South Korea after the National Assembly Election: How Yoon’s defeat could change domestic and foreign politics

On 10 April 2024, the Republic of Korea held its 22nd general election. The Democratic Party (DP), the largest opposition party, secured 175 seats out of the National Assembly's total of 300, marking a significant advancement since 2020 with an increase of 19 seats. This victory allowed them to maintain control of the parliament. Meanwhile, President Yoon Suk-Yeol’s ruling People Power Party (PPP) secured 108 seats, a slight decrease from its previous count of 114. Nevertheless, these losses were not as extensive as pre-election polls had suggested.

On 10 April 2024, the Republic of Korea held its 22nd general election. The Democratic Party (DP), the largest opposition party, secured 175 seats out of the National Assembly’s total of 300, marking a significant advancement since 2020 with an increase of 19 seats. This victory allowed them to maintain control of the parliament. Meanwhile, President Yoon Suk-Yeol’s ruling People Power Party (PPP) secured 108 seats, a slight decrease from its previous count of 114. Nevertheless, these losses were not as extensive as pre-election polls had suggested.

With three remaining years in office, the election was widely seen as a midterm assessment of President Yoon’s leadership. In the 2022 presidential election, the PPP narrowly defeated DP leader Lee Jae-myung by a margin of 0.73%, marking it the closest race ever in South Korean history. Based on the election results President Yoon’s domestic and foreign policy initiatives are anticipated to encounter substantial challenges. However, given the divided political landscape he inherited two years ago, significant policy changes are not expected to take place until the next Presidential election in 2027. 

The overall electoral dynamics 

South Korean politics have long been characterised by the dominance of two mainstream parties: the more conservative People Power Party (PPP) and the liberal Democratic Party (DP). In an effort to enhance the representation of minor parties in the 300-member unicameral National Assembly, a semi-mixed-member proportional representation system (MMPR) was implemented in 2020. However, major political forces strategically made use of satellite parties to exploit this system solely to secure additional representation from the 46 allocated seats. As such, the Assembly will continue to be dominated by the DP and PPP.

On 10 April 2024, South Korean voters cast two ballots. One for their district representatives, who occupy 254 seats in the parliament and are elected via first-past-the-post voting. This means voters select their preferred candidate, and the candidate with the most votes wins the election. Additionally, there’s another ballot for the 46 seats elected by proportional representation. The overall voter turnout was the highest in 32 years with 29.6 million people, or 67 percent of the 44.2 million eligible voters casting ballots. The DP, led by former presidential candidate and former governor of Gyeonggi Province Lee Jae-myung, secured 175 seats. The PPP, headed by Han Dong-hoon, a former prosecutor and the first Justice Minister in the Yoon administration, won 108 seats. Additionally, the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, captured 12 seats. The DP triumphed in 161 districts and added 14 seats via its satellite party, the Democratic Coalition, in the proportional representation seats. The PPP won 90 districts and secured 18 proportional representation seats. Meanwhile, the RKP obtained 12 seats solely through the latter proportional system, not nominating candidates for district positions. Other minor parties and independent candidates collectively secured five seats, meaning that the DP-led opposition now controls 192 seats. 

A half-term assessment of Yoon’s turbulent two first Presidential years

From the very start of the campaign, this year’s parliamentary elections were seen as a midterm referendum on Yoon’s Presidency and a vote of confidence for the opposition, which has held the majority of the seats in the National Assembly for the past four years. In the 2022 presidential election, Yoon narrowly defeated DP leader Lee Jae-myung by a margin of 0.73%, making it the closest race in South Korean history. This narrow victory highlighted the tight competition between the two candidates. As a result, Yoon’s presidency has been hindered by two major challenges, notably (1) his party’s lack of control in the single-chamber Assembly, hampering policy advancement and overall achievement, and (2) his low approval ratings. An electoral victory by his party could have bolstered momentum for his presidency. However, the electorate demonstrated a clear preference for opposition candidates to serve as a counterbalance to the incumbent government, rather than strengthening the ruling party’s position. With three years remaining in his presidential term, Yoon faces significant obstacles in advancing his domestic and foreign policy agendas due to the PPP’s failure to secure the majority of the National Assembly’s seats. Following the defeat, President Yoon said he  “humbly accepted” the election outcome and pledged to overhaul state affairs. Several senior ruling party politicians, including Prime Minister Han Duck-soo, offered their resignations to take responsibility for the loss. However, Yoon has not yet approved Han’s resignation as the presidential office is struggling to find a new prime minister. There are growing calls that Yoon should appoint the next prime minister from the opposition party or pick someone with bipartisan support from both sides to bring unity but so far these are just speculations.

The campaign’s key issues 

The Yoon administration has faced a tumultuous first two years since assuming office in 2022. Several divisive domestic issues and scandals have not only impacted Yoon’s popularity but also eroded public confidence. The Korean population is increasingly concerned about economic issues, ranging from the ongoing real-estate crisis and intense competition in the housing market to rising inflation. Government data indicates that house prices in the capital Seoul were 15.2 times higher than the average annual income in 2022, up from 14.1 times in 2021. Additionally, according to the central bank, the average household would need to save 26 years’ worth of annual income to afford a home. Besides, during the campaign, the “spring onion scandal” involving Yoon’s visit to a supermarket, intended to gain public support, inadvertently fueled suspicions that he was out of touch with ordinary voters. Yoon’s description of the store’s 875 won (0,59 EUR) price tag for a bundle of green onions as “reasonable” turned out to be misleading, as the items had only been temporarily discounted. The price surge, reflecting broader economic trends, saw inflation rise to 3.8 percent in October 2023, drop to 2.8 percent in January 2024, only to rise back to over 3 percent in February 2024, driven by the high prices of fresh food and energy.

Another concerning issue is the low birth rate, combined with the ageing population and persisting gender inequality. South Korea currently has the lowest fertility rate in the world with just 0.72 babies expected per woman in her lifetime. In response successive governments have explored various strategies to encourage women to have children, with limited success. This is largely due to economic reasons, alongside the enormous societal pressure and widespread workplace discrimination faced by women who seek to balance career aspirations with parenthood. 

Yoon’s administration’s political agenda has also worked against the conservative party, particularly concerning medical reforms. Initiated in February 2024, following the announcement of new government policies aimed at significantly increasing medical student quotas by 2000 places from 2025 onwards, thousands of doctors, medical interns, and residents have resigned or refused to work. This rapid increase threatens the country’s future medical research capabilities, as universities struggle to accommodate such a steep influx of students. Additionally, it could lead to lower incomes due to the oversupply of doctors. South Korea, with one of the world’s fastest-ageing populations, faces one of the lowest doctors-to-population ratios among developed nations but the prolonged doctors’ strike has garnered sympathy from the public.

Lastly, minor scandals and allegations of corruption surrounding Yoon’s inner circle during the election campaign, have shaken public confidence. For instance, the first lady, Kim Keon Hee, has been embroiled in controversy. Allegations of falsified professional records and plagiarism in her Ph.D. thesis overshadowed Yoon’s Presidential campaign in 2022. In 2024, the “Dior bag scandal” once again threatened the PPP’s legislative election campaign. Despite South Korea’s anti-graft law, which prohibits public officials and their spouses from accepting gifts valued at more than 750 USD in connection with their public duties, she was accused of accepting a 2,200 USD Christian Dior bag as a gift from the Korean American pastor, Choi Jae-young. Moreover, during the parliamentary campaign in March 2024, Lee Jong-sup, South Korea’s ambassador to Australia resigned after just four weeks in office. Questions arose about his appointment, as he is under investigation for corruption regarding allegations of trying to improperly influence an inquiry into the death of a member of the marine while serving as defence minister. This latest scandal dealt another significant blow to President Yoon Suk Yeol’s ruling party. Overall, South Korean voters have shown a low tolerance for corruption, particularly in the aftermath of high-profile scandals involving former presidents, including the country’s first female leader Park Geun-hye, who was impeached in 2017. Nonetheless, corruption scandals have also impacted the Democratic Party (DP), as South Korean opposition leader Lee Jae-myung faced charges including bribery, breach of duty, conflict of interest, and concealment of criminal proceeds stemming from his time as mayor of Seongnam. These numerous scandals and corruption issues have fostered an overall sense of distrust among the Korean population, which viewed the 2024 election as a choice between the lesser of two evils. Similarly, reflecting a broader pattern in today’s democratic world, South Korea has been grappling with public dissatisfaction with the country’s political establishment in recent years and frustration with the state of the partisan landscape, which is becoming more polarised. Nevertheless, the electorate showed a strong preference for opposition candidates. 

A real landslide victory? 

Following the election results, headlines from major international papers described the win of the DP-led opposition as a “landslide victory”. However, it is essential to put this apparent victory into perspective as it was not the landslide victory predicted by some polls. Despite Yoon’s low approval ratings, the PPP lost only 6 seats from the previous legislation while the DP and its satellite parties together gained 19 more seats. However, the democratic opposition did not achieve the supermajority (i.e. 200 seats), nor a three-fifths majority of 180 seats, the goal aimed by the party and even predicted by some polls. This would have greatly emboldened the opposition during the last three years of Yoon’s term. A supermajority would have given them legislative powers to challenge the president’s veto rights, overcome filibusters, advance bills to the plenary session for unilateral passage without the PPP, and even impeach him. 

It is also noteworthy to consider the progress of Yoon’s former Justice Minister, Cho Kuk, and his Rebuilding Korea Party, which won 12 seats. The new party has gained critical leverage and could potentially play a pivotal role if the DP aims for legislative actions that require a three-fifths majority. However, the future of the party depends on the outcome of the South Korean Supreme Court’s decision regarding allegations against Cho Kuk of falsifying documents for his daughter’s college admission.

Implications for domestic policies

In 2022, President Yoon inherited a National Assembly predominantly controlled by the progressive opposition, which held about 60 percent of the seats. Since his inauguration, Yoon’s domestic policies have frequently encountered strong opposition from the National Assembly as a result. For instance, as of January 2024, only 29.2 percent of the bills submitted to the National Assembly have been enacted, a stark contrast to the 61.4 percent passage rate under the previous progressive government.

The victory of the DP-led opposition implies the continuation of a lame-duck presidency, with the potential for even more policy gridlock as both the President and the opposition retain their veto rights. This could further strain the relationship between President Yoon and the legislative body and continue to weaken his leadership. As in the previous legislature, it will be challenging for him and his party to advance key policies outlined in his presidential program and during the parliamentary campaign, including those related to healthcare, education, labour, major infrastructure projects, housing supply, and his pledge to abolish the nation’s Ministry of Gender Equality. Clearly, his government will face strong opposition in the National Assembly in financing such projects. 

The election results are unlikely to alter the overall tone of South Korea’s polarised politics, as both ruling and opposition parties persist in highlighting scandals and pursuing corruption charges against their political adversaries. The primary losers of this election are the South Korean people themselves. In a deeply divided political landscape characterised by growing polarisation, it will be particularly challenging for both government and opposition leaders to reach compromises and find bold solutions to pressing social and economic problems. These include high inflation, declining birth rates, and the lack of affordable housing, all of which directly impact the population.

Implications for Yoon’s Foreign Policy

Seoul’s foreign and national security policies are unlikely to change course. A parliamentary victory for the PPP would have enabled Yoon to shift his focus more toward domestic policies, potentially reducing his emphasis on global affairs. However, since the PPP lost the parliamentary elections, no significant change to the previous situation is anticipated. Despite facing strong opposition from the DP in the legislative body and relatively low approval ratings, Yoon has remained steadfast in reversing the previous Moon Jae-in (2017-2022) government’s foreign policy, which focused on inter-Korea relations. The significant authority of the Korean presidency in foreign affairs and national security issues leaves limited space for parliament to influence the foreign policy agenda. However, in a further divided National Assembly, the opposition is expected to increase criticism on Yoon’s foreign policy, deemed as impractical and potentially provocative, possibly seeking to cut budgets with its majority. 

Since the 2022 election campaign, Yoon has championed the ROK’s aspiration to become a “global pivotal state”.  As president, Yoon articulated that “South Korea should no longer be confined to the Korean Peninsula but rise to the challenge of being what I have described as a ‘global pivotal state,’ one that advances freedom, peace, and prosperity through liberal democratic values and substantial cooperation.” In his first two years in office, President Yoon has pursued a more ambitious and activist foreign policy agenda compared to past South Korean presidents. He has developed a foreign policy strategy that is globally engaged and value-inspired, “embracing greater roles and responsibilities for resolving regional and global challenges in the Indo-Pacific region and beyond.”

The Yoon government will continue to support and strengthen the U.S.-South Korean alliance. While relations with the US are expected to remain positive given widespread public support, including among progressives, future developments will heavily depend on the US election outcomes. The potential return of former US President Donald Trump to the White House could strain the alliance, given his long standing scepticism about US troops’ commitment to allies. He previously advocated aggressively and undiplomatically for a significant increase in Seoul’s contribution to burden-sharing for US troops stationed in the country (the Special Measures Agreement). Currently, both the Biden and Yoon administrations are attempting to negotiate a new cost-sharing deal, even though the agreement is not due for re-negotiation until 2025.

Moreover, Yoon could seek to foster further relations with Tokyo despite domestic political opposition. Japan is a key stakeholder defending a rules-based international order and a free and open Indo-Pacific, as well as an important partner in Yoon’s value-oriented diplomacy. However, historical animosities stemming from Korean forced labour and the issue of “comfort women” during Japan’s occupation of Korea from 1910 to 1945, as well as territorial disputes, have complicated the relationship between the two countries. Despite years of strained relations and trade disputes, both Yoon’s administration and Kishida’s government have made efforts to rebuild their security and economic connections, particularly in light of regional shifts and the rapprochement between China and North Korea. On 16 March 2023, the leaders of Japan and South Korea met for a bilateral meeting for the first time in twelve years in Tokyo, and again in Seoul in May 2023. In addition to strengthening bilateral ties, the Yoon administration also supported trilateral cooperation among the US, Japan, and Korea, signing a trilateral pact at Camp David in August 2023. A trilateral meeting between the US, Japan, and the ROK is under preparation. This meeting is expected to take place during the July 2024 NATO Summit held in Washington, to which both Japan and the ROK have been invited. However, the DP’s electoral gains may complicate further rapprochement between Seoul and Tokyo and could demand that Yoon seek greater concessions from Tokyo to address historical grievances. This could also slow the pace of U.S.-Japan-Korea trilateral cooperation.

Regarding China, despite Seoul’s alignment with Washington, the Yoon administration has adopted a balanced approach to Beijing. While mindful of  China’s actions in the region, particularly in the South China Sea and the Taiwan Strait, the PPP leader has broken with his predecessor’s softer approach on China due to fear of Chinese economic retaliation. Also on human rights South Korea has become more vocal towards China under Yoon, while past South Korean governments had generally avoided publicly criticising China on human rights issues. Due to South Korea’s heavy reliance on China as its primary trade partner, Yoon has instead prioritised diversification efforts to counter possible economic retaliation from Beijing. In line with this strategy, South Korea has joined the “Indo-Pacific Economic Framework for Prosperity“, a US-led initiative aimed at enhancing trade in the Indo-Pacific. Seoul also launched the “Trade Investment and Promotion Framework” program to reduce its export dependence on China and adopt a more diversified approach towards emerging economies, such as those in Africa and Southeast Asia. At the same time, recognizing the importance of dialogue, the Yoon government announced that Seoul would like to host a China-Japan-South Korea trilateral summit in late May 2024, despite uncertain prospects. This is significant given that the current relationship between China and South Korea is considered to be at its lowest point since the establishment of diplomatic ties in 1992. Despite the South Korean public’s unfavourable views of China, the DP has criticised the Yoon government’s foreign policy toward China. During the election campaign, Lee emphasised that South Korea should not get involved in any Taiwan contingency and attacked Yoon for being too close with the United States and Japan at the expense of South Korean–Chinese ties. 

With a larger majority in the National Assembly, opposition party members may feel more emboldened to speak out against Yoon’s confrontational approach to North Korea, in contrast to the DP’s desire for greater inter-Korean engagement. From the outset of his mandate and already during his electoral campaign, Yoon has maintained a firm stance against North Korea and its growing provocations. Tensions on the Korean peninsula have continued to escalate, given Pyongyang’s heightened hostility and Seoul’s unwavering posture, backed by the US. In late 2023, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un declared the South a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy”  and pledged to crush the ROK. Additionally, in January 2024, he abandoned the goal of peaceful reunification between North and South Korea. In turn, Yoon’s revised unification plan, which emphasises principles of freedom and democracy, is likely to face criticism from DP members. As a result, prospects for inter-Korean dialogue will remain very low over the next three years.

Lastly, it’s worth noting that as a result of the parliamentary election, several foreign policy experts and former diplomats won seats in the Assembly on both sides of the aisle, such as Wi Sung-lac (former ambassador to Russia), Kim Joon-Hyung (former chancellor of Korea National Diplomatic Academy) or  Kim Gunn (former special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs). Amid increasingly polarised politics, these lawmakers will bring substantive knowledge of foreign affairs to the legislature. 

Possible Future Evolutions in EU-ROK Relations

The Global Pivotal Strategy marked a radical shift in South Korea’s foreign policy and demonstrated the desire to “expand the geographical scope and breadth of cooperation.” In this regard, relations with Europe have become more significant both normatively and strategically since Yoon assumed office in 2022, deepening the bilateral and strategic partnership. Yoon’s value-oriented diplomacy, focused on values such as freedom and democracy, aligns closely with the EU’s common democratic and liberal goals. South Korea is not only recognized by the EU as a strategic partner, it is also one of the few countries in Asia to have signed a framework agreement with the European Union covering political cooperation (2014), a free trade agreement (2015), and a crisis management participation agreement (2016). The Republic of Korea is also one of the EU’s priority partners in Asia for enhanced security cooperation. 

During the May 2023 EU-ROK summit, celebrating the 60th anniversary of their diplomatic relations, Yoon described South Korea and the EU as “important partners that share universal values of freedom, human rights, and rule of law.” The summit, held in Seoul and attended by European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen and European Council President Charles Michel, aimed to bolster the strategic partnership between the two like-minded partners, established in 2010 . Both parties agreed to step up cooperation on security matters to address global challenges, including Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korean nuclear threats, and China’s actions in the South China Sea and Taiwan Strait. Later that year, South Korea and the European Commission launched a Green Partnership and a Digital Partnership to strengthen cooperation on climate action, clean energy, and environmental protection and deepen economic resilience in the digital sector. 

Cooperation in the civil-military technology interface could also increase given that cybersecurity remains a shared concern. The ROK frequently faces cyberattacks from China and North Korea while Russia’s military aggression against Ukraine has reshaped the threat landscape in Europe in 2022. Their Digital Partnership serves as a pilot project for cybersecurity collaboration within EU-ROK security cooperation. In the semiconductor domain, the ROK holds a prominent position both technologically and economically, which is also of interest to the European defence industry. Discussions during the 20th meeting of the Joint Committee in Seoul in March 2024 encompassed these topics along with advancements beyond 5G/6G, HPC-Quantum technologies, Artificial Intelligence, and online platform cooperation.

The South Korean legislative elections are not expected to significantly impact the deepening relations between Seoul and Brussels. However, the newly elected opposition-led parliament may increase its criticism regarding the Yoon administration’s support to Ukraine involving non-lethal military support, humanitarian aid, and ammunition assistance. For 2024, South Korea pledged 394 million USD to Ukraine for humanitarian aid and reconstruction. 

South Korea remains one of the EU’s most relevant partners in the region. Given its economic strength and role as a promoter of peace and stability, the EU should further enhance economic cooperation with South Korea and continue to foster economic security in the region while defending an inclusive multipolar order based on the rule of law and multilateralism. The EU and South Korea relations are going strong and are likely to continue growing along that path. It will be up to the Yoon administration and the incoming European leadership after the EU elections to further bolster the relation and pursue new avenues for collaboration, not in the least in the economic, digital and green investment sphere.

Author: Gabrielle Godard, EIAS Junior Researcher

Photo credits: Unsplash