The Korea Herald


[Election 2024] Will election untie Yoon's hands?

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : March 4, 2024 - 15:59

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President Yoon Suk Yeol is greeted by citizens during his visit to the birthplace of the late former first lady Yuk Young-soo, in North Chungcheong Province, Wednesday. (Presidential Office) President Yoon Suk Yeol is greeted by citizens during his visit to the birthplace of the late former first lady Yuk Young-soo, in North Chungcheong Province, Wednesday. (Presidential Office)

The general election on April 10 will not only be an election for a new parliament of 300 legislators but also a decisive moment for the presidency of Yoon Suk Yeol, who has been struggling to advance his agenda since his narrow election victory two years ago.

The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea, led by Yoon's presidential election opponent Rep. Lee Jae-myung, currently holds a simple majority. The ruling party, on the other hand, has only 113 out of the 300 parliamentary seats.

The opposition's power is strong enough to pass bills that go against Yoon's will -- though Yoon can and sometimes does exercise veto power to stop them. The opposition often discourages the ruling party from trying to pass their own bills, except in extraordinary instances like ones related to Busan's 2030 World Expo bid.

Watchers say that if the conservatives fail to win this time, Yoon will plunge into lame duck status less than halfway through his term.

Yoon will be "increasingly and quickly hobbled in terms of influence within his own party," without the People Power Party flipping scores of parliamentary seats in the upcoming election to hold a majority, said Mason Richey, a professor of international politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

It would mean a continuation of the situation since May 2022, in which Yoon has been held back in pursuing his domestic agenda. For example, in January, Yoon failed to persuade the Assembly to delay the full-fledged implementation of the Serious Accidents Punishment Act.

"Clearly, the opposition in the National Assembly has blocked much of President Yoon's domestic agenda," Richey also said. "One side-effect has been that he has focused a lot on foreign policy, notably with the United States and Japan."

Daniel Sneider, who lectures East Asian Studies at Stanford University, said the opposition bloc's retention of a simple majority in April would "accelerate (Yoon's) lame duck process to some degree," which "certainly gives progressives a platform to show to oppose what the government is doing."

Final sprint

Now, with the general election just about a month ahead, Yoon is striving to boost his popularity by notching up some achievements in domestic issues before polling day.

Most recently, Yoon has repeatedly and aggressively sought to expand medical schools, looking to add 2,000 places, remaining adamant in addressing trainee doctors' collective resignation from their workplace to protest Yoon's decision.

In addition, Yoon is holding back-to-back policy debates in regional areas, with promises of deregulation each time. Among the pledges are eased greenbelt regulations and the removal of private-use restrictions on land near some military facilities.

(Graphic by Park Ji-young) (Graphic by Park Ji-young)

Yoon's popularity has rebounded on the back of such aggressive action. His approval rating climbed for three consecutive weeks to 39 percent, hitting the highest point since January 2023, according to a poll by Gallup Korea in the fifth week of February. Another poll by Realmeter showed that Yoon's approval rating in late February topped 40 percent for the first time in eight months.

Realmeter's analysis showed that the consistency in his pledges, such as "greenbelt deregulation, support for nuclear energy industry and industrial ecosystem normalization," have contributed to the rebound in popularity. That, as well as his attempts to rally support from the conservative base by, for example, visiting the birthplace of Yuk Young-soo, who was killed in a North Korean assassination attempt on her husband, authoritarian leader Park Chung-hee.

"If Yoon and the People Power Party remain steadfast on the medical school admissions issue, and Yoon's party wins the National Assembly election, I think this will give Yoon something of a reprieve on his lame duck status during a period after the election," Richey said.

A conservative party victory would also open the way for Yoon to seek continuity in his foreign affairs to brace for the fog of external uncertainties.

Seoul's restored relationship with Tokyo during Yoon's term is still laden with fragility due to ongoing court proceedings over damages sought by forced labor during World War II, experts said, as the US presidential election result in November could mar the "alliance relationship" forged between Yoon and US President Joe Biden. While bolstering ties with the US and Japan, the Yoon administration has apparently antagonized North Korea and Russia.

"A weaker Korean government will have more difficulty making difficult decisions" in times of external uncertainties, said Sneider, who is also a non-resident distinguished fellow at the Korea Economic Institute.

“Those difficult decisions may be not only 'Do you do what Americans want you to do?' They also may be the opposite, 'Do you do something America doesn’t want you to do?' That's a possible situation particularly if Donald Trump wins the election."

President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) presides over the 16th policy debate held in Daegu on Monday. Yoon has been touring across the country since January holding such debate sessions where he lays out new pledges. (Pool photo via Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) presides over the 16th policy debate held in Daegu on Monday. Yoon has been touring across the country since January holding such debate sessions where he lays out new pledges. (Pool photo via Yonhap)

Han Dong-hoon factor

A ruling party victory would likely shield the South Korean president from lame duck status, but at the same time, it could steal the limelight from him with the emergence of a potential successor, Han Dong-hoon, the former justice minister who surprisingly became the interim leader of the party late last year.

Both Yoon and Han had worked as public prosecutors for about two decades. Yoon led the prosecution when it was investigating the then-Justice Minister Cho Kuk’s alleged misdeeds during the former Moon Jae-in administration. Han led the probe into Cho, who was a close aide to Moon.

The investigation led to then-prosecutor-general Yoon’s suspension by Cho’s successor Choo Mi-ae, as well as legal action against Han.

Yoon’s clash with the Moon administration led to his decision to enter politics as a political novice by declaring his presidential bid in June 2021. Han became the first justice minister in Yoon's administration, and he later entered the political arena as an interim leader of the ruling party in December.

Soon, however, Han appeared to have briefly clashed with Yoon. Han revealed in January that the presidential office had asked him to resign from the party leadership post and said he refused to do so, amid controversies surrounding a potential candidate for a parliamentary seat that he favored.

The candidate, a liberal accountant-turned-conservative Kim Kyung-yul, was accused by a pro-Yoon faction of likening the first lady Kim Keon Hee to the ill-fated French queen Marie Antoinette as Kim’s ‘Dior bag’ graft scandal surfaced.

But in the past few weeks, infighting in the main opposition party, which has lost several members in a dispute over candidacy in the April election, has allowed People Power Party to take the lead in the polls. The gap between the two parties is now greater than the margin of error for the first time in a year, according to a Realmeter survey released Monday.

People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (Yonhap) People Power Party interim leader Han Dong-hoon (Yonhap)

The long-standing relationship between Yoon and Han will be a key factor in Korean politics for the time being.

"It will be interesting to see if Yoon is graceful over the next few years in terms of paving the way for Han to potentially run for president himself in 2027," Richey said.

Sneider noted that because South Korea does not allow a president to serve more than one term, the presidents have "inevitably" seen lame duck status set in toward the end of their terms, or a period where "there is already competition who is going to run for the next president."

The Korea Herald is publishing a series of articles on the general election in April, which will give shape to a new National Assembly of 300 legislators who will lead the future of deeply divided Korean politics. This is the second installment. -- Ed.