South Korea’s raucous politics: presidential election outlined by mudslinging and scandal

As a provincial governor and former mayor of a medium-sized metropolis with no parliamentary or cabinet-level expertise, Lee Jae-myung was very a lot an outdoor guess to be South Korea’s subsequent president. Then three increased profile rivals to be the ruling leftwing Democratic social gathering candidate all dropped out: one was despatched to jail for sexual assault, one other died in an obvious suicide after being accused by his workers of sexual harassment, and a 3rd is serving a jail sentence for election tampering.

That opened the best way for Lee, a scrappy former manufacturing facility employee who, in a nod to the veteran leftwing US politician, describes his ambition to be a “profitable Bernie Sanders”. He’s certainly one of two males left standing in a presidential election race that has proved divisive and disreputable even by the carnivalesque requirements of South Korea’s 35-year-old democracy.

Lee and his conservative opponent Yoon Suk-yeol, a former chief prosecutor and political neophyte, are neck and neck in a contest that has been outlined by scandal, mudslinging, household drama and insinuations of corruption, criminality, nepotism, fraud, dictatorial tendencies, superstitious practices and abuse of workplace.

The winner will take the helm of the world’s tenth largest economic system, an important US safety ally and manufacturing powerhouse that sits on the coronary heart of east Asia and harbours ambitions to guide the world within the growth of next-generation applied sciences.

However he can even inherit an sad balancing act between the US and China, an unresolved battle with North Korea, and mounting social and financial tensions as resentment builds over hovering asset and property costs, the rising wage hole between the nation’s massive conglomerates and SMEs, and challenges going through the younger, ladies and minorities specifically.

Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic party at a rally in Sejong ahead of the March 9 presidential election
Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic social gathering at a rally in Sejong forward of the March 9 presidential election. Lee was as soon as thought-about an outdoor guess to be South Korea’s subsequent president © Jung Yeon-Je/AFP/Getty Pictures

South Korea’s status as a well-run nation has been bolstered by its dealing with of the coronavirus pandemic, with the nation attaining 4 per cent financial development in 2021 whereas avoiding lockdowns and limiting complete Covid-related deaths to lower than 10,000. Observers warn of complacency, nevertheless, worrying that the nation’s gladiatorial, mud-spattered politics — encapsulated by what has been dubbed the nation’s “unlikeable election” — is hampering efforts to deal with long-term challenges.

“South Korea nonetheless has many strengths, together with a really in a position paperwork and an lively civil society that’s more and more illiberal of abuses and extra keen to make calls for of their leaders,” says Lee Sook-jong, professor of public governance at Sung Kyun Kwan College in Seoul. “However we now have the bottom fertility price on the planet, our pension system is a ticking time bomb, and our more and more advanced society is just not being represented.”

The outsiders

The March 9 contest, described by one smaller social gathering candidate as a alternative between a “drunk driver and a brand new driver”, options two most important candidates divided by background and expertise however united by their outsider standing and strongman photographs.

Lee, 57, was born to a poor rural household in provincial japanese Korea, and nonetheless lives with the consequences of a crushed arm from an industrial accident he suffered as a teen. An advocate of fiscal growth, he’s seen by admirers as a formidable retail politician who will get issues carried out — a status bolstered by his introduction of a “catastrophe primary revenue” cost in his province through the pandemic.

He additionally has baggage, not least legal convictions for misrepresenting himself as a prosecutor whereas working as a lawyer, drink driving and interfering with the work of a public official.

He has additionally been accused of associations with organised crime amid an investigation into an enormous kickback scandal referring to a property growth within the metropolis of Seongnam throughout his time as mayor. Lee has denied any such associations.

Korean voters keep in mind his public provide to “pull my pants down” when confronted with claims from an actress that she might show her allegations of an affair by reference to a sure a part of his anatomy, and a extensively circulated recording of him launching a stream of obscene invective in opposition to his sister-in-law over a household dispute.

“I’m ashamed each time I hear that is essentially the most unlikeable election,” Lee stated in January. “I sincerely apologise.”

Yoon, against this, is a product of Seoul’s elite. A profession prosecutor, he rose to nationwide stardom by main the profitable prosecution of conservative former presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak on corruption and bribery fees.

His status as a graft-buster earned him the place of prosecutor-general within the progressive administration of Democratic incumbent Moon Jae-in, however he fell out with the federal government after launching an investigation into his personal justice minister over an alleged school admissions scandal. Having resigned from the Moon administration in 2021, he went straight into politics, securing the nomination of the opposition Individuals’s Energy social gathering only a few months later.

The 61-year-old has been accused by opponents of practising what they name “Ok-Trumpism” after he described a former authoritarian president, Chun Doo-hwan, accountable for the bloodbath of protesters in 1980 as “good at politics” (Lee too has praised former authoritarian leaders). He has additionally been subjected to widespread ridicule after the Korean press aired allegations — which he denies — of longstanding associations with shamans and fortune-tellers and a reported predilection for anal acupuncture.

Demonstrators hold banners during a rally to mark International Women’s Day as part of the country’s #MeToo movement in Seoul
Demonstrators maintain banners throughout a rally to mark Worldwide Girls’s Day as a part of the nation’s #MeToo motion in Seoul. Conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol has pledged to abolish the ministry of gender equality, blaming feminism for the nation’s low delivery price © Jung Yeon-je /AFP/Getty Pictures

Regardless of South Korea having the widest gender pay hole within the OECD, and a wave of digital intercourse crimes in opposition to Korean ladies, Yoon has pledged to abolish the nation’s ministry of gender equality, blaming feminism for the nation’s low delivery price. He has additionally been accused of “red-baiting” after he posted an image on Instagram of himself purchasing for groceries, with the contents of his trolley spelling out: “Exterminate Communists”.

“These are the 2 worst presidential candidates that South Korea has confronted within the democratic period,” says Gi-wook Shin, professor of up to date Korea at Stanford College. “Whoever wins, I fear concerning the state of South Korean democracy.”

‘A winner-takes-all struggle for survival’

South Korea’s political class stays outlined by the authoritarian regime that dominated the nation between the Nineteen Fifties and the late Nineteen Eighties.

On one facet is a conservative coalition with roots within the regime and its allied enterprise conglomerates — hawkish on China and North Korea, strongly pro-American, conciliatory in direction of Japan, and with shut connections to socially conservative Christian actions. On the opposite is a progressive coalition with roots within the democratic opposition to the regime — conciliatory in direction of China and North Korea, much less passionate about America’s function on the Korean peninsula, and extra overtly antagonistic in direction of Japan.

Led by former dissidents, a lot of whom suffered by the hands of repressive state establishments, progressives see their historic function as rooting out the remaining corrupt vestiges of the previous authoritarian order, and pursuing peace and reconciliation with North Korea. However many conservatives regard their progressive counterparts as hypocrites, bent on revenge and tender on nationwide safety.

Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak arrives at court in Seoul in 2018
Former South Korean president Lee Myung-bak arrives at courtroom in Seoul in 2018. Each he and Park Geun-hye, his successor, had been imprisoned partially as a result of they every took hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from Samsung executives © Jung Yeon Je/AFP/Getty Pictures

“We have to keep in mind that South Korea went by a extremely brutal authoritarian interval, and didn’t have a critical transitional justice course of,” says Erik Mobrand, Korea coverage chair on the Rand Company. “The nation has really moved on remarkably — in some ways it has been a case examine in overcoming that type of violence.”

The winner of the nation’s first democratic presidential election in 1987, military basic Roh Tae-woo, was jailed through the presidency of his conservative successor on bribery, mutiny and treason fees referring to the 1980 bloodbath of protesters within the southern metropolis of Gwangju. Nevertheless it was the investigation and subsequent dying of progressive president Roh Moo-hyun within the late 2000s below his conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak, that marked an escalation of the simmering battle between conservatives and progressives.

Roh jumped off the facet of a mountain in 2009 below the strain of a bribery investigation and it was below present president Moon Jae-in, Roh’s protégé, that Yoon oversaw the prosecution and imprisonment each of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.

“The imprisonment of former dictators was a part of the democratisation course of,” says Lee Sook-jong, “however the try to imprison Roh created a brand new dynamic.”

A man watches a news broadcast showing file footage of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, at a railway station in Seoul
A person watches a information broadcast displaying footage of North Korean chief Kim Jong Un at a railway station in Seoul. Progressives see a part of their function as pursuing reconciliation with North Korea © Jung Yeon Je/AFP/Getty Pictures

She argues that this political dysfunction is exacerbated by different inheritances from the authoritarian interval. The fixed risk of battle with North Korea and the previous regime’s financial mannequin of state-directed capitalism implies that energy is concentrated within the Blue Home, giving the president enormous formal and casual affect over nominally unbiased establishments — together with the all-important state prosecutors.

“There’s a very sturdy expectation from the general public, rooted within the authoritarian period, that the president exists to unravel all their issues,” says Lee Sook-jong. “Sadly there’s a lack of moderation on the elite degree — an incapacity to compromise, and a willingness to make use of public establishments to analyze, punish and purge opponents.”

“This makes each election a winner-takes-all struggle for survival.”

Muddying the image is the function of the omnipotent chaebol — family-owned conglomerates traditionally intertwined with the higher echelons of the Korean state. Each Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye had been imprisoned partially as a result of they every took hundreds of thousands of {dollars} from successive executives at Samsung, the nation’s greatest firm by market capitalisation.

35 years of democratic presidential elections

Park Geun-hye, the previous South Korean president © Jeon Heon-Kyun/Getty Pictures


Roh Tae-woo, conservative. He was convicted in 1996 of treason, mutiny and corruption, and sentenced to 17 years in jail. He was pardoned in 1997


Kim Younger-sam, conservative. He was the primary civilian president in 30 years


Kim Dae-jung, progressive. He was the winner of Nobel Peace Prize in 2000


Roh Moo-hyun, progressive. He was investigated for bribery after he left workplace. He died by suicide in 2009


Lee Myung-bak, conservative. He was convicted in 2018 of bribery, embezzlement, abuse of energy and sentenced to fifteen years in jail, and remains to be detained


Park Geun-hye, conservative. She was impeached in 2017, convicted in 2018 of corruption and abuse of energy, and sentenced to 22 years in jail. She was pardoned in 2021


Moon Jae-in, incumbent president, progressive

Park Sangin, professor of economics on the graduate college of public administration at Seoul Nationwide College, says that chaebol energy continues to distort the economic system and corrupt Korean public life.

He argues that the destiny of the Korean economic system — and with it, the destiny of every particular person presidency — stays dependent largely on the funding selections of a handful of firms and the households that run them. In flip, these firms depend upon the nice graces of regulators and prosecutors who’re beholden to the Blue Home.

The consequence, says Park Sangin, is a tradition of reciprocal “favours” that extends to financing for beneficial media protection and profitable post-career sinecures. It implies that when a brand new administration takes over, it has all of the ammunition it must launch investigations into its predecessor.

“It’s not simply politicians who’re beholden to chaebol cash — it’s attorneys, judges, bureaucrats and journalists too,” says Park Sangin. “Nobody is free from it.”

Lee Sook-jong provides: “In Korea, a president guidelines for 5 years. However a chaebol household guidelines ceaselessly.”

The facility of the Blue Home

Moon Jae-in has a 40 per cent approval ranking and when he formally passes the presidency to his successor in Might, he’ll in all probability achieve this with the best rankings of any outgoing South Korean president within the post-1987 order.

Admirers cite the nation’s spectacular financial development over the course of his time period and his sure-footed response to the coronavirus pandemic, whereas polls counsel that many Korean voters additionally recognize Moon’s tireless pursuit of diplomacy with the North.

However critics distinction Moon’s achievements unfavourably with the guarantees of complete reform on which he was elected, following mass anti-corruption protests and Park Geun-hye’s impeachment.

A woman walks past an advertisement for the Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphone at the company’s showroom in Seoul
An commercial for the Samsung Galaxy S21 smartphone on the firm’s showroom in Seoul. Samsung is the nation’s greatest firm by market capitalisation © Jung Yeon Je/AFP/Getty Pictures

“As I promised throughout my marketing campaign, I’ll prioritise creating jobs. On the identical time, I’ll put chaebol reform on the forefront,” Moon pledged in his inauguration speech in 2017. “Below the Moon Jae-in administration, the ‘collusive hyperlink between politics and enterprise’ will fully disappear.”

That made Moon’s acquiescence final 12 months within the early launch of Samsung inheritor Lee Jae-yong, who was serving a jail sentence for bribing Park Geun-hye, all of the extra disappointing for reformers.

Others blame Moon for perpetuating the nation’s cycle of political battle by pursuing what he described because the “eradication of deep-rooted evils”, which many interpreted as a blanket purge of conservatives.

“Moon was elected on a mandate to reform and improve South Korean democracy, however he missed a golden alternative,” says Stanford’s Gi-wook Shin. “His technology was higher at preventing for democracy than practising it.”

Some analysts fear that Moon’s failure to reform the nation mirrored not a scarcity of will, however the near-insurmountable problem of instituting structural reforms throughout the current system.

The facility of the Blue Home is tempered by a one-term restrict on all presidents. In observe, say observers, this stifles significant reform as presidents chase eye-catching initiatives and short-term wins earlier than their authority begins to empty away over the ultimate couple of years of their five-year phrases.

Park Sangin of Seoul Nationwide College argues that till South Korea’s political class summons up the braveness to loosen the grip of the chaebol over the economic system and politics, the nation’s political and financial progress dangers being hampered and even derailed as social inequalities proceed to mount.

Tied to a rope, arrested students are led away by soldiers, following a raid by troops in the riot-torn city of Gwangju, after a popular uprising that lasted from May 18 to 27, 1980, when armed citizens challenged soldiers and the police
Tied to a rope, arrested college students are led away by troopers, following a raid by troops within the riot-torn metropolis of Gwangju, after a well-liked rebellion in Might 1980 © Bettmann Archive

“Financial focus is the basis of the structural issues now confronted by the economic system and society,” says Park Sangin. “It labored whereas we had been nonetheless a creating nation. Nevertheless it stifles innovation, blocks reform, and exacerbates inequality. We speak about Japan’s ‘misplaced a long time’, however I worry South Korea is coming into misplaced a long time of its personal.”

However Park Chong-hoon, head of Korea analysis at Normal Chartered, argues that the nation’s success over current a long time demonstrates the system’s enduring strengths.

“Korea’s financial coverage is in the end run by its technocrats, they usually run the system in a clear and secure manner,” says Park Chong-hoon. “It’s true that the chaebol will not be all the time run within the wider public curiosity, and that inequality is an issue. However it’s laborious to have a look at the Korean economic system and say it’s malfunctioning.”

Fei Xue, nation analyst on the Economist Intelligence Unit, provides: “South Korean politics is actually confrontational, and there are numerous scandals. However total, civil liberties are revered, the rule of regulation is upheld, and residents are motivated and engaged.”

Commentators be aware the irony that the frustration felt by many Koreans in direction of their warring political class has pressured each events to achieve for populist outsider candidates — one promising financial justice, the opposite legal justice — each of whom seem more likely to perpetuate the battle.

“If Lee wins, the Democratic social gathering controls the Blue Home and the parliament, making it laborious for them to be held to account,” says Stanford’s Gi-wook Shin. “But when Yoon wins, he might really feel that the prosecutors’ workplace is his solely weapon.”

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