Women's Party candidate Lee Ji-won (left) greets people in Seoul during a campaign for South Korea's parliamentary election. Photo: AFP

After Park Geun-hye, the conservative president of South Korea, was impeached at the end of 2016, public opinion started to polarize. After the impeachment, the left-leaning politician Moon Jae-in won the 2017 presidential election.

But some radicalized right-wingers persistently claimed Park’s innocence, organizing demonstrations to oust Moon. And conservative parties denounced Moon’s regime, claiming that citizens were frustrated by the government’s incompetence in stabilizing the economy. However, the right wing was humiliated in this week’s general election, which the incumbent Democratic Party won by a landslide.

In this election, many focused on the competition between two major parties: the ruling Democratic Party and the opposition United Future Party. The governing party and its affiliates took 180 seats, three-fifths of all the seats in the National Assembly. Meanwhile, the UFP and its affiliate won just 103 seats. And several right-wing political veterans unexpectedly suffered crushing defeats.

Of the many voting districts across Korea, Jongno district in Seoul particularly drew voters’ attention. There, two former prime ministers – Lee Nak-yeon of the Democratic Party and Hwang Kyo-ahn, the leader of the United Future Party – ran for election. For both parties, the district was important, as some have predicted that Lee and Hwang are likely to run for the next presidential election. But in Wednesday’s parliamentary election, Hwang lost to his left-leaning rival.

Like Hwang, Na Kyung-won, the former floor leader of the United Future Party, faced the same fate. Na, a four-term lawmaker, was defeated by Lee Su-jin, who was running for the first time. The conservatives might have been shocked by the result of Wednesday’s general election, but in reality, some diplomatic and social issues led voters to turn their backs on the right-wing party.

First, the trade war between South Korea and Japan brought criticism against the main opposition party. The issue of forced labor in the 1940s caused the trade dispute. The Korean government called for the Japanese government to apologize for its past misdeeds, compensating survivors of forced labor. However, Japan refused to do so, removing South Korea from its trade whitelist.

Seoul saw Tokyo’s reaction as a retaliative measure on the conflict over the forced-labor issue, strengthening the export of some products to Japan. The Japanese government, however, just denounced Korea’s response, showing no sign of apologizing for its historical wrongdoing.

But some right-wing political figures condemned the government. They said the government was wrong to trigger a trade war with Japan that risked isolating the Korean economy. Seoul, they added, had to pander to Tokyo for the sake of the economy. Such remarks frustrated many Koreans who were incensed by Japan’s attitude on the forced-labor issue, and they support the government’s measures in the trade spat.

Besides the trade war, the controversy over the appointment of the justice minister also affected this election. The government nominated Cho Kuk as the justice minister to overhaul the prosecution system, as some prosecutors had been involved in bribery scandals.

Right-wing lawmakers, however, fiercely opposed Cho’s nomination. They cited alleged corruption involving some of his family members. But they turned a blind eye to the tarnished prosecutors and similar allegations that Na Kyung-won faced.

During the election campaign, the UFP vowed to fight against the tarnished Moon government. But many voters showed their distrust in the right-wing party. Its double standard on the scandals surrounding Cho on the one had and Na on the other was partly to blame.

Recent controversial remarks by the UFP probably also affected the election. The party politicized the Covid-19 crisis. It slammed the Moon administration for failing to prevent the outbreak, pointing to the rapid growth of the pandemic in February. The party also claimed that the government didn’t impose an entry ban on Chinese because Beijing is one of Seoul’s biggest trade partners. But most Koreans say that the government is dealing with the epidemic well, making coronavirus tests highly accessible.

Controversial remarks about so-called “Nth Room case,” a sex-crime scandal that shocked Korea, provoked citizens’ anger at the UFP. During his election campaign, Hwang Kyo-ahn asserted that punishment for those who entered the Nth Room simply out of curiosity should be reduced. Citizens were outraged. Some denounced Hwang for playing down the seriousness of sex crimes, adding that no one commits them out of curiosity.

During the election campaign, the party also tried to win votes by taking advantage of a rumor that some politicians in the Democratic Party were involved in such crimes.

The negative political strategies of the United Future Party led to its downfall in this week’s general election. Politicians’ remarks indicate their views on social issues, showing whether they are genuinely willing to work for the public. But the behavior of right-wing politicians proved that they are only interested in demonizing the incumbent government.

Moreover, some of their comments on social issues suggested that the United Future Party doesn’t empathize with public opinion. That’s why this right-wing party faced great humiliation at the polls on Wednesday.