, while the prime minister should be free of political ambitions and be able to communicate well with the opposition party. And it was afterwards that Hong came down heavily on Han, accusing the former Minister of Justice of “exploiting the general elections for his own presidential ambition,” “acting as if he is the heir-apparent of Yoon” but “was abandoned after arrogantly challenging his master.”

Here, of course, “look who’s talking. ”But nevertheless, Hong Joon-pyo or former Speaker Na Kyung-won are likely give it a try. In addition, there is Ahn Cheol-soo, former presidential candidate and leader of the People Party. Ahn’s influence among Conservatives is expected to grow, and on April 12, Ahn had already announced that the entire cabinet and all top aides to the president should voluntarily resign en masse to bring in new and competitive people.

Let’s hope that the charismatic and rather independent Han Dong-hoon doesn’t disappear from the horizon for good. There is a future for this politician, in the author’s opinion.


New appointments

On April 24, Yoon Suk-yeol hosted a luncheon for the outgoing approximately 50 ruling party lawmakers and thanked them for their service to the nation while stressing their shared ‘political fate.’A number of lawmakers have come up with proposals. MP Suh Byung-soo said the party should be more open, given that the election outcome depends on the votes of moderates. MP Tae Young-ho called for reflection on whether the country should maintain its policy of assigning citizenship to a newborn child based on the citizenship of their parents, given the low birth rate.

The president’s chief of staff has already been appointed. This is Chung Jin-suk, a long-time associate of the president, a former journalist who even led the Conservative Party for a while. A five-term MP (although he did not qualify for parliament in the 2024 election), he served as deputy speaker of parliament and also worked as secretary for political affairs in President Lee Myung-bak’s administration. While serving as chairman of the emergency committee in 2022, Chung initiated a change in the rules for electing the ruling party’s leader, which was now based solely on the votes of party members. He also most vehemently criticized Lee Jun-seok for essentially going to Ukraine as party leader on his own.

It is believed that “Chung can elevate the administration’s ability for political negotiations and compromises. His experience stands in contrast to the president’s two former chiefs of staff – Kim Dae-ki and Lee Kwan-sup – elite technocrats largely unfamiliar with the dynamics of political parties.”

The opposition immediately noted that the new chief of staff “must end the archaic practice of demonstrating blind loyalty to the president.” However, Chung Jin-suk himself said he felt it was his duty to give his full support to President Yoon Suk-yeol and the government in the difficult situation of a significant preponderance of opposition lawmakers in parliament.

Hong Cheol-ho, a former National Assembly member and founder of the Goobne Chicken fried chicken franchise, has been appointed as senior secretary for political affairs. However, the position of Prime Minister has yet to be announced and the Democrats are nervous because the previous Prime Minister Han Duk-soo was a Democratic politician and there are rumors that Yoon Suk-yeol is going to recommend a politician with a similar background for the premiership again. If it’s easy for Democrats to vote against a classic Conservative simply because he’s a Conservative, in that situation it would be uncomfortable for someone in the DPK to vote against their own. Therefore, the opposition is already stating that “if the presidential office wants to bring in a politician from the opposition as prime minister to show the spirit of co-governance, it cannot be blamed.” And if the president rushes to appoint the prime minister unilaterally, it will only antagonize the majority party.

A reunion of old enemies

Another discussed issue is the extent to which the president will actually change his attitude towards the opposition and become more constructive.

On April 19, Yoon Suk-yeol called Lee Jae-myung and invited him to discuss pressing issues over tea the following week. This is a step forward, as Lee has repeatedly called for talks with the president, but Yoon has shown little desire to meet with his former rival in the 2022 presidential election.

On April 22, at a briefing on the appointment of the new presidential chief of staff, Yoon Suk-yeol said that in the past two years, he had been more focused on designing and implementing important public policy objectives in the format of concrete policy decisions. Now that the directions and mechanisms of work have been defined, it is time to interact more closely with the population, the head of state added. He said that he would make efforts for dialogue with the opposition in the implementation of the policy.

In response, Lee Jae-myung said that the Office of the President, the government and the National Assembly must change together and at a likely meeting with the president he intends to convey to him the will of the people as manifested in the parliamentary elections held.

The conservative JoongAng Ilbo saw the whole thing as “first step to regularize co-governance”: the president should convince the opposition leader of the reasons why he cannot accept all his demands, while Lee should refrain from making excessive demands.

However, the time of the meeting and the specific agenda are not yet known. It’s easy to turn the talk into a set of mutual recriminations, but looking constructive and trying to negotiate won’t be easy for both the populist Lee and for Yoon, who has never met the opposition leader before.

The Korea Herald expresses “concerns about whether the two former presidential rivals will produce any tangible results from the meeting. In the worst-case scenario, the two could just agree to disagree because their views on key issues remain poles apart.” Especially on thorny issues such as Lee’s controversial proposal to allocate 250,000 won ($181) to each South Korean, which would require a new supplementary budget and cost about 13 trillion won.

Thus, again, the confrontation between the Democrats and the Conservatives is not a full stop, but a comma, but now the author can say that his series of articles about the 2024 parliamentary elections and their outcome is finally completed.


Konstantin Asmolov, Candidate of Historical Sciences, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of 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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