The Korean Right Got Crushed Last Month – Why?


The following post is the original English language version of a story I wrote for Newsweek Japan (relevant issue to the left) a few weeks ago on the South Korean.

The results of last month’s South Korean National Assembly went sharply against my prediction that the left would get routed. It serves me right for actually making a clear claim; next time I’ll stick to banalities to elide accountability. And I suppose I can take solace in that just about everyone was surprised at how well the Left did, including the left itself.

My logic in the prediction piece was straight out of political science: Duverger’s law predicts that partisan fragmentation – the fracturing of the Korean left’s votes across 3 parties – would throw lot of plurality seats, which are 82% of the National Assembly, to the right. This clearly did not happen. In fact, the new center-left People’s Party drew from the conservative New Frontier party instead of the traditional left-wing Democratic party. This is a huge surprise, and should be a huge red flag that Park Geun-Hye is not a popular president. Indeed, an early lame-ducking of her administration may be the most important outcome of the election.

The full essay follows the jump.


South Korea’s Saenuri Party (새누리 – ‘New Frontier’) was delivered a crushing defeat in the country’s legislative elections this past Wednesday, losing 30 seats and its majority in the legislature. It is the first time that the ruling government party of Korea has lost an election in sixteen years. The main opposition party, the Minjoo Party of Korea (더민주 – ‘Together Democratic Party’) now has a plurality of seats at 123 to Saenuri’s 122. Anh Cheol-Soo, former Minjoo presidential candidate and parliamentarian, defected late last year and led his newly-created Gookmin Party (국민 – ‘People’s Party’) to a better-than-expected 38 seats. The Jeongi Party (정의 – ‘Justice Party’) and independents snapped up the rest, winning 6 and 11 seats respectively. President Park Geun-Hye will have to navigate a hung parliament for the remaining 20 months of her presidency.

An Unexpected Defeat

The results caught many off guard. The left has long been plagued by infighting and factionalism, and frequently unable to mount effective opposition to Park’s agenda. Anh’s high-profile departure from Minjoo late last year led many to conclude that the left-leaning voters would split between Minjoo and Gookmin, generating unexpected victories for the Saenuri. Many expected Saenuri to win seats where a combined left-wing vote would have defeated the right. Analysts widely expected left-wing factionalism to ‘throw’ 10-20 seats to the right.

Further, virtually every poll had Saenuri leading the opposition by double digits. Within her own party, Park’s approval ratings are an impressive 78%. Further, South Korea’s aging demographics favor the right: 40.9% of eligible Korean voters are in the forties and fifties, the vast majority of whom are faithful Saenuri voters. They put a higher emphasis on national security and foreign policy than younger voters, and national security is more salient than ever on the peninsula following repeated provocations by the North this year, including a fourth nuclear test in January and multiple missile launches.

So What Happened?

The 300-person South Korean National Assembly is a unicameral mix of both single-member, first-past-the-post (FPP) seats and proportional representation (PR) seats. The FPP seats are the 246 geographic districts in which the candidate with the most votes wins. However, Korean voters cast a second ballot as well, for the party of their choice, to allocate the remaining 46 seats. Those seats are distributed among the parties proportional to their percentages on the second ballot. Japan has a similar dual-voting system, but a two-house parliament, while South Korea has only one.

Anh Cheol-soo’s Gookmin Party sought to take advantage of the small but tempting share of PR seats, and this strategy seems to have paid off. Several polls predicted Gookmin winning less than 25 seat, made up mostly of second-ballot selections poached from the main opposition Minjoo. But Gookmin dramatically exceeded expectations by sweeping nearly all the FPP seats in Korea’s southwest, a traditional Minjoo stronghold that supported Minjoo by a staggering 9-1 margin in the most recent presidential election. Anh’s start-up party fared well in the PR seats too, with many Korean voters selecting the party after voting for a Saeruni or Minjoo candidate on the first ballot.

Vote Totals – Korea Legislative Elections 2016



+ / – 2012













Anh’s success, and Saeruni’s defeat, were buoyed by a high turnout of young voters: a 4.4% and 7.7% increase among voters in their twenties and thirties, respectively. Youth unemployment is at an all-time high of 12.5%, more than double the overall national rate. Those fortunate enough to have jobs struggle with low wages and high household debt, which topped $1 trillion at the end of the 2015, nearly the highest in the world. The International Monetary Fund recently downgraded Korea’s growth forecast to 2.7%, below the global average and far below what Korea experienced during its rapid industrialization in the second half of last century. Exports remain sluggish amid a Chinese cool-off, with staple industries like petrochemicals and shipbuilding hit the hardest. All this appeared to drive younger voters to Ahn’s centrist alternative.

On the political front, Saenuri has publicly suffered from the government’s highly controversial deal with Japan regarding the comfort women. Park demanded the issue be resolved by the close of 2015, and many Koreans feel she got a poor deal. The negotiations occurred in secret, which upset many activists. And the final deal required that Korea would no longer pursue this issue in international fora, further upsetting those NGO and civil society groups. Intense anxiety over the Japanese colonial period is deeply woven into the fabric of South Korean national identity, and it is likely the deal helped ignite an anti-Park backlash at the polls.

Ramifications, Domestic and Foreign

At home, Korea now faces gridlock. The combined left (Minjoo + Gookmin + Justice + assorted independent candidates) controls a quite unexpected 57% of the seats of the National Assembly. That is a huge majority, especially if these parties can work in concert. They easily have the muscle to block President Park’s initiatives and launch their own. Park in turn could veto any left-leaning legislation, and the National Assembly would then need a 2/3 majority to override her veto. Saenuri still has enough votes in the Assembly to prevent veto-overrides. In short, Korea is now entering a period of ‘divided government,’ in which the legislature and executive are controlled by different parties, neither of whom can overcome institutional checks and balances to govern coherently. This political stasis will generate little new legislation and accelerate Park’s natural slide into a lame-duck. South Korea’s next presidential election is in late 2017. Normally Korean presidents diminish in the months beforehand, but Park now faces 20 months of immobility.

Abroad, the left in Korea has traditionally been more friendly toward North Korea and tougher on Japan and the United States. But the executive runs foreign policy in Korea, and in general Asian democracies tolerate far less legislative intervention in foreign policy-making than Western democracies, especially the US. Radical swings are therefore unlikely. But there are two areas where foreign-domestic intersection will give the left-bloc leverage:

The Comfort Women Deal

Last year’s deal was negotiated solely by the right and in secret. So the acid test of its acceptance is whether the South Korean left will seek to undue it now that it is back in power for the first time in years. At the moment, opponents of the deal can, fairly or not, reject it as elite, backroom arrangement foisted on an unsympathetic public by a pro-Japanese conservative right-wing. But now that the left is politically relevant again, it has the opportunity to return to the deal, seek to alter its terms, reject the constraint to no longer speak internationally against Japan on the comfort women, and so on. If this happens, the old status quo of recent years’ acrimony could easily return. But if the left ignores the issue, that would tacitly give bipartisan approval to the deal. The deal would then graduate from being that of one party or one president to a national consensus broadly unchallenged by the main voices in Korean politics. That would be a huge step if it occurs, and this is the primary issue in Japan-Korea relations to watch in the next twelve months.

Missile Defense

As I argued in this space in the April 12 issue, geopolitical tension in Northeast Asia is increasingly becoming ‘missilized.’ Drones, rockets, and other unmanned aerial vehicles (UAVs) are rapidly becoming as important as aircraft carriers or destroyers. North Korea’s nuclear program particularly captures this evolution. Defending against these UAVs will require missile defense in both Japan and South Korea. In Japan, this is less controversial, but in South Korea, the left has fought the emplacement of the US Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system. Now they have an unexpected opportunity to block it, by refusing to pay or allocate locations for it. Should the left not raise the issue, that would signal, as it would regarding the comfort women deal, bipartisan support for missile defense that has hitherto been lacking.

Conversely, should the left seek to re-negotiate the comfort women deal, roll back the emerging consensus on missile defense, or seek to engage North Korea as ‘partner’ (as it did in the past), major domestic political strife would ensue and international questions about Korean treaty commitments would arise.

Until recently, the South Korean left suffered electorally for its perceived friendliness toward North Korea. Minjoo leader Moon Jae-In, for example, did not admit until 2015 that North Korea sank the South Korean warship Cheonan in 2010. Much as western liberal and socialist parties struggled with how to approach the Soviet Union during the Cold War, Korea’s left has never quite been comfortable defining North Korea as an enemy. The ensuing perception that the left was weak on national security cost it repeatedly at the polls, particularly as North Korea’s spiraling nuclear and missile programs have made it ever clearer that North Korea is not a partner for peace. Recently however, the South Korea left has sounded tougher on the North, admitted that its nuclear program is a great threat, and hinted that THAAD may be necessary. These concessions improved its electability and opened the path for it to campaign on domestic issues against President Park, where its real strength lies. It did not win last week on foreign policy, and it would be foolish to throw away this unexpected victory on a policy course it could not implement easily anyway.

The left would face similar damage to its restored political credibility if it re-opens the comfort women deal. The deal is not popular, and for several years, ambitious Korean politicians may be tempted to attack it for political gain. But like it or not, the deal was signed by a democratically elected South Korean president. This gives the arrangement a legitimacy that the 1965 Japan-Korea normalization deal does not have, because that treaty was signed by South Korea dictator Park Chung-Hee (the current president’s father). To pull out now would cast obvious doubt on Korea’s ability to stick to other high-stakes diplomatic deals, raising all sorts of credibility issues in future negotiations of whatever kind. This point is often mentioned in the Korea media commentary as well. Korean op-ed pages broadly thought the deal was too generous to Japan, but most of them have noted that Korea must now stick to its word. There was a great deal of global attention when the deal was finally struck. Many partners of both Japan and Korea, especially the United States, were visibly relieved the issue was finally resolved. The left may find political gain in re-opening it, and desperate left-wing presidential candidates may be tempted to use it next year, but the diplomatic consequences would be high.

The South Korean left is now in the widely unanticipated position of blocking executive actions in a country with a strong tradition of executive-driven politics. This is atypical for Korea and Asian democracies generally. The left’s factionalization has brought it down in the past. Now it has the surprising opportunity to turn a protest vote into a governing mandate.

3 thoughts on “The Korean Right Got Crushed Last Month – Why?

  1. I think it is not correct that “the vast majority of (the 40 and 50 year olds) are faithful Saenuri voters.” That was true at turn of the century. The “386ers” that elected two Minjoo presidents are now in their mid- to late 40s. In fact most of President Park’s loyal followers were once fans of her father and the Chun/Roh presidencies: these folks were mostly born before 1960. The Saenuri party lacks a clear successor to Park, which is why party insiders suggest the candidacy of UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-Moon as standard-bearer in the next presidential election. Current polls suggest only Ban could defeat Ahn Cheol-soo. (No indication yet that Ban is interested in running, nor which party he would align with.)

    People’s Party success in Honam (Jeolla) may be more a reaction to nomination decisions by Minjoo and candidate-flight to People’s Party. This also explains the number of independents elected, and Sarnuri’s scurry to re-admit those independents who fled the party when their nomination was rejected by the President’s team.

    I always enjoy your articles. Takes a brave soul to present these thoughts publicly.


  2. This may be beside the point of the article, but “a legitimacy that the 1965 Japan-Korea normalization deal does not have, because that treaty was signed by South Korea dictator Park Chung-Hee (the current president’s father).”
    Really? What kind of nonsense is that? If you are arguing that the succeeding democracy did not agree with what the previous dictatorship signed off on, that is fine and well (I would still say that is bad manners because it was a legit country to country deal by the ruling entities of the time, but hey, that’s just me). However, would you not have to at least give back, for example, the economic aid that was part of the deal? You get to renege on the agreement that this deal was final, but you get to keep the $800 million (more than twice the Korean national budget at the time) too? This again is an example of the deranged kind of logic that the Koreans seem to press again and again, and the gullible westerners who enable them.


  3. Pingback: The Comfort Women Deal Six Months On – Where’s the Korean Backlash? | Robert Kelly — Asian Security Blog

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