Current Situation: South Korea Presidential Election
On May 9, early elections will be held for the next President of the Republic of Korea, commonly known as South Korea. The day has been categorized as a public holiday, and as such, schools, banks, and other government services and offices will remain closed. The early election follows the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye on March 10, the culmination of a series of corruption allegations and mass protests that began in late 2016. Leading the polls are (in order) Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party, Ahn Cheol-soo of the centrist People’s Party, and Hong Jun-pyo of the Liberty Korea Party, a rebranded iteration of Park’s former Saenuri Party. Hong’s vote share has been steadily increasing in recent polls at the expense of Ahn’s decline.
Elsewhere, North Korea has been the subject of intense international scrutiny for their ongoing ballistic missile and nuclear weapon development programs, launching high-profile tests as recently as April 29. In response to recent North Korean activity, US President Donald Trump ordered the USS Carl Vinson carrier strike group to the region in early April, in a move perceived as highly provocative by Pyongyang. Additionally, South Korea and the US have accelerated the deployment window for the controversial Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) anti-missile battery in Seongju, which reportedly has already reached minimal operational capabilities.
Mass protests against former President Park, as well as smaller-scale protests against the THAAD deployment, have occurred nearly every Saturday in Seoul since Park’s scandal first broke in October 2016, with a recent protest in Seongju on April 26 resulting in at least 10 injuries during scuffles with security forces. Whereas Moon has advocated rapprochement with North Korea and a freezing of the THAAD deployment, Ahn has switched his stance to be supportive of the deployment, in line with the conservative stance espoused by Hong.
Assessments & Forecast
Economic reform and security issues remain top voter priorities according to recent polling
Hong and Ahn’s volatility in recent polling suggests that the “shy conservative” phenomenon, wherein respondents in polls do not indicate their true intentions to vote for a conservative candidate, may be occurring in the South Korean election. Namely, Park’s negative down-ballot effect on her former political camp has led many people to abandon the party ticket, even though they are generally aligned with the platform. Whereas Ahn was initially able to capitalize on this phenomenon, the recent swing in Hong’s favor suggests that many conservatives may be moving back to Liberty Korea as the Park scandal begins to fade in the face of mounting security challenges posed by North Korea.
While it would appear that Hong’s more hardline approach to North Korea is one of the driving factors behind his recent surge, liberal economic views have buoyed Moon and Ahn, giving them a combined 60 percent share of the last poll. For younger voters, economic stagnation, youth unemployment, and rising wage inequality are perceived as more immediate issues than peninsular security. Reforming the massive family conglomerates, known as chaebols, which dominate the South Korean economy, has been a major part of Ahn and Moon’s respective platforms. Meanwhile, Hong supports deregulating the very same sectors, which may explain why his support base is largely composed of older voters. There is no candidate that offers a package of both market reform and a hardline stance on North Korea, and polls seem to indicate that voters have largely chosen economics as their driving priority.
Moon has remained consistently ahead in recent polls, maintaining approximately 40 percent of the vote share, which is more than enough to emerge victorious in South Korea’s first-past-the-post system. Of the three candidates, Moon advocates the least hardline approach to North Korea, including political and economic engagement, which faltered under Park. Nevertheless, his position remains similar to runner-up Ahn, who also advocates for renewed talks, albeit from a more cautious standpoint. It stands to reason that the election of either candidate would, therefore, see South Korea becoming a more moderating force in regional security planning, as opposed to the previous administration. Meanwhile, under Hong, the current peninsular standoff would not only continue but be likely to escalate in the long term.
One important singular issue that has been at the forefront of the leading candidates’ platforms has been the deployment of the THAAD system by US forces. While Ahn was initially in line with Moon in opposition to the THAAD deployment, recent provocations by North Korea in the form of continued missile tests have likely led him to reverse on the issue, possibly also in an attempt to court the many conservative voters uneasy with voting for any party that may be perceived as having connections to Park. Ahn’s decision underscores shifting public perceptions over the project in the face of a more defiant and unpredictable North Korea, most notably illustrated by his party’s recent dip in favor of Hong Joon-pyo. Moreover, reversing the deployment would essentially be a violation of an agreement with the US, an action that Moon himself has noted despite his opposition to the project. That being said, with the deployment reaching a milestone of limited operational capacity, and Hong Jun-pyo making solid gains in recent polls, it remains unlikely that even Moon will be able to stop it at this point, especially as public opinion seems to be drifting in the opposite direction.
Political stability in the South strengthening, despite looming threat from the North
Pro- and anti-Park protests, which reached a short-lived period of elevated unrest during the Supreme Court hearings on her impeachment, have declined in participation from the mass turnouts that defined late 2016 and early 2017. Approximately four million voters have already cast early ballots by May 4, and the lack of reported unrest near polling stations suggest that the likelihood of such incidents remains similarly low on election day. Overall, what this downward trend suggests is that the country is slowly returning to normalcy following the highly divisive impeachment period.
FORECAST: Nonetheless, there remains a strong, politically active anti-THAAD and anti-Western contingency, whose ongoing protest campaign is unlikely to cease in the near term, given the project’s anticipated continuation. In this context, protests against the THAAD deployment are likely to continue, materialized near the site itself in Seongju as well as Seoul. While these protests have featured varying levels of unrest in the past, participation in these demonstrations is markedly lower than previous, strictly anti-Park rallies, especially due to rising security concerns over North Korea’s weapons programs.
At this point, a new nuclear test has been anticipated for weeks, a conclusion refuted by US security officials based on undisclosed intelligence. For their part, North Korea has stoked this tension, levying threats of a new test as recently as May 1. FORECAST: North Korea normally chooses opportunities for nuclear and missile tests during high-profile political and military developments by adversaries such as the US and South Korea, and as a result, the possibility of a new test during the election window remains. However, it may be part of Pyongyang’s calculus that a new test immediately before the election might influence the outcome in favor of a more hardline candidate. Thus, it remains more likely that should a new test occur, it would take place after voting.
Travel to Seoul may continue at this time while adhering to standard security protocols regarding protests, crime and the lingering risk of conflict with North Korea. Those operating or residing in South Korea are advised to allot for disruptions to travel and business continuity on May 9, election day, due to the slated closures. Avoid the vicinity of any political or student related demonstrations, as such events carry an underlying potential to witness localized unrest. During periods of armed escalation between North and South Korea, we advise against all nonessential travel to the vicinity of the Demilitarized Zone (DMZ) and the Yeonpyeongdo Islands.