South Korea’s Election Weakened the Country’s Left Parties

South Korea’s legislative election was a blow to conservative president Yoon Suk-yeol, whose party was routed by its liberal opponents. But the vote also weakened the left forces seeking to challenge the dominance of two pro-business parties.

Yoon Suk-yeol speaking during a press conference on December 13, 2023, in The Hague, Netherlands. (Photo by Patrick van Katwijk / WireImage)

South Korea’s unpopular conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, and his People Power Party (PPP) suffered a well-deserved defeat on April 10 when voters went to the polls to elect a new National Assembly. The governing party could only manage 108 out of the 300 seats. Yoon now looks set to be a lame-duck president for the remaining three years of his five-year term.

The main opposition force was the Democratic Alliance, comprised of the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) and some smaller allies. They took 176 seats in total, with 169 going to DPK candidates.

From a left-wing perspective, however, the most important thing to note about South Korea’s latest election is that it confirms the established bipartisan hegemony of two rival pro-business parties. Those parties increasingly resemble each other not only in terms of politics and ideology but also in their routine corruption. The Korean left has been unable to challenge this hegemony and is losing ground.

Crisis of the Left

The Justice Party, running in alliance this time with the Greens, failed to win a single seat in the national legislature, having taken six in both 2016 and 2020. In 2020, the combined proportional vote score for the Justice and Green parties was almost 10 percent; this time, they got a little over 2 percent between them.

Meanwhile, the Jinbo (“Progressive”) Party — a regrouping from the Unified Progressive Party, which the country’s highest court ordered to be dissolved in 2014 because of alleged links to North Korea — won three seats due to its alliance with the DPK. In effect, this involved vote swaps between districts where neither party could defeat a conservative rival without the electoral base of the other.

In contrast with the Justice Party, whose working-class base has eroded over the years, the Jinbo Party has a solid presence in the construction and platform labor sectors. However, quite apart from its controversial electoral alignment with a major pro-business party, the party’s left-wing profile remains questionable. It has flirted with hostile sentiment toward migrant workers in these sectors while offering uncritical support for the North Korean national leadership, including its hereditary succession.

Institutionally, both the Justice and Jinbo parties have roots in groups that broke away from the Korean Democratic Labor Party (KDLP), the country’s first mass left party since the Korean War of 1950–53. In 2004, when it elected ten members in the National Assembly with 13 percent of the proportional vote, the KDLP appeared to be on a path to becoming a full-fledged social democratic party.

This was happening in a wider context where the entire country seemed to be moving leftward, at least briefly. There were nonviolent mass protests that thwarted conservative attempts to impeach a liberal president. The political reverberations of the first national strike by the independent Korean Confederation of Trade Unions in 1996–97 were still palpable.

Divided Movement

By the late 2000s, however, the KDLP was heading for a split. It proved to be a marriage of convenience, with one faction vaguely pursuing Western-style social democracy while the other staunchly adhered to nationalist, pro–North Korea views. The party broke up after bitter debates about whether to discipline members involved in a North Korean spy ring that profiled leaders of the party.

The KDLP faced a dilemma about whether to expel these members for voluntarily providing sensitive party information to their North Korean handlers, as they were not convicted under an anti-espionage act but rather under the National Security Law that has been in force since the late 1940s. The party was torn between the need to retain its integrity as an organization and the imperative of fighting this notorious piece of legislation, which has often been used to suppress political dissent under the pretext of North Korean threats.

Neither of the groups that emerged from the KDLP and became the respective forerunners of the Justice and Jinbo Parties proved to be a formidable force against the two mainstream parties. While the conservatives wanted to destroy these groups immediately, the liberals aimed to siphon off their talent and support until they wilted away.

In 2014, the conservative government of Park Geun-hye successfully petitioned the Constitutional Court to outlaw the Unified Progressive Party after the conviction of its leader under the National Security Law. Park was the daughter of former military strongman Park Chung-hee and was impeached for corruption two years later.

Meanwhile, the Justice Party embraced identity politics and middle-class feminism only to experience a series of electoral setbacks, with talented young party cadres being drained away to the DPK. The Jinbo Party at least maintained some political relevance due to shrewd vote swaps with the DPK and the dedication of party stalwarts who spent years unionizing and recruiting new members from the most disfranchised portions of the working class after the legal dissolution of the predecessor group.

The pro–North Korea stance within parts of the Left stems from the 1980s, when many dissidents and militants were drawn to the Juche idea, North Korea’s official ideology, in their struggles against the military dictatorship. However, this stance will likely confine the Jinbo Party to the fringes of electoral politics in the world’s thirteenth-largest economy. Most of South Korea’s citizens view a nuclear-armed, dictatorial but poverty-stricken North Korea as neither a military menace nor a socialist motherland but simply as a disturbing political and economic risk.

A Rigged System

The latest election showed that neither left party is capable of electing candidates independently without help from the liberal DPK. They both faced a new barrier after the electoral system was changed four years ago by an agreement between the conservative and liberal parties, altering the way that seats were allocated through the proportional vote section.

The availability of seats elected on a proportional basis had greatly boosted the prospects of the KDLP in previous elections. Eight of the ten seats that the party won in 2004 were proportional, with two more from the constituencies.

In theory, the new regulations were supposed to help under-resourced third parties that were not capable of fielding constituency-based candidates. But the DPK took advantage of the new system by launching small-scale satellite parties. These groups took much of the proportional vote that would otherwise have gone to the Jinbo or Green-Justice candidates.

Cho Kuk, a former justice minister convicted of fraud, exploited this loophole with his Rebuilding Korea Party, which took twelve seats with 24 percent of the proportional vote. Before setting up the party, Cho committed a fraud similar to the one that briefly put two Hollywood celebrities, Lori Loughlin and Felicity Huffman, behind bars in the United States, albeit in a more blatantly unethical fashion.

While working as a law professor at the country’s most respected institution, Seoul National University, Cho used his office computer to forge documents for his daughter’s college admission. The court concluded that he and his wife, an English professor, now in jail for fraud and forgery, falsified more than twenty documents to advance their children’s admissions to elite schools.

In spite of this scandal, which cost him his academic position, Cho has emerged as the leader of the third-largest party in the assembly. He recast himself as a tragic (and telegenic) hero who fell victim to the overarching powers of the prosecutors’ office, which he accused of pursuing a vendetta against him for seeking to curb its power during his time as justice minister.

A Prosecutorial Dictatorship

There was some truth to what Cho said. The South Korean prosecution service took over some of the pervasive authority of the state intelligence apparatus after the end of military rule. Over time, its power has become steadily more bloated, with each president using it (to varying degrees) to silence and discredit rivals, often in the name of political reform.

The last liberal government of Moon Jae-in, in which Cho served, was no exception. Moon came to power after mass anti-corruption protests that led to the impeachment of his predecessor. During the first two years of his five-year term, the special investigation bureau, now rebranded as an anti-corruption bureau, expanded to prosecute more than two hundred bureaucrats and politicians.

It was Yoon, the current president, who spearheaded the drive as the bureau’s director. In the later period of his term, Moon promoted him to the position of Prosecutor General. Yoon foiled some of Cho’s attempts to rein in the influence of his office and later defected to the conservative PPP, ascending to the presidency as a right-wing anti-corruption crusader.

For Cho and like-minded liberals who had once placed trust in Yoon, his rise to power seemed rather like a dog biting its owner. They described Yoon’s presidency as a “prosecutorial dictatorship,” since without the vast political influence and connections of the prosecutor’s office, he could never have reached the heights of power.

However, what really catapulted Yoon to the presidency was the spectacle of bipartisan corruption and collusion. Within ten months of launching his presidential bid, Yoon managed to defeat his liberal contender Lee Jae-myung by a narrow margin (less than 1 percent). Lee had spent years preparing for his candidacy as governor of the country’s most affluent province, but he was weighed down by a legal case related to an enormous real estate scheme involving public land.

On the other hand, Yoon’s initial public image as an anti-corruption fighter was tarnished when the media uncovered his wife’s involvement in a pump-and-dump stock scheme. Candid camera footage of her taking an expensive gift also surfaced ahead of the National Assembly election, dealing a blow to the PPP’s campaign.

Democratic Crisis

In short, over the past four years, South Korea’s legislature, where the DPK possessed a majority, was consumed by endless bipartisan squabbles and finger-wagging from the two main parties, which respectively aimed to keep the leader of the main opposition party and the first lady out of jail. With a legislature populated by bipartisan loyalists and devoid of a left-wing voice, the next four years are likely to offer more of the same, punctuated by Cho’s and Lee’s attempts at impeachment of Yoon.

South Korean bipartisanism has reached a point where it has already undermined democracy and now even threatens sustainable livelihoods. It has left the country evading debate, even during the electoral cycle, about vital issues such as the climate crisis, despite the fact that climate change has already been driving up fruit and vegetable prices beyond an affordable level for those on middle-class incomes.

The challenge of building a left alternative in South Korea is similar to that faced in so many other countries around the world. The crisis of democracy is the crisis of the Left.

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Kap Seol is a Korean writer and researcher based in New York.  His writings have appeared in Labor Notes, In These Times, Business Insider, and other publications. In 2019, his exposé for Korean independent daily Kyunghyang revealed an imposter who falsely claimed to be a US military intelligence specialist posted to the South Korean city of Gwangju during a popular uprising in 1980.

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