Legislative elections are proceeding as planned in South Korea, even if candidates are doing more virtual campaigning and less handshaking. On April 15, all 300 seats of the National Assembly, including 253 single-member constituencies, will be up for grabs. President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party (Minjoo) currently holds a small plurality, with support from progressive parties and independents. The conservative coalition, including the old Liberty Korea Party and many former members of the Bareun Party, reorganized itself as the United Future Party in February. After a few years of disunity, they hope to capitalize on Moon’s declining popularity.
There is no shortage of exciting storylines, colorful characters, and hotly contested races on the ballot. What follows is a sampling of some of the most interesting and most important races, based on my own research and consultations with Korean political professionals.
Seoul Jongno: Lee Nak-yeon (Minjoo) vs Hwang Kyo-ahn (UFP): Battle of the Prime MinistersThis is the epicenter of Korean politics, Jongno district is home to the Blue House, the foreign ministry, and Gwanghwamun Square, which, before coronavirus came, was always full of righteous protesters from all sides. To be nominated as your party’s candidate in Jongno district is a reward for successful party loyalists. Winning the seat has been a ticket to the Blue House for three presidents throughout history, including Roh Moo-hyun and Lee Myung-bak in the democratic era. This year is no different.
After Chung Sye-kyun, who was a Democratic Party member and speaker of the National Assembly, resigned his seat to become prime minister, the Democrats and conservatives both picked former prime ministers to take up the fight. For the Democrats, it’s Lee Nak-yeon, who was Moon’s prime minister from the start of his presidency until January. Lee has won four Assembly elections in progressive South Jeolla province and was elected as the province’s governor in 2014.
The United Future Party went with Hwang Kyo-ahn, who was Park Geun-hye’s prime minister and interim president following Park’s impeachment. Hwang has no experience in electoral politics, having worked as a prosecutor for thirty years before being appointed as justice minister in 2013 and prime minister in 2015.
Lee is leading in the polls, and the area has trended Democratic in recent years.
Seoul Gwangjin B: Ko Min-jung (Minjoo) vs Oh Se-hoon (UFP) — High Profile Politicos Engage
History-making Democratic Party representative Choo Mi-ae retires to become the minister of justice and the Democrats want to replace her with another female politician, while the UFP puts its hopes on a former mayor of Seoul.
Choo was the first woman elected to a constituency seat in Seoul in the democratic era and held the seat from 1996–2004 then 2008–2020, only interrupted by one term of Uri Party control. So it has been held by left-leaning representatives for its entire existence. The Democrats want to keep it that way with Ko Min-jung, who was a television and radio host for KBS from 2005–17 before joining Moon Jae-in’s campaign for president as his spokesperson in 2017 and being promoted from vice spokesperson to chief Blue House spokesperson in April 2019. This is the first electoral campaign with her name on the ballot.
The UFP chose former Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon as their challenger. Oh won by a landslide, with 61 percent of the vote, in 2006 but resigned one year into his second term after his referendum to cut the free school lunch program failed. As a legislator, he represented Gangnam B district from 2000–04.
Oh leads in a Korea Information Research poll conducted in early March by a surprising ten-point margin.
Anyang City Dongan B: Shim Jae-chul (UFP) vs Lee Jae-jung (Minjoo) — Shootout in Seoul Suburbs
A combative former dissident faces a challenge from a feisty young prospect in this district in the south Seoul suburbs.
The incumbent, conservative leader, Shim Jae-chul, has represented the seat since 2000. Born in the progressive Honam (Jeolla) region, he was a democracy activist growing up. As a student at Seoul National University, he was involved in leading the protests that led to the May 18 Movement. On May 15, 1980, one hundred thousand students gathered outside Seoul Station to protest the Chun Doo-hwan regime’s coup. Although he encouraged the students to retreat at night, avoiding a massacre, the protests expanded nationwide and the massacre came in Gwangju two weeks later. Still, Shim was arrested and reportedly tortured in prison.
Later, as a journalist for MBC and a leader of the broadcaster’s labor union, he was arrested for his activities encouraging a strike in 1992, then he was arrested again for election law violations in 2001 and fined eight-hundred thousand won. He has maintained his combativeness to this day; this past summer he joined others in shaving his head to protest Moon’s failed nomination of Cho Kuk for justice minister. In December 2019, he was elected floor leader of the LKP and maintains that position in the newly formed United Future Party.
On the other side, Democrat Lee Jae-jung is a rising prospect with a sharp tongue who frequently engages in verbal brawls on the legislature floor. In 2018, she was appointed as spokesperson for the Democratic Party. Prior to her entrance into electoral politics, she was a left-wing human rights lawyer. She rose to the rank of vice secretary-general of MINBYUN—Lawyers Association for Democratic Society, the same group Presidents Roh Moo-hyun and Moon Jae-in were involved in, and she participated in the Women Cross DMZ movement. In 2016, she was put on the Democratic party list and won a proportional representation seat. This is her first try at winning a single-member district.
One theme of the Democrats’ campaign is “generational change.” According to a mid-February survey, Lee leads 41.6 percent to 36.8 percent.
Wonju A: Park Jeong-ha (UFP) vs Lee Kwang-jae (Minjoo) — Dead Heat
The conservatives hung onto the main seat in Gangwon’s most populous city by just 0.2 points in the last election. After his shaky performance, combined with allegations of election law violations, two-term incumbent Kim Ki-sun has announced he is not pursuing reelection.
In his place, the UFP has nominated long-time party official Park Jeong-ha. Park has served as an assistant to President Lee Myung-bak and Jeju Gov. Won Hee-ryong. In 2016, he planned to compete for the nomination in Wonju A district but was pressured to leave the race. Now he’ll get his chance.
He’ll have to take down a controversial big shot. Democratic nominee Lee Kwang-jae was a student activist in the 1980s, then a two-term representative and President Roh’s “right-hand man” in the 2000s and elected to governor of Gangwon province in 2010 before being taken down on corruption charges. Moon pardoned him last year.
Suseong A: Kim Boo-kyum (Minjoo) vs Joo Ho-young (UFP) — Defending Daegu
No Democrat or liberal had ever won a seat in Daegu in the history of the sixth republic until Kim Boo-kyum won Suseong A district with 62.5 percent of the vote in 2016. Suseong is a wealthy district with a high concentration of doctors, lawyers, and professionals among its population. It could be called the “Gangnam of Daegu.”
Kim is a maverick-ish politician who switched parties a number of times, including having won an assembly seat with the conservative Grand National Party (GNP), the precursor to the LKP and UFP, in 2000. He has competed in seven general election campaigns and won four of them, with four different parties. As a student in the late 1970s, he, too, got into trouble for his protests against martial law.
The United Future Party responded by mobilizing popular local politician Joo Ho-young. Joo, who has represented Suseong B district for sixteen years, is moving to compete in Suseong A. Joo served as a judge for twenty years before joining the GNP in 2004 and winning Suseong B with 66.5 percent in 2004 and held it since then, even winning as an independent in 2016 after leaving the party in protest against President Park.
Chuncheon City and Cheonwon County and Outlying Areas
This newly-formed district encompasses part of Chuncheon, the capital of Gangwon province, and a vast expanse of suburbs and rural exurbs. Park Geun-hye’s ally, Kim Jin-tae, leaves his seat in Chuncheon’s old single district to run here. One former legislative aid in the National Assembly writes, “Park’s closest people rarely received nominations in this election, but Kim survived. When Park was impeached, he was criticized severely in Chuncheon.”
Suwon has been a conservative-friendly city for most of its recent history but in 2016, the Democratic Party won both of its seats. According to a survey, Democratic incumbent Paik Hye-ryun has an advantage in trying to hold onto Suwon B, leading rival Jeong Mi-gyeong 41.2 percent to 38.4 percent. Jeong previously won control of the seat in 2014 by-elections but ran and lost in a different district in the 2016 general election and lost the election for Suwon mayor in 2018.