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South Korea’s lesser evil politics

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Leader of South Korea's main opposition Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myung, attends an anti-Japan and anti-Yoon Suk Yeol rally with other lawmakers from opposition parties in Seoul, South Korea on 18 March 2023 (Photo: Lee Jae-Won/AFLO via Reuters).

In Brief

Since the anniversary of Yoon Suk-yeol’s ascent to South Korea’s presidency was marked in May 2023, public doubt over Yoon’s apparently arbitrary administration of state affairs has grown. Both the ruling and opposition parties appear unattractive to voters. Public opinion is fluctuating significantly as voters feel they will have to pick between the lesser of two evils in the legislative elections in April 2024.


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A June 2023 poll recorded that Yoon’s approval rating had fallen to 35 per cent, while his disapproval rating was 57 per cent. Support for Yoon’s conservative People Power Party (PPP) was 35 per cent and support for the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) stood at 32 per cent. As for the question about next year’s general elections, 49 per cent said that they want to ‘elect a majority of opposition parties to keep the government in check’, and only 37 per cent would chose to ‘elect a ruling party majority supported by the current government’.

Yoon’s unusually low approval ratings represent widespread public disappointment with his ‘one-sided’ approach to managing state affairs. Many South Koreans feel that Yoon has divided their world into ‘friend or foe’ with his overbearing right-or-wrong approach, carried over from his background as a public prosecutor.

Yoon’s unilateralist mode of statecraft, focussed on strengthening the South Korea–US alliance and restoring South Korea–Japan relations under his ‘value-oriented’ diplomacy, especially amid escalating nuclear threats from North Korea, has won him a warm welcome among many democratic ‘friends’, which Yoon has underscored as his major achievement.

Still, Yoon’s remarks on value-oriented diplomacy have triggered backlash both at home and abroad, including from China and Russia. These two neighbouring countries remain major challenges for the South Korean government given the growing US–China rivalry and Russia’s invasion of Ukraine.

Yoon’s value-oriented diplomacy, which also sits at the core of his unilateralism in domestic politics, has also brought about a series of missteps, including repeated diplomatic bungles. The strange balance of evil is caught between the ruling PPP, controlled by Yoon loyalists, that has abandoned party autonomy as if it were the ‘Yeouido branch of the presidential office’ and the DP acting as a ‘bulletproof vest’ for the judicial risk associated with its head representative, Lee Jae-myung. This, in addition to other DP lawmakers’ bribery scandals, have brought about a Korean-style lesser evil politics characterized by no responsibility or moral rectitude.

Yoon and his PPP supporters claim that their leadership is based on rule of law principles, and that this underpins their administration’s major reforms in labour, pensions and education, among others. But critics argue that Yoon’s incompetence and dogmatic approach have deepened social conflict and division, with serious distortions and democratic backsliding bringing about critical consequences for South Korea’s future.

Still, more South Koreans increasingly detest both parties — regarding them as incompetent, irresponsible, lacking a clear vision or road map and with half-cooked policies to deal with the many urgent issues facing the country. The shocking crowd crush in Seoul in October 2022, that claimed at least 159 lives, is seen as a concrete example of irresponsible lesser-evil politics under Yoon, especially regarding public safety.

The incident incited a head-on collision between the Yoon administration and the opposition-led legislature. Yoon’s repeated presidential vetos of the opposition-led controversial grain bill and nursing act in April and May are other examples of the policymaking gridlock that has characterised Yoon’s presidency, with the opposition also frequently using its majority in the National Assembly to block new legislation.

In this all-or-nothing collision, Yoon strongly criticised the grain bill as a ‘populist bill that does nothing for farmers and rural development’, while the DP argued that Yoon ‘callously rejected the desperate farmers as hostage, taking away their right to survive’.

Unsurprisingly, Yoon has not once met with his opposition counterpart Lee, who was his main rival in the 2022 presidential election. Yoon has only cited Lee’s status as a suspect in a massive land development scandal currently under investigation.

Yoon’s biggest problem is that only 36 of 144 government proposals have so far passed the legislature. Yet the DP shows no sign of stopping its vetoing of government proposals and its own unilateral railroading of bills until next year’s general election, as its election strategy is to plunge Yoon into an ‘early lame duck’ situation.

In the meantime, alarm bells are ringing — not only in regards to the economy’s low growth and widening deficits — but also in many other areas in South Korean society, including its low fertility rate, ageing population and national and international security issues. To proceed with his key reform policies, Yoon desperately needs not only cooperation from the DP through open dialogue and compromise, but also various plans, as well as public support, to maintain the momentum of state administration after the general election.

A key question remains as to how desperate Yoon is to bring about radical change to his unilateral governing style in order to redirect South Korea’s lesser evil politics in the lead up to the April 2024 general elections.

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

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