South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol. Photo: AFP

With South Korea’s March election approaching, polls show leading presidential candidates Yoon Seok-yeol of the People’s Power Party (PPP) and Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party (DP) neck-and-neck. However, what opinion polls fail to captivate is the uncharacteristic political apathy pervading Korea.

Polinews took a novel approach and instead asked voters in their 20s and 30s who should not be the next president; 48.8% selected Yoon while 36.2% said Lee.

Blame personality politics. There lies at least some of the culpability as Korea’s political parties no longer embody a belief in ideas. Rather, they embody a belief in people who believe in ideas.

Personality politics became a force in South Korea when Kim Dae-jung assumed the presidency in 1998.

Kim played a prominent role in Korea’s democratic revolution in the 1980s and used this as source of legitimacy for his political career, transforming social movement into government policy.

Hailing from the same bloc, Roh Moo-hyun succeeded Kim as president from 2003-08. While also a former activist, much of Roh’s allure stemmed from his image as a man of the people due to his underprivileged background. In terms of actual policy, however, Roh did little to differentiate himself from his predecessor.

Korea’s early personality politics maintain their influence. The phrase chinno (pro-Roh) describes left-leaning politics and invokes Roh’s name recognition. The fact that chinkim (pro-Kim) is not the idiom despite Roh’s policies being largely a continuation of Kim’s speaks to the potency of Korea’s personality politics. It wasn’t Roh’s 2009 suicide, as the phrase had somewhat fallen out of use since that shocking event.

Contrasting chinno is chinbak (pro-Park). Utilized by former president Park Geun-hye, chinbak draws on the right’s nostalgia for times past and her father Park Chung-hee, the dictator who brought explosive economic growth while brutally suppressing civil liberties in the 1960s and ’70s.

Korea’s personality politics have ensured that this election fixates on candidates’ personal lives at the expense of their policies. From Yoon’s relationship with figures of heterodox shamanism to Lee’s use of profanity, criticism has been relentless.

Further scrutiny revealed many of the candidates’ ideals to be a facade. Yoon’s manifesto of fairness and justice was undermined when his wife was found to have falsified information on her résumé (crimes similar to those Yoon had once prosecuted).

Lee’s alignment with chinno makes sense given the long-standing friction between Korea’s underprivileged and gapjil (an arrogant or authoritarian bourgeois who holds a position of power over others). Thus Lee’s chinno credentials were seriously challenged after his wife was accused of abuse of power during her husband’s days as governor of Gyeonggi province.

This is to say nothing of the allegations that have also been brought against numerous other family members and acquaintances of the candidates.

Many voters see candidates as politicizing non-issues such as NFTs (non-fungible tokens), gaming, and even male pattern baldness while neglecting such critical areas as the environment. Even when addressing contentious issues such as gender equality, candidates have failed to frame their stances coherently.

Historically, neither progressive nor conservative parties have claimed women as their base nor incorporated gender issues into their platforms.

In an effort to woo young male voters feeling disfranchised by the supposed rise of radical Korean feminism, Yoon promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family (MGEF) on the grounds that it failed to perform its function.

Prior to this, Yoon had sought to distance himself from the PPP’s more misogynistic views by folding feminists, including Shin Ji-ye, into his campaign. Shin, a liberal politician who once compared the chairman of the PPP to Adolf Hitler and tweeted that “the PPP cannot be an alternative for feminists” lasted a mere 14 days  before resigning.

While not outright criticizing it, Lee pledged to reorganize the embattled MGEF and introduce measures to narrow the gender wage gap. Yet the DP began hemorrhaging female supporters when a series of high-ranking party members were implicated in sexual-harassment allegations that the party’s leader declined to investigate.

Lee’s inability to frame gender issues is also what drove him to cancel an interview with two news outlets after male supporters labeled them as “too feminist” while subsequently joining a known feminist podcast to blame the gender divide on the older generation.

As long as politicians fail to frame or address relevant issues coherently, Korean voter apathy will remain. Still, the issue of personality politics is unlikely to disappear any time soon. Korea’s next political superstar will be whoever finds the sweet spot between personality politics and issue-framing not only to capture the presidency but also to achieve political realignment.

Daniel Mitchum

Daniel Mitchum is the James Kelly Korea Fellow with the Pacific Forum.