South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in (President Moon, for short) has a problem. Or several of them, to be exact. The Democratic Party, which he leads, has lost control of both the Seoul and Busan mayoral administrations, defeated by the People Power Party by a devastating margin. In the meantime, his personal approval ratings have sunk to a record low of 34%, portending trouble for the progressive party in next year’s presidential election.
Much of the concern felt by those in South Korea’s ruling party will be around the resurgence of the conservative opposition, who have recently emerged from a period of identity crisis and defeat to prove themselves a potent electoral force.
The People Party was founded in February 2o20 as the United Future Party. Born out of a merger between the Liberty Korea Party and minor conservative party The New Conservative Party, it came after two years of scandal and splits in the previously dominant Korean right. The Liberty Korea Party (LKP), founded as the Grand National Party in 1997 then later referred to as Saenuri, had previously been lead by President Park Geun-Hye.
Although hugely popular with conservatives, President Park was impeached in March 2017 after evidence of widespread corruption came to light in October of the previous year, triggering huge protests. President Park herself was arrested in the aftermath of her impeachment, and sentenced to 25 years’ imprisonment on corruption charges and 8 years for appropriating funds from the Korean government’s National Intelligence Service. Her confidante, Cho Soon-sil – who used her relationship with the former president to demand bribes from major business conglomerates, interfere in government business and secure a position for her daughter at the prestigious Ewha Women’s University in Seoul – was sentenced to 20 years and 3 years in separate trials. Numerous other public figures, politicians and civil servants were also arrested and convicted, including the head of Samsung.
The fallout from the scandal was severe. Some 29 Saenuri lawmakers splintered from the party in late-2016 to form the Bareun Party, only for this new political project to be eroded and undermined by a steady stream of defections over the years back into the party, renamed as the LKP after the removal of President Park in March 2017. In an attempt to regain momentum in the face of public opprobrium, the LKP fought the 2017 election on a traditional conservative platform, favouring close ties with the Americans, including support for the deployment of the THAAD missile defence system.
Regarding North Korea, Hong Joon-yo (the LKP candidate) accused Moon Jae-in (his then-rival for the presidency) of being too soft on the communist regime, favouring an ‘armed peace’ in relations with the North. On the economy and society, Hong favoured close relations with the Chaebol – the family-run conglomerates that count Samsung and Hyundai among their number – and cracking down on the power of the labour unions, both longstanding features of Korean conservatism. But Hong and his party’s platform were resoundingly rejected at the polls, with Moon beating Hong to the Blue House by a ratio of almost 2 votes to 1.
However, circumstances have changed significantly for Moon and the Democratic Party since that heady victory. Although the President’s approval ratings surged in early-2020 with the electorate expressing their support for his administration’s internationally-recognised response to the coronavirus outbreak, the poor vaccine supply and a succession of corruption scandals have since knocked the wind from their sails.
On 2nd March 2021, by which time 20,703,615 people in the United Kingdom had received their first dose of the Covid vaccine, with a further 895,412 having received the second jab to acquire full immunity, just 87,428 South Koreans had received their first vaccine while none had received their second. To make matters worse, President Moon was compelled to apologise publicly after news broke that employees of the state-owned Land & Housing Corp had been engaging in insider trading on the Korean property market by exploiting their advance knowledge of government policy to make a profit, forcing the minister for land to resign. And to cap it all off, inter-Korea relations have iced over, derailing one of the administration’s high profile policies.
All of these factors have left President Moon in a tricky situation. A cabinet reshuffle in April saw the Prime Minister and six other cabinet ministers replaced in a clear attempt to renew a faltering administration. But this did not prevent his polling numbers hitting 29% in May – his lowest ever.
However, there have been subsequent signs of renewal, and polling from mid-May suggests that the number of undecided voters is now larger than those supporting either the Democratic or People Power Party. Whatever might have happened in the past few months, it may not be over for Korea’s Democrats anytime soon.