In South Korea, President Yoon’s Lame Duck Era Officially Begins

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In South Korea, President Yoon’s Lame Duck Era Officially Begins

The opposition Democratic Party of Korea won a landslide victory in the 22nd general elections, largely due to Yoon’s unpopularity.

In South Korea, President Yoon’s Lame Duck Era Officially Begins

South Korea’s main opposition Democratic Party (DP) leader Lee Jae-myung, center, speaks to reporters after watching TV broadcasting results of exit polls for the parliamentary election at the National Assembly on April 10, 2024 in Seoul, South Korea.

Credit: Chung Sung-Jun/Pool Photos via AP

The Democratic Party (DP) won a landslide victory again on Wednesday, signaling South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s lame-duck status for his remaining three years in office. 

Out of 300 seats in the National Assembly, the DP won 175 seats, while the ruling People Power Party (PPP) won 108. Adding other seats won by opposition parties such as the Rebuilding Korea Party (12 seats), the New Reform Party (three seats), the Saemirae Party (one seat) and the Progressive Party (one seat), two-thirds of the National Assembly will be opposition lawmakers. 

In the previous general elections in 2020, the DP also won a landslide victory by taking 163 seats. This time, the DP again secured a super-majority in the National Assembly, reflecting the public’s anger and prevalent anti-Yoon sentiment.

Among many reasons, there are several key factors that can elucidate why the ruling PPP failed to win the elections. Most of the reasons relate to Yoon himself.

Backlash Against the Presidential Veto

A former prosecutor general who is a law expert, Yoon has shown no hesitation to use his presidential veto on bills passed by the DP-controlled National Assembly for the past two years. 

Yoon used the presidential veto nine times, which is already a record-breaking figure. Moon Jae-in, his predecessor, never exercised this right as he believed the president needed to respect the decision of the National Assembly as the country’s system is settled under the separation of powers. Moon also had the benefit of working with a National Assembly controlled by his own party, the DP.

Among bills passed by the DP and opposition parties, the public strongly criticized Yoon’s decision to veto a special probe bill targeting allegations that his wife had engaged in stock manipulation. No president had ever exercised a veto against a bill calling for a special investigation involving presidential family members or aides. 

Also, as Yoon had said there is no reason to veto a special probe unless someone committed a crime, his decision created the perception that his wife is above the law. No prosecution summons or searches have been made in her case, while the DP’s leader, Lee Jae-myung, was indicted on multiple charges involving bribery after extensive prosecution for the past three years. Lee’s wife was also indicted on the charge of violating the Public Official Election Act. 

In this context, the public’s anger snowballed as Yoon’s veto of the special probe bill targeting his wife demonstrated his double standard on investigations toward his family members versus his opposition. He has refused to allow any investigations targeting his wife, which is unacceptable for much of the public. 

Inflation and R&D Budget Cut

One of the main reasons for the PPP’s loss in the elections is the Yoon government’s failure to stabilize the inflation rate. 

According to data published by the National Statistical Office in March, the consumer prices for fruit had increased by 40.6 percent in February. The consumer price for apples increased by 71.0 percent while pear prices went up 61.1 percent.

“I don’t know how many times I returned to my home when I saw unbelievable prices for fruit in a market in my town,” Kang Hyun-sook, 47, a housewife in Seoul, told The Diplomat. “How miserable it is that I have to hesitate to buy fruit for my children?”

Yoon’s “green onion” gaffe also ignited the public’s anger as he showed his ignorance of consumer prices. Yoon said it was “reasonable” that the market’s price for a bundle of green onions is 875 Korean won ($0.64). But the market Yoon visited was having a sales event, meaning most people have no chance to buy green onions at that price in their hometowns.  

While the Yoon government vowed to stabilize the inflation rate, it also cut the research and development (R&D) budget by 14.7 percent. It is the first time the government has cut funding for R&D since 1991; South Korea did not cut the R&D budget even during the IMF crisis. The science and technology fields expressed worry over the government’s decision, as the loss of funds could affect ongoing research projects. 

To soothe the anger of the scientists, Yoon vowed to increase the R&D budget next year but to critics, his flip-flop only demonstrated that the initial cut was unnecessary and ill-considered. 

The economic issues, centered on a high inflation rate, clearly led the moderates to vote for the DP to punish the failures of the Yoon government for the past two years. 

Striking Doctors

Another major issue is the ongoing doctors’ strike. The Yoon government announced that it would increase the yearly admission quota of medical schools by 2,000 in February. There are 40 medical schools in South Korea and they recruit 3,058 medical students every year. That will go up to 5,058 under the new plan.

Since then, junior doctors have gone on strike to make the government pull its decision back. Due to the strike, university hospitals had no choice but to reschedule surgeries. 

In response, the government clearly drew the line that the quota increase is nonnegotiable, and it has threatened to revoke the medical licenses of the doctors participating in the strike. In doing so, Yoon showed his firm willingness to recruit more medical students, which has not been done for the last 18 years. 

By initiating this plan, the government expects to resolve the lack of doctors in rural areas. In this scenario, 10,000 more doctors will graduate by 2035. However, it is still unknown whether the government can stick with this plan, as doctors also demonstrated their firm opposition.

Considering strong approval ratings toward the government’s action to recruit more doctors, the ongoing battle between the government and junior doctors appears to not have affected the results of the elections. However, as the ruling PPP significantly lost the elections, the DP will likely make moves on behalf of the government to mediate the conflict. If so, the DP may push to decrease the quota for medical students, which the junior doctors could accept. But it is questionable whether the government will accept any offer created by the DP’s mediation. 

Presidential Security Service’s Inappropriate Use of Power

When Kang Sung-hee, a lawmaker of the Progressive Party, encountered Yoon at an event in January, he spoke some words while shaking hands with him. A few seconds later, he was forcibly carried out by Yoon’s security guards. His mouth was covered while his arms and legs were lifted by Yoon’s security guards. 

The Presidential Security Service explained that the incident had taken place according to protocols. But in the recorded video, reported by domestic media outlets, it appeared that Kang was merely talking to Yoon.

A graduate of the Korea Advanced Institute of Science and Technology (KAIST) was also forcibly dragged by his arms and legs at the commencement ceremony in February. He was shouting at Yoon when the president delivered his speech at the event. Yoon’s security guards – who were wearing graduation regalia in the group of graduates – immediately ran to seize the student when he started shouting. 

Such incidents consolidated Yoon’s image as a leader who is not in favor of talking with those who have different ideas. The suppression of Kang and the KAIST graduate engendered anti-Yoon sentiment from those who value freedom of speech.  

Lee Jun-seok’s Victory

Amid the wave of support for South Korea’s liberal parties, Lee Jun-seok, an ousted leader of the PPP who led Yoon’s presidential campaign and the PPP’s local elections in 2022, scored a surprise upset in Hwaseong City, southwest of Seoul. For the past few weeks, Lee was trailing the DP candidate, Gong Young-woon, and the polls gave him little prospect to win. However, Lee made a surprising victory by defeating Gong by 3.38 percentage points. 

Expressing gratitude toward his constituents, Lee said Yoon should think about why he had to leave the party and run the election with a different party. Lee, after being ousted from the PPP leadership and replaced by a Yoon loyalist, left to found his own political party. Lee’s New Reform Party notched three seats in the elections.

There is a widespread perception that Yoon’s low approval ratings were to blame for the PPP’s dismal performance this time around. Lee’s surprise victory could lend credence to the narratives that conservative candidates are better off without the president. Ahead of the next presidential elections in March 2027, the moderates in the PPP may raise their voices more to regain power. 

What Comes Next

According to media reports on Thursday, Prime Minister Han Duk-soo along with Yoon’s staff members tendered their resignations. There will be a reshuffle of Yoon’s cabinet. 

Meanwhile, Han Dong-hoon, an interim leader of the PPP, also announced his resignation from the post during a press conference on Thursday. As Han was the most supported presidential hopeful in the PPP, the results of the elections may affect his approval ratings among the PPP members and lawmakers. 

There were some experts who said that Yoon might leave the party if it failed to win half of the seats in the National Assembly. As of writing, there is no sign of Yoon making moves to leave the PPP.

For the leader of the DP, Lee Jae-myung, the landslide victory will consolidate his power within the party and pave the way for his third attempt to win the presidency in 2027. At this moment, there is no rival against Lee who can be a strong contender in the DP’s presidential primary elections. 

Yoon’s chief of staff opened room for cooperation with the DP and the opposition parties. However, past precedent suggests the DP and the Yoon government will not engage in any meaningful cooperation, leaving Yoon as a lame duck for the next three years. 

Moving forward, we can expect the DP-controlled National Assembly will again pass special probe bills targeting Yoon’s wife. However, Yoon will likely exercise his presidential veto again.