Q&A: South Korea’s National Assembly Elections

While global headlines are dominated by the coronavirus, South Korea is pushing ahead with legislative elections on April 15, with millions of South Koreans heading to the polls. We seek to answer some of the key questions regarding the election.

What elections are taking place on April 15?

South Koreans go to the polls on April 15 to elect members to the country’s parliament, the National Assembly, known as the Kuk Hoe. The last legislative elections took place in 2016. The term of the National Assembly is four years with the election determining the parliamentary make-up until 2024. The elections will not decide a new president, however, as presidential elections are not scheduled until March 2022.

The National Assembly is a unicameral chamber and mainly serves to scrutinize and debate bills by the executive, although members can also introduce bills. It also has powers under the constitution to ratify treaties and deliberate and decide on the annual budget bill. Different standing committees composed of National Assembly members serve as a check on respective government ministries.

There are 12 political parties, as well as independent non-party members, represented in the current National Assembly. The ruling Democratic Party of Korea – President Moon Jae-in’s party – has 120 seats, or just over 41 percent of the total. The main opposition, the United Future Party, reconstituted from the former ruling conservative Liberty Korea Party, has 92 seats.

Voters will submit two ballots on April 15 – one for a candidate running in a single-member district, and one for a party at a national level. 253 seats out of 300 are decided on a simple majority or first past the post. The remaining 47 seats are distributed by proportional representation depending on the percentage of total votes cast for a party. Changes in the counting system and a lowering of the legal voting age from 19 to 18, adopted in an electoral reform bill in December 2019, are expected to increase the representation of smaller parties.

A total of 41 parties have registered to participate in the election compared to 27 in 2016. Controversially, however, both the ruling and main opposition party have also formed “satellite” parties to contest seats determined by proportional representation.

What is at stake in the election?

The current constellation in the National Assembly means that no party has an outright majority. This means that the ruling Democratic Party currently needs the support of minor parties to pass government initiatives.

Coming over half-way through President Moon’s presidential term means that losing the election would see Moon enter a period of a so-called “lame duck” presidency in which his administration would be potentially more vulnerable to investigations, motions of impeachment, and other attacks on policy.

Winning the election, or preserving the Democratic Party’s current majority, would prove an important endorsement for completing the Moon government’s policy reform agenda focused on institutional reform, in particular curbing the powers of the prosecution, tackling socio-economic inequality, and improving inter-Korean relations.

Furthermore, the election is an important litmus test for the conservative opposition, which has tried to rebuild since it collapsed and fragmented in the wake of its former leader and president Park Geun-hye’s impeachment and arrest in 2016-17. If it succeeds in increasing its number of seats, this will be seen as strengthening the chances of a return of a conservative president in 2022. 

Despite economic challenges and stalled momentum in improving inter-Korean relations, opinion poll ratings in recent weeks have given the Democratic Party a lead of between 11-18 percent over the United Future Party.

How has COVID-19 impacted the staging of the election?

The National Elections Commission (NEC) has implemented strict health regulations for the elections. All voters are required to wear masks, they will have their body temperatures checked, stand at least one meter away from each other, and will be required to wash their hands with sanitizer and wear sanitary gloves before being able to enter the polling stations.  

In spite of this, there are question marks over public safety with a potential for new infections at a time when South Korea has largely managed to significantly reduce the outbreak of new cases.

Voters diagnosed with coronavirus will be able to vote by mail or absentee ballot from their place of quarantine.

The turnout is likely to be affected by older people in particular staying at home for fear of infection. This could benefit more progressive parties including the ruling Democratic Party which draw on support from younger generations.

The COVID-19 outbreak has caused South Korean diplomatic missions in 51 countries to suspend the overseas voting process. This has resulted in only around half of all registered voters overseas, an estimated 86,000, being able to participate.

Campaigning in South Korea has been affected by social distancing regulations, with parties and candidates relying more on social media to spread their message to reach voters.

What are some of the main issues in this election?

Campaigning for the election kicked off on April 02 and, unsurprisingly, has been dominated by the coronavirus.

The Democratic Party is conveying that the government has successfully contained the outbreak. President Moon has enjoyed increased approval ratings for his government’s response and South Korea has also been widely praised internationally.  

The United Future Party, on the other hand, has stressed that the government needs to be “judged” for its failure at stemming the pandemic at an earlier stage, including stopping arrivals from China, and for not protecting small businesses.  

Both parties have sought to woo voters by pledging to mitigate the economic fallout from the pandemic. In a popular move, the Democratic Party has pledged to provide 1 million won (around 410 USD) to households in the bottom 70 percent income bracket. The United Future Party has proposed giving each citizen 500,000 won in stimulus checks.

While overshadowed (and now exacerbated) by the coronavirus, the Moon government will also be judged on its economic track record over the past three years. Economic growth has been sluggish while there is frustration among some of the electorate at the slow pace of government efforts to tackle unemployment and social inequality. To a lesser extent, foreign policy issues including tensions with Japan and the United States will also figure.

In particular, the conservative opposition has been very critical of the Moon government’s engagement policy towards North Korea. It has criticized the government for not doing more to raise human rights issues, it has called for a more hard-line stance against the North’s lack of denuclearization measures and continued missile testing, as well as sought the abolishment of the September 19 inter-Korean military agreement, which has not been ratified by the National Assembly.  

South Korea’s biggest internet portal Naver has suspended its trending topics feature in order to avoid the spread of fake news and manipulation in the upcoming election. There have been previous cases in South Korean politics where the portal was used to promote politicians for their political gain.   

Why have North Koreans in South Korea formed their own political party? What do they hope to achieve? 

North Koreans are often considered outsiders in South Korean society and face discrimination. There are over 30,000 North Koreans living in South Korea. This has led to some North Koreans creating their own political party, the North-South Unification Party, to address issues pertaining them. The Party’s main stated goal is to liberate the people of their homeland and to promote the rights of North Koreans living in the South.   

Recent incidents which have mobilized the North Korean community in South Korea and increased focus on their plight were the apparent starvation of a North Korean mother and her son in Seoul last year as well as the controversial repatriation of two fisherman back to the North.  

Notably, the former diplomat and high-profile North Korean defector Thae Yong Ho is running for the opposition United Future Party in the election. Charging the government with not doing enough, a key campaign pledge is to push for a law to grant more protection for North Koreans seeking asylum in the South. 

What about gender issues and women’s representation in this election? 

There are only 51 women parliamentarians in the National Assembly. As such, South Korea’s gender ratio of 17 percent compares unfavourably with the OECD average of 30 percent. By comparison, Japan’s lower house only has 10.2 percent women lawmakers.  

South Korea has sought to improve representation by imposing female candidate quotas. This means that parties must include a 50 percent quota of women on candidate lists in seats decided by proportional representation and 30 percent in single-member districts. However, the implementation of these quotas has been criticized. 

Notably, South Korea’s first feminist party called the Women’s Party was established on March 08 this year. It is campaigning for seats in the National Assembly on a platform of equal pay and strengthening laws against voyeurism of women in the wake of various sex abuse scandals.