South Korea is a country located in the region of Eastern Asia. After a decade of conservative rule, Moon Jae-In from the Liberal Democratic Party won the 2017 presidential election. He succeeded Park Geun-Hye, who was sworn in for corruption (see Modern History). At the beginning of 2020, it looked as if Moon’s party would lose the parliamentary elections in April because of failed reforms, economic crises and scandals. But the government’s successful fight against the new corona virus instead led the party to a vomit victory.
Political scandals and controversies between the ruling party and its support parties, on the one hand, and the conservative opposition, on the other, have characterized South Korean politics. In recent years, the Internet and social media have become increasingly important. Calls on social media have become a popular and powerful way for South Koreans to influence politics in the country and came to play an important role in Park Geun-Hye’s dramatic fall from power 2016-2017 (see Modern History).
- Countryaah: Country facts and history of South Korea, including state flag, location map, demographics, GDP data, currency code, and business statistics.
In the May 2017 presidential election, Hong Joon-Pyo was nominated as the Korean Freedom Party (formerly the Saenuri Party) candidate. On the conservative side, there was also Yoo Seung-Min from the Bareun Party. The Liberal opposition consisted of Ahn Cheol-Soo of the People’s Party (People’s Party, PP) and Moon Jae-In of the Democratic Party (also called the Minjup Party).
Liberal former human rights lawyer Moon Jae-In had strong support among voters. He promised to become a president of the entire nation and to unite the country after the tearing up of the corruption scandal and Park Geun-Hye’s deposition. Moon, who was driving the protests against Park in the fall of 2016, also emerged as a symbol of the popular fight against corruption and justice. He also wanted to address the economic problems and stressed the importance of reaching peace on the Korean Peninsula.
Other noteworthy issues before the election were the policy to be pursued against the North Korean neighbor and the attitude to the disputed US missile defense system THAAD (see Foreign Policy and Defense) which began to set up in the country at the end of April. Both Conservative presidential candidates highlighted the need to protect the country from North Korea through THAAD and through military cooperation with the United States before the election. Moon Jae-In advocated a more conciliatory line against North Korea than the former Park leadership had, but he still supported the sanctions policy against the neighboring country. He expressed some skepticism towards THAAD and criticized the rapid installation of the system in the spring of 2017.
Moon Jae-In becomes new president
Over three-quarters of voters voted in the presidential election on May 9, 2017. It was the highest turnout in at least two decades. Moon Jae-In won a landslide victory with 41 percent of the vote, well ahead of the conservative Hong Joon-Pyo who got 24 percent.
Since the Moons Party Democratic Party (the Minor Party) did not control a majority of the members of Parliament, it was no easy process to get Parliament to approve the ministers he proposed. It was time before all ministerial posts were filled. Only at the end of May did Parliament approve Moon’s appointment of Lee Nak-Yon as new prime minister. In mid-June, the country got its first female foreign minister, Kang Kyung-Wha. Moon also managed to keep his election pledge that over 30 percent of ministers would be women.
Moon Jae-In began his time as president by showing his desire to, unlike his predecessor Park, listen to the voters and chose, among other things, to move his office to central Seoul instead of his Blue House residence, to “be closer to the people “. In addition, he made promises to fight corruption in society and to introduce reforms to limit the powerful family conglomerates, chaebols, importance. He also wanted to change the ingrained system to allow the president to pardon executive chaebol directors sentenced for crime – a matter that was particularly relevant given the legal process against the Samsung chief of staff in connection with the scandal surrounding President Park. The Samsung boss was sentenced for corruption to five years in prison in August 2017,
The trial of the president’s girlfriend Choi Soon-Il also ended with her receiving a 20-year prison sentence for receiving bribes from powerful chaebol. Ministers and officials in Park’s former government were also sentenced to prison for involvement in the scandal. Park Geun-Hye was in turn sentenced to 24 years in prison and high fines.
Reduced support for Moon
After a couple of years in power, support for President Moon among South Koreans began to decline. Moon was criticized for being too focused on cooperation and improved relations with North Korea at the expense of promised social and economic reforms. Large financial investments in cooperation with North Korea have provoked outrage among some groups. Conservative phalanges have long believed that support for North Korea only helps keep its nuclear weapons program running.
President Moon’s opinion figures raged. According to analysts, weak economic growth, high unemployment rates and absent social reforms contributed to Moon’s declining popularity, not least among young South Koreans. Moon’s attempts to promote peace in the Korean Peninsula have been popular with liberal voters, but the peace process stalled towards the end of the 2010s has led to frustration.
Moon and his government are aiming to form an independent authority to investigate corruption among senior officials and also want to push through a change in the electoral system to allow smaller parties to take on more seats in parliament by increasing the proportion of mandated seats. But it was a problem for the government and Moon that the Democratic Party did not control a sufficient majority of seats in Parliament after the 2016 election to effectively get through its policies, but was forced to seek support from smaller parties.
South Korea was one of the first countries affected by the new corona virus, first detected in Wuhan province in China in late 2019. South Korea reported its first case of covid-19, the disease caused by the virus, in January 2020 and it then spread quickly among a Christian sect in the city of Daegu and in the city of Cheongdo. The authorities reacted quickly. Emergency preparedness was increased and residents were invited to stay indoors.
Even after the first handful of cases, medical companies were commissioned to develop and to a large extent manufacture equipment for sampling. At the same time, the South Koreans had to find themselves in rigorous surveillance with the help of cameras, credit card withdrawals and data from smart phones. The strategy worked well, not least because the residents had confidence in and followed the recommendations of the authorities, while many South Koreans also volunteered to help stop the virus. According to analysts, South Korea’s experience in dealing with another coronavirus, Mers, which killed 38 people in 2015, meant that the country had a readiness, including in the health care, that many other states lacked. In late February and early March, thousands of South Koreans were reported to be infected by the corona virus and deaths had begun to rise.
The tactics to combat the spread were fruitful and from mid-March the number of new cases fell sharply. By the end of the month, about 130 people had died of covid-19 disease. It could be compared to European countries such as Italy, Spain and France where several thousand people have died. The handling of the corona virus in South Korea was highlighted in the outside world as a successful example.
Parliamentary elections 2020
While the government seemed to be gaining control of the ongoing corona pandemic, preparations for the parliamentary elections began on April 15. For the government, it was about getting as many South Koreans as possible to go and vote without risking the spread of covid-19 again accelerating.
As Election Day approached, opinion polls showed that the Democratic Party had the support of about 43 percent of voters while about 28 percent planned to vote for its conservative main opponent, which had changed its name at the beginning of the year – now to the United Future Party.
The Democratic Party won a superior victory in the election, not least reflecting that many South Koreans were satisfied with the handling of the corona epidemic in the country. The Democratic Party, with the help of its newly formed support party Together Citizens (see Political system) secured control of 180 of Parliament’s 300 seats, which meant it had an absolute majority. The United Future Party received only 103 seats and its support party, the Korean Future Party, 19.
Follow the ongoing development of the Calendar.
READING – read more about Korea in the UI’s online magazine Foreign Affairs magazine :
Hard tug of war on economic policy in South Korea (2019-05-29)
DEEP on South Korea also available in World Politics Day Issues Korean Reunification: An Impossible Dream (No 9 2019) South Korea and the Presidential Crisis: Opening for Reform (No 6 2017)
FACTS – POLITICS
Taehan Minguk / Republic of Korea
republic, unitary state
Head of State
Moon Jae-In (2017)
Head of government
Chung Sye-Kyun (2020)
Most important parties with mandates in the last election
Democratic Party (Minjup Party, formerly DUP) 163, United Future Party (formerly Saenuri) 103, Korean Future Party 19, Citizens 17, Justice Party 6 (2020) 1
Main parties with mandates in the second most recent elections
Democratic Party (Minjupartiet, formerly DUP) 123, Saenuri Party (NFP; former GNP) 122, People’s Party (PP) 38, Justice Party 6 (2016)
66.2% in the 2020 parliamentary elections, 77.2% in the 2017 presidential elections
parliamentary elections 2024, presidential elections 2022