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Conservatives Are Slumping in South Korea’s Tumultuous Presidential Race

Civil war inside the right has liberals surging in the polls.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.
Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung shake hands.
Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung shake hands.
Yoon Suk-yeol (front right), the presidential election candidate for South Korea’s main opposition People Power Party, shakes hands with Lee Jae-myung (front left), the presidential election candidate for the ruling Democratic Party in Seoul on Jan. 3. Kim Hong-Ji/Pool/AFP via Getty Images

South Korea’s next presidential election, the first since the vote in 2017 following the impeachment and removal of disgraced President Park Geun-hye, is due in just over two months on March 9. The two major parties have picked their candidates: The ruling Democratic Party selected former Gyeonggi province Gov. Lee Jae-myung to succeed term-limited outgoing President Moon Jae-in, while the opposition People Power Party (PPP) nominated Yoon Suk-yeol, a former prosecutor general under the same Moon administration. Both are unconventional figures, and the race has already been a tumultuous one.

Neither Lee nor Yoon fits the typical profile for a South Korean presidential candidate. Lee was not a part of South Korea’s democracy movement, whose leaders form the backbone of South Korea’s liberals today. His political career is relatively short and low-level: Although Lee had been the governor of Gyeonggi province since 2018 (until he resigned recently to focus on the presidential campaign), he spent most of his political career as the two-term mayor of Seongnam, a suburban city outside Seoul.

His primary policy platform of universal basic income, which he implemented in limited fashion in Seongnam and Gyeonggi by paying a “youth dividend” to 24-year-olds in the form of coupons that may be used in local businesses, was then considered outlandish. A former labor lawyer who worked in factories himself from as young as 13 years old, Lee was seen as too brusque and loutish, prone to vulgarities and abruptly walking out of interviews that he deemed unfriendly. Many supporters of Moon—who still remains highly popular among center-left voters—were skeptical of Lee, who had run a sharp-elbowed campaign against Moon in the 2017 presidential primary.

South Korea’s next presidential election, the first since the vote in 2017 following the impeachment and removal of disgraced President Park Geun-hye, is due in just over two months on March 9. The two major parties have picked their candidates: The ruling Democratic Party selected former Gyeonggi province Gov. Lee Jae-myung to succeed term-limited outgoing President Moon Jae-in, while the opposition People Power Party (PPP) nominated Yoon Suk-yeol, a former prosecutor general under the same Moon administration. Both are unconventional figures, and the race has already been a tumultuous one.

Neither Lee nor Yoon fits the typical profile for a South Korean presidential candidate. Lee was not a part of South Korea’s democracy movement, whose leaders form the backbone of South Korea’s liberals today. His political career is relatively short and low-level: Although Lee had been the governor of Gyeonggi province since 2018 (until he resigned recently to focus on the presidential campaign), he spent most of his political career as the two-term mayor of Seongnam, a suburban city outside Seoul.

His primary policy platform of universal basic income, which he implemented in limited fashion in Seongnam and Gyeonggi by paying a “youth dividend” to 24-year-olds in the form of coupons that may be used in local businesses, was then considered outlandish. A former labor lawyer who worked in factories himself from as young as 13 years old, Lee was seen as too brusque and loutish, prone to vulgarities and abruptly walking out of interviews that he deemed unfriendly. Many supporters of Moon—who still remains highly popular among center-left voters—were skeptical of Lee, who had run a sharp-elbowed campaign against Moon in the 2017 presidential primary.

Yoon’s path, going from a hero for liberals to a savior for conservatives, is even more unusual. A career prosecutor with no experience in electoral politics, he made his name by investigating the Park administration’s many scandals, eventually imprisoning both Park and Lee Myung-bak, Park’s conservative predecessor. Thanks to this, Yoon rose to the head of the public prosecutors’ office under the Moon administration in 2019.

At the time, Moon’s appointment of Yoon, not yet known as a conservative, was seen as a part of promised prosecutorial reform, as the prosecutors’ office had long been the favorite tool of South Korea’s authoritarians. Yet soon after being appointed, Yoon turned the office’s formidable investigative power against his boss, Justice Minister Cho Kuk, committing more resources and conducting more intrusive raids against him and his family than even the investigation against Park. The prosecution was overzealous and perhaps even politically motivated—Cho himself was a potential presidential candidate and rival of Yoon’s. Cho soon resigned, and his wife was sentenced to four years in prison for faking documents to support her daughter’s college application. Conservatives, tasting the first victory since Park’s impeachment in 2016, began making overtures for Yoon to run for president. Yoon made it official in June last year by declaring his entry into politics, and he captured the PPP’s nomination this past November.

Regardless of who wins, the next president will be the first ever in South Korea’s democratic history to have no experience in the National Assembly. A stint in the legislature typically is considered a prerequisite for seeking a higher position in South Korean politics, as the Assembly is the place where an aspiring presidential candidate would build the political machines that raise money and deliver votes. Because neither Lee Jae-myung nor Yoon Suk-yeol has a machine to call their own, they each had to borrow one—but they’ve handled them very differently.

Yoon got off to a quick start following his nomination, leading Lee by double digits in some of the polls in late November 2021. Lee responded by forcefully seizing the Democratic Party machinery: slimming down his campaign leadership group and simplifying the decision-making process by having the senior legislators to take a step back. The Democrats, utilizing their near-supermajority in the legislature, began passing some of Lee’s campaign promises immediately, for example by significantly expanding public spending and passing labor-friendly legislations, in order to give a preview of a Lee administration.

Meanwhile, Lee gradually managed an image makeover as a competent and market-friendly policy wonk. His appearance in a popular YouTube program on stock analysis was a viral hit, gaining over 6 million views with largely positive reviews. In most polls asking which candidate is likely to handle the economy better, Lee is posting a double-digit lead over Yoon.

On the other hand, Yoon’s borrowed machine is exploding in his face. Arguing that “even if we may disagree on 99 out of 100 issues, we should work together if we agree that there must be an administration change,” Yoon initially put together a “mammoth camp” of every faction opposing the Moon administration, including traditional conservatives, young men who have recently begun voting conservative because of misogynistic grievances, and disaffected former liberals who defected to the PPP.

Rather than working together, the three camps feuded bitterly. The PPP’s Chairman Lee Jun-seok, a 36-year-old political pundit who rose to leadership thanks to the influx of support from conservative (and sexist) young men, loudly clashed with the traditional conservatives of the southeastern Gyeongsang provinces, who are personally closer to Yoon. The defecting former liberals, led by veteran politico Kim Han-gil, formed a separate group called the New Era Preparatory Committee outside of the party structure, evidently as a platform for a new conservative party that would conduct a hostile takeover of the PPP should Yoon win the presidency.

A more talented candidate may have been able to moderate these groups, but Yoon, whose transition into politics has been rocky, has not been that candidate. In addition to failing in the inside baseball of regulating his own camp, Yoon has been awful in retail politics, earning the ignominious nickname “A Gaffe a Day.” Some of Yoon’s greatest hits include “the poor and uneducated don’t even know what freedom is,” “manual labor is something for Africans,” and repeated praises for South Korea’s former dictators for “handling the economy well.” His personal brand of being a principled institutionalist standing up to the power also took a hit when it was revealed that Yoon’s wife, an art curator, obtained her graduate degrees with plagiarized papers and won college lecturer positions with a thoroughly embellished resume—essentially the same misdeeds for which Yoon went after Cho’s family. Moon also took the wind out of Yoon’s sails somewhat by granting a surprise pardon for Park, letting out some of the emotional steam that South Korea’s far-right, which still reveres Park, had built up against the liberals.

All this has led to a dramatic internal conflict in Yoon’s campaign. By the end of 2021, Yoon Suk-yeol’s double-digit lead had evaporated as Lee Jae-myung began pulling ahead in most polls. PPP Chairman Lee Jun-seok angrily quit the presidential campaign after a camp official defied his direction, saying she only took orders from the candidate. Then, on Jan. 3, Yoon campaign manager Kim Chong-in announced that Yoon’s camp would be disbanded and reconstituted, and Yoon’s public appearances would be suspended until further notice. The announcement by Kim, an experienced centrist who is renowned for switching parties and leading candidates to electoral victories (including those for Park and Moon), was a palace coup attempt to drive out the factions other than his own. It took three days for Yoon to sort things out, mirroring Lee Jae-myung’s move by shedding most of his advisors (including Kim himself) and concentrating the decision-making authority to himself.

It remains to be seen if Yoon can right his ship in time. As of this writing, most polls are showing Lee leading Yoon by 7 to 9 percentage points. But it is far too early for Lee to rest easy. After all, South Korean politics is where confident predictions go to die. (If you have any doubt, check out the South Korean presidential election analyses from just a month ago, in which most analysts expected Yoon to prevail.) Although Lee has run a better campaign since late November, the race flipped primarily because of Yoon sinking rather than Lee rising.

This means the race can again become competitive if Yoon can manage to reverse the damage. The soft conservatives who withdrew their support for Yoon in the past month only need a small reason to return to the fold. A critical milestone date will be Feb. 1—the Lunar New Year, when most South Koreans get together with their family, talk about their politics, and make up their minds for the most part. If Yoon narrows the gap by then, a nail-biter likely awaits on March 9.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Sejong Institute.

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