The results of South Korea’s legislative elections on April 13 took many by surprise, as the ruling party was roundly defeated by two opposition parties. Not too long before the elections, many — including the ruling party itself — had predicted that the opposition parties would not be able to win half the seats in the National Assembly. At one point the ruling party was confident that they would win as many as 170 out of the 300 seats in the Assembly. Their optimism was based simply on the split of the opposition party in February. Polls ahead of election also supported their optimism.
The split resulted from factional politics and the consequence was the establishment of a new party, the People’s Party. It was assumed that the split would lead to the ruling party’s expected landslide victory. However, it instead dealt the ruling party a devastating loss. The two opposition parties combined to take the majority of the seats in the Assembly, 161, while the ruling party merely won 122. The main opposition party, the Together Democratic Party, won 123 seats while the People’s Party stormed through with 38.
The cause of the ruling party’s loss varies by perspective. One can attribute it to the ruling party’s arrogance as it took for granted that the split would benefit its cause. The other perspective argues strongly for the President’s negative role in causing the late split in the ruling party’s leadership as Park Geun-hye allegedly wanted to manipulate the nomination process to her own benefit.
President Park has long been critical of the ruling party for not being efficient in passing legislation — including the service industry bill and the labor reform bills — that she had envisioned as necessary for the success of her vision of the well-being of the nation, despite the ruling party’s comfortable majority of 152 seats in the Assembly. It was reported that the President had said in the Cabinet meeting held the day before the election that “the government has propelled the service industry bill and labor reform bills, aiming to create jobs and economic growth, yet such efforts have been blocked by the parliament.”
To secure a more cooperative parliament, it has been alleged that the President wanted to influence the nomination process so that more of her own men and women would be elected. Her influence was met with great opposition from those in the ruling party’s leadership who wanted candidates to be nominated through a bottom-up process based on internal polling. Most of those that were deemed to be members of Park’s political faction lost, while those shunned by the process and who had run independently won.
These independent candidates have applied for party membership and the ruling party has decided to approve their application out of desperation. If all who applied are approved, it will increase the ruling party’s seats to 129, overtaking the main opposition party’s 123 as the major party in the parliament, but not as a majority powerhouse. Instead, the third party will be expected to be a swing power when it comes to voting in the parliament, giving it much more flexibility and room for maneuverability between the ruling party and the major opposition party.
Under the circumstances, President Park’s government will be greatly challenged by the legislature on both domestic and foreign policy fronts for the remainder of her tenure, which will end in 2017.
Opposition Expected to Fight to Revert Bills
There are three major domestic policy issues that the opposition parties will seek to revert. One is the nationalization of South Korea’s history textbook. Another is service industry reform and the labor reform bills. The third is the national intelligence bill.
The nationalization of the history textbook was one of the most controversial projects that the government tried to advance last year. It unilaterally decided to carry out the endeavor and established a panel of writers and historians without properly consulting with parliament or soliciting public opinion. Those invited to contribute to the government’s cause were at minimum regarded to hold favorable views toward contentious issues such as the era of military rule by the president’s late father and longtime strongman Park Chung-hee. The government instead denounced opposition lawmakers and critics as impediments to its statecraft.
Two days after the election, both opposition parties issued a statement that proclaimed their first collaborative work would be to stop the nationalization of the history textbook. It is not surprising as the government’s decision was long regarded as an act of defiance for its failure to build consensus among the Korean populace. The government’s effort is perceived as a refutation of resurrected facts that were once denied by Park’s father. She wants to refute them as they are perceived to have unfairly treated her father’s past leadership and achievements. For instance, her father’s coming to power through a military coup would be described as a revolution, thereby justifying the legitimacy of his leadership with such political implications as mass support and participation.
Two days after the election, both opposition parties issued a statement that proclaimed their first collaborative work would be to stop the nationalization of the history textbook.
On the economic front, President Park pushed the parliament last year to pass a couple of bills. One is on labor reform and the other is on service industry reform. Both were advocated as being critical to the revitalization of the stagnating Korean economy. The government claims the “Basic Act on the Development of the Service Industry” will create 690,000 jobs over next 15 years. The bill is designed to provide the legal basis for financial support and deregulation in the service sector, which will lead to deregulation of service sectors at the public level including medicine and education. Opponents however argue that the deregulation will only bring greater economic burdens to the public. With respect to the labor bill, the opposition parties are determined not to pass the bill, which has been pending at the Assembly. Their argument that it will only allow “easy layoffs” and expand the number of nonguaranteed contract workers has been well received by the public. The opposition has also argued that the bill will only serve the interests of conglomerates and entrepreneurs who are only interested in maximizing their profits by minimizing costs including wages.
The last domestic issue that the two opposition parties are determined to revoke is the counterterrorism act that was passed on March 2, despite the opposition’s efforts to block it through a record-setting 192-hour filibuster. The bill was passed with success after revision, garnering 156 votes. While the ruling party’s 152 legislators voted for the act, the revised content was accepted by some opposition party and independent legislators. Since most of the opposition party members oppose the act, they are determined to revoke it to the extent to nullify the bill. The problem with the act is that while it gives authority and power to the National Intelligence Service to investigate suspected terrorists, there is no proper institution that can check possible abuses of power by the Service. The lack of institutions to serve the goal and purpose of the act will be greatly challenged by the opposition parties who will try to either amend or revoke it.
Key Foreign Policy Issues Likely to be Challenged
The newly assembled Korean parliament will likely face challenges in the following two critical foreign policy issues. One is inter-Korean relations, especially the closure of the Gaesung Industrial Complex as a result of the fourth North Korean nuclear test in February. The other is the deployment of the THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) missile system to South Korea. Since the issue became the target of public debate following the third North Korean nuclear test in 2013, the opposition parties have maintained a consistent position in questioning the military efficiency, economic costs and the security dilemma it will pose against China. For these reasons, they have opposed the deployment of THAAD to the Korean peninsula. Starting this year, the United States and South Korea have made some progress with their discussion on the subject after forming a negotiation institution earlier this year. However, it is most likely to run into opposing pressure in parliament, stalling the negotiations.
When it comes to inter-Korean relations, both opposition parties prefer engagement to containment and deterrence. Inherently proponents of the Sunshine policy that was developed by their predecessor, former president Kim Dae-jung at the turn of the millennium, they both value the importance of engagement in dissuading Pyongyang from advancing its nuclear aspirations. Hence both opposition parties are likely to seek ways to resume the suspended Gaesung Industrial Complex. They resent the shutdown of the Complex not only for its impact on inter-Korean relations, but also for the economic damage inflicted on the small and medium sized businesses of their compatriots.
The consequence of losing the legislative elections will significantly undermine President Park’s leadership. The challenge by the opposition parties on both domestic and diplomatic fronts if followed through as analyzed above will lead to the President becoming a lame duck much earlier than expected, and South Korean politics will likely be dominated by the Assembly for the remainder of her presidency.