Will next year’s South Korean election lead to political reform?

Candidates from the major political parties in South Korea have been nominated for the country’s presidential election to be held in March next year.

In the election campaign, the question will likely be how the candidates intend to deal with pending domestic and diplomatic issues left by the administration of President Moon Jae-in and how they plan to achieve political reform.

Through primaries, the left-leaning ruling Democratic Party of Korea nominated Lee Jae-myung, former governor of Gyeonggi Province, and the conservative opposition People Power Party, aiming for a change in power, fielded Yoon Seok-youl, a former prosecutor general.

It is noteworthy that both candidates of the ruling and opposition parties are outsiders who keep their distance from established politics. This is due to the stalemate in the policies of the Moon administration and the people’s demand for political change.

Lee emphasizes his background as a lawyer born into a poor family who studied under tough circumstances while working in a factory. Lee has set forth a basic income program as a key campaign pledge to provide cash benefits to all citizens and has expressed his intention to provide a particularly generous allowance for young people.

It is inevitable that the proposal will be criticized as a handout that lacks the financial resources to fund it. The reason why Lee still earned huge support is that the Moon administration has failed to address generational disparities, such as severe unemployment among young people.

Former student activists who participated in the movement against the military regime in the 1980s have played key roles in the Moon administration. Lee’s nomination apparently reflects the reality that the former activists have become a group of politicians with vested interests through long political careers and are losing public support.

Opposition nominee Yoon is an unusual candidate in that he has no political experience. Yoon drew attention when he, as a prosecutor general, resisted the Moon administration’s prosecution reforms. The fact that he announced his presidential bid only four months ago and won the nomination may be a reflection of the lack of talented people in the conservative camp.

Yoon repeatedly made gaffes at party debates and other events, reflecting his weakness as a political amateur. Whether he has the capacity to take power will be tested.

Foreign and security policy is particularly important. The situation in East Asia is becoming increasingly serious, with North Korea’s nuclear and missile development and China’s threats over Taiwan.

The Moon administration has placed importance on relations with China and North Korea but failed to ease tensions in the region. The U.S.-South Korea alliance is feared to be weakened by the postponement of joint military exercises and other matters. There are no signs of improvement in Japan-South Korea relations.

How will Lee revise Moon’s policy course? Will Yoon maintain the policy of the conservative camp to deal with the North Korean threat through cooperation among Japan, the United States and South Korea? Japan should pay close attention to this issue.

The primaries were marked by attacks that focused on scandals. It is hoped that the two candidates will engage in constructive debate ahead of the election.

— The original Japanese article appeared in The Yomiuri Shimbun on Nov. 6, 2021.