South Korean President Moon Jae-in's Democratic Party looks set for a win in Wednesday's parliamentary elections. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

South Koreans will vote on Wednesday in a National Assembly election that also serves as a referendum on President Moon Jae-in’s leadership. 

Given that the Covid-19 crisis is the overwhelming issue of the day, the outcome of the only National Assembly election during Moon’s term-limited five-year presidency will likely hinge on how his government responded.

As in all countries, domestic concerns will influence voters the most and his government’s virus control response will likely benefit Moon’s Democratic Party at the polls.

While Covid-19 initially dampened public approval of the president, the government’s efficient response and ability to implement rapid testing has led to a flattened curve. A negative factor, slowing economic growth corresponding to the outbreak, is by no means unique to South Korea and is not yet fully apparent.

Moon has proposed a government-led economic stimulus and is seeking further stimuli to address the economic slowdown. His overall virus response will likely be enough to bring his party electoral victory this week.

In the South Korean political system, presidents serve one five-year term and National Assembly elections happen every four years. These elections do no synchronize. President Moon was elected in 2017 and will serve until the next presidential election in 2022.

The parliament that is elected on Wednesday will sit for four years until 2024. 

Historical analysis 

In the period of full Korean democracy which came into being in 1987, legislative elections have occurred at broadly different points in presidential terms.

Two prior presidents, Roh Tae-woo and Lee Myung-bak, faced a legislative election two months into office and a second in the fourth year of their terms. In both cases, their parties found success in the first election and lost seats in the second.

Roh Moo-Hyun faced the only legislative election of his presidency 14 months into his term while he was under impeachment. Despite this, political realignment favored Roh, whose party won a majority in the National Assembly.

Wednesday’s National Assembly election is taking place as Moon approaches the end of his third year in office. By way of comparison, other South Korean presidents who faced the only legislative election of their term after two or three years in office can be examined.

In these specific cases, insightful trends regarding presidential approval numbers, legislative election results and their impacts on the presidential elections that follow National Assembly elections can be examined.

In Kim Young-sam’s third year as president, the 1996 legislative election took place. His pre-election approval rating stood at 32% and his disapproval rating at 39%. His conservative party lost 10 seats that year and his conservatives subsequently lost the 1997 presidential election. 

His successor, Kim Dae-jung, had been president for two years when a legislative election took place in 2000. His approval rating was 50% and disapproval rating 24% before the election. His party won 36 seats that year and a liberal candidate won the 2002 presidential election.

In Park Geun-hye’s third year as president, the 2016 legislative election took place. Her approval rating in March 2016 stood at 36% and her disapproval rating was 52%. Her party lost 24 seats that year and – following her extraordinary impeachment – lost the presidential election of 2017, which ushered in Moon’s term of office. 

Predictive metrics

What does all this mean for the incumbent? In his third year in office, Moon’s approval rating last month was 55% and his disapproval rating was 39%.

All this suggests Moon appears to be on the right side of history regarding trends of presidential approval before a legislative election.

The outcome of this National Assembly election could portend the results of the 2022 presidential race. The current state of the conservative opposition is not bright despite the formation of the United Future Party, which aims to unify a conservative coalition for the legislative election.

Historical trends show a diminished likelihood they will be successful in the short-term. 

North Korea

A victory in this election by Moon’s Democratic Party would provide him with a boost to pursue his foreign policy objectives more openly. An advocate of rapprochement with North Korea, his efforts to pursue further dialogue and engagement have stalled

Arguably since the first Trump-Kim meeting, Pyongyang has viewed Seoul as a secondary actor in negotiations. While it is undeniable that Moon played a key role in brokering that first summit, Pyongyang has since shown a preference for bypassing Seoul. 

The American presidential election in November will play a critical role in what unfolds for the remainder of Moon’s tenure, and the outcome will undoubtedly be watched with interest on both sides of the 38th parallel. 

Counter-intuitively, re-election for Donald Trump – the first US president ever to engage openly with Pyongyang – might not be to Moon’s benefit as Pyongyang has shown itself willing to cut out meetings with Seoul if it can directly meet with Washington.

A change of administrations in the US might grant Moon more leverage, especially considering that likely US policy would revert back to no direct negotiations. In that case, the intermediary role he played before the first summit would become more necessary.

A push for more dialogue and cooperation with Pyongyang in his final two years as president could then transpire, but the success of that approach would also depend on forces beyond Seoul’s control.  

Japan

Relations between South Korea and Japan have been less than ideal under Moon. 

This is likely to continue in the short-term future given that neither side has a large incentive to change course. Much recent friction has come from the re-opening of old wounds which led to a trade dispute.

Despite a 1965 Seoul-Tokyo agreement and reparations paid by Japan, a 2018 ruling by the Korean Supreme Court found that Japanese companies have an obligation to pay repartitions to Koreans forced to work as laborers during Japanese colonial rule of Korea. 

In 2019, limited Japanese export restrictions were imposed on South Korea and Seoul was removed from a list of favored trading partners. In response, Japan was excluded from South Korea’s “white list” of favored export destinations. 

The Moon administration also threatened to end the General Security of Military Intelligence Agreement (GSOMIA) – an agreement under which Seoul and Tokyo, under US aegis, shared information – but backed down at the last minute.

Both sides remain economically intertwined in spite of these scuffles and GSOMIA remains in effect. While some continued cooperation will certainly continue, relations remain uneasy.

Little is likely to change if Moon’s Democratic Party wins the legislative election. However, given the economic struggle faced by both nations due to the novel coronavirus, it may be in the best long-term interests of both to seek improved economic relations. 

United States

Relations between Seoul and Washington will be another area influenced by these election results. 

The alliance is now facing an unprecedented situation. Negotiations on the Special Measures Agreement – that is, the cost-sharing burden for the 28,500-strong US Forces Korea – have gone nowhere. As a result, Korean workers for US forces were put on indefinite furlough at the start of this month. These furloughs suggest a grim outlook. 

Despite opacity by both sides, it was widely reported that Washington has asked for a 400% increase in annual expenses, while Seoul was holding out for a 10% increase. 

The recent downgrade in projected economic growth in 2020 could bolster Seoul’s case that it can only increase contributions so much, given the current circumstances. 

Tom Eck, a PhD candidate at Texas A&M University, holds a master’s degree in public administration and a graduate certificate in international affairs – both from Texas A&M. He has lived in both China and South Korea and has been published widely on Korean peninsula issues.

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