As South Korean Political Parties Get More Similar, the Campaigning Gets More Personal

By Jennie Oh

By Jennie Oh

Staff Writer


Magazines featuring DPK presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung (left) and PPP presidential candidate Yoon Seok-youl (right)

Last year, the ruling liberal Democratic Party (DPK) launched a series of highly personal attacks against the presidential candidate of the conservative People Power Party (PPP), Yoon Seok-youl, accusing him, amongst other things, of being acquainted with an anal acupuncture specialist. It also slut-shamed his wife of 10 years, Kim Keon-hee, accusing her of formerly living a life of promiscuity, of working as a high-class bar hostess under the alias “Julie” and living with a married man. She was also alleged to have met Yoon on a job.


Yoon’s party struck back against the DPK candidate Lee Jae-myung, branding him a liar and a thug who hurls profanities at his sister-in-law, and accusing him and his wife of corruption and misconduct.


Why has this campaign season become so ugly and so personal, such that it’s been dubbed “the most unsavory election in Korean history”?

This has been dubbed “the most unsavory election in Korean history.”

Probably the main reason for this is that this year there are so few significant policy differences between the two major parties. The center-left DPK has traditionally emphasized big government, labor rights, and redistribution, while the center-right PPP has tended to support free trade and pro-business policies.


“This year, South Koreans’ biggest concerns are the sky-rocketing property prices, inflation, and recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic, and there aren’t really any different approaches you can take when it comes to these issues,” said Lim Eun-jung, Associate Professor of International Studies at Kongju National University. “Both parties have pledged to increase housing supply, boost jobs, and strengthen supply chains of critical goods. So there wasn’t really much to clash over.”


The rise of voters in their 20s and 30s, who now make up 30% of the South Korean electorate, as a crucial voting bloc (their turnout rate rising by roughly 40% between the 2007 and 2017 elections), has also changed the game. These young voters tend to be more independent than their elders, and more likely to swing their support from one party to the other, prompting the two main parties to offer similarly populist policies to attract their votes. The two parties have accordingly rolled-out almost identical “2030 pledges” that include things like providing over 300,000 homes for young people, and delaying taxes on crypto transactions for a year.


Even on North Korea, where the dovish DPK typically tries to placate the Kim regime and the more hawkish PPP regards it more skeptically, there are noticeably fewer differences this election. The DPK’s platform retained the current Moon administration’s goals of pursuing a peace declaration between the two Koreas, and the gradual easing of sanctions on the North. However, Lee has distanced himself from President Moon Jae-in’s engagement policy, which the Korean public has grown increasingly impatient with since it has resulted in little tangible improvement in Kim Jong-un’s behavior. Taking a critical tone on the North’s recent missile tests, Lee endorsed the Biden administration’s “calibrated and practical” approach to the North and called for a “mixture of deterrence, diplomacy, and dialogue” to “win the war.” Meanwhile, Yoon presented the PPP’s usual denuclearization-first approach, calling for stronger missile defense against the North, but left the door open for economic engagement and said he was willing to talk to Kim Jong-un.

Yoon Seok-youl on the campaign trail (Picture Credit: People Power Party)

“Lee’s position is not so different from an orthodox conservative position,” said Mason Richey, Associate Professor of International Politics at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies. “They’re pretty clear about denuclearization, and they talk about a phased process rather than a big deal. Except for the end-of-war treaty, you could switch the two candidates’ names on their North Korea policy pieces, and not be able to tell the difference.”


Since the presidential candidates’ policy platforms have become so similar, they’re focusing on their personal lives to differentiate themselves.


But why has this become so negative? Why are the candidates focusing on blackening each other’s names rather than touting their own?


This is likely because both candidates are so disliked by the public. A survey conducted by Research View, a Korean polling center, last week found that 45% of respondents said they would never vote for Lee, whilst another 45% said the same of Yoon. “As the candidates are both deeply unpopular, it is easier for them to try and make the other side more hated than improve their own image at this point,” said Kim Byoung-joo, Professor of International Studies at Hankuk University of Foreign Studies.

“As the candidates are both deeply unpopular, it is easier for them to try and make the other side more hated than improve their own image at this point.”

And, in Korea, when personal lives are put in the spotlight, the entire family inevitably gets dragged in too. “It may derive from South Korea’s Confucian culture, but Koreans really feel that you can learn something about someone’s character based on their family history and background,” said Lee Hee-eun, Associate Dean and Professor of Law at Handong International Law School. “This would reflect what they will do, how trustworthy they are, or what kind of things they will pursue.”


To be fair, Lee and his family members are controversial enough that they’d likely attract scrutiny no matter the circumstances. A working-class laborer-turned lawyer, Lee Jae-myung also served as the mayor of the affluent Seongnam City (located southeast of Seoul) twice, and served as the governor of Gyeonggi-do Province before quitting last year to run for president. Over the course of the campaign, however, Lee’s popularity has slumped following his often inconsistent comments on various issues, his well-publicized attempt to get his brother locked up in a mental institution amid a feud, his verbal abuse of family members revealed through leaked phone calls, and his legal defense of his nephew’s murders in court. More recent allegations involve corruption and embezzlement. During his time as mayor of Seongnam City the bidding process for a highly lucrative land development project is suspected to have been rigged in favor of a small asset management company by senior municipal officials known to be close affiliates of Lee. The scandal took a sinister turn when two of the former officials under investigation committed suicide last December. The PPP and the media have accused prosecutors of dragging out the investigation and refusing to probe Lee himself. Another suicide case spooked the public in January, when a key whistleblower on Lee’s alleged misconduct reportedly took his own life. Although police have quickly closed investigations into the deaths, media and opposition lawmakers have noted how the whistleblower hadn’t left a will and had posted on social media a month earlier that he had no intention of taking his own life. Kim Moon-ki, one of the Seongnam officials who committed suicide in December, also hadn’t left a will, which, according to his family, would be very unlike him. A civil society group has called on prosecutors to open an investigation.

Lee Jae-myung on the campaign trail in Sejong City (Picture Credit: Democratic Party of Korea)

As if Lee didn’t have enough scandals of his own, recent reports of his wife’s abuse of power and misappropriation of taxpayer’s money have done him further damage. His wife, Kim Hae-kyung, has been accused of maintaining an anonymous Twitter account that has posted 40,000 tweets targeting Lee’s political rivals and spreading false information. More damning have been reports that when Lee was governor, she sent civil servants on personal errands, making them deliver sushi to her home and fold her underwear and socks at her home. A recording released by Channel A shows her scolding them for not showing her enough respect as the “higher person.” Records also suggest that Kim also used the governor’s corporate card for personal expenses, including meals and expensive groceries.

Kim Hye-kyung (Picture Credit: Democratic Party of Korea)

While there’s little dirt on Yoon Seok-youl himself (he seems to be disliked largely because of his social awkwardness, insensitive remarks about feminism and race, and perceived elitism), there’s plenty on his wife, Kim Keon-hee. Denying that she used to work at hostess bars, she told a journalist (seriously) that she preferred to spend her time consulting shamans instead, raising the specter of former President Park Geun-hye, whose own close association with a shaman led to a corruption scandal that ousted her from power. Her indiscreet remarks about how she would jail journalists who criticize her husband and how Me Too scandals erupt when politicians don’t pay their victims generously have provoked public outrage. She has also been accused of falsifying her credentials in her application for jobs at local universities and benefiting from stock market manipulation. Both these allegations are under police investigation. Her mother also faces fraud charges for faking a key document for her business.

Kim Keon-hee (Picture Credit: People Power Party)

In a way, the outsider status of these candidates has contributed to these controversies. “Previous presidents had been career politicians or had long been part of the establishment so they were already quite well-known and exposed to the public,” said Lim. “But this year’s candidates and their wives weren’t used to living the sort of [discrete] lives politicians usually lead, nor [were they] polished in how they conduct themselves, so they made many blunders that have become easy targets for the opposite camp.”


With barely a week to go before Election Day, the mudslinging shows no signs of abating. Recent televised debates, which began with candidates quizzing each other on key issues, soon devolved into a barrage of personal attacks and jabs at each other’s wives. Polling begins on March 9th. I, for one, will be glad when it’s all over.

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