Breaking Down the Election: Who to Watch

After months of protests and demonstrations, the movement to impeach Park Geun-hye has finally been upheld by the Korean courts, and the president removed from office. The result of these political upheavals is the designation of a special election to be held May 9. Government offices and businesses across the country will be closed so as not to interfere with the vote. For international residents, this will be a much appreciated break from the weekly grind, but for Koreans, it means so much more.

On April 17, the campaign season officially began, and the political parties of Korea threw themselves into the spirit of things with a fervor. Posters and banners have been strung everywhere; gangs of dancers and bowing ajummas stand at street corners and regale passersby with showy displays and loudspeaker announcements. With the campaign season only three weeks long, this is a brief, but powerful, time to draw in voters. But with 15 different candidates running in this election, who the nominees are and which are the most important can be confusing.

For the uninformed foreigner, all of the numbers and color-coding are seemingly to help identify different parties, but the numbers (at least) have a greater significance than simply branding a candidate. For numbers one through six, the numbers were assigned based on the parties’ seat distribution in the National Assembly. Therefore, party one, the Minju Party of Korea, holds the most seats in the Assembly. For the other nine candidates, their parties hold no seats, and therefore their numbers are randomly assigned by lottery. Since the first five hold nearly all of the seats of the National Assembly amongst them, they are considered the most viable options in winning the presidential post.

1. The Minju Party of Korea (더불어민주당): Moon Jae-in
The party currently holding the highest portion of seats in the National Assembly is 더불어민주당, the Minju Party of Korea, a social liberal party. Their candidate, Moon Jae-in, is the current front-runner in the opinion polls, and is widely favored to win the election.

Before he got into politics, Moon was a civil rights lawyer. He has held a seat in the National Assembly, and is a former chairman of the Minjoo Party. In 2012, Moon ran for the presidency under the Democratic United Party, but at that time, lost to Park Geun-hye. The image he attempts to portray is as a leader who has the support of young people and who takes moderate and rational stances.

As a part of his more liberal agenda, he plans to repeal national security laws, work towards more fruitful dialogue with North Korea, and have more transparency in government. He is taking criticism on his stance on the THAAD defense system (a hot topic in this election), saying that denuclearization talks should be pursued with the North first, and the question of the deployment of THAAD left to the next administration. However, despite his liberal views and former occupation as a civil rights lawyer, in a recent televised debate, he claimed to not support homosexuality, sparking outrage from gay-rights activists.

2. Liberty Korea Party (자유한국당): Hong Joon-pyo
The Liberty Korea Party is a center-right party that was formerly known as the Saenuri Party (Park Geun-hye’s party.) It used to hold the most seats in the National Assembly, but after the recent presidential scandal, a separate conservative group that condemned Park splintered off to form the Bareun Party, thereby reducing the Liberty Korea Party’s seat ratio. Hong Joon-pyo is their nominee for this election.

Hong Joon-pyo, a former state prosecutor, who inspired a popular television drama with his legal battling of crime organizations and ending of a notoriously powerful gambling ring, has been involved in politics for over 20 years. He has held a seat in the National Assembly and been chairman, floor leader, supreme council member, and provincial chief for his party. He maintains a strong right-wing platform and is favored by an older, conservative voter base.

Unlike Moon, Hong has said that it’s too late to have denuclearization talks with North Korea, and so wants the THAAD defense system installed in multiple locations around Korea for use in defensive counter-measures against the North. This is a distinctly tougher stance on national security than what Moon proposes.

3. People’s Party (국민의당): Ahn Cheol-soo
The People’s Party is a centrist party established by Ahn in 2016. The party is positioned to be rather anti-establishment and at the center, so that it attracts support from both wings of the political spectrum.

Ahn is a dynamic character who ran for the presidency in the 2012 election but bowed out to give his support (and the votes he would have garnered) to Moon Jae-in, who was up against the now ex-president Park Geun-hye. Before engaging in his political career, Ahn had been a medical doctor, a professor, and a software engineer. He is the founder of Ahnlab, Inc., a computer security company, that has been included in Korea Management Association Consulting’s annual list of Korea’s most admired companies. In 2013, he earned his first political position by winning a seat in the National Assembly.

Although the People’s Party is positioned as centrist party, in order to attract the support of conservative voters, Ahn has been leaning more right-wing when it comes to his positon on Korea’s relationship with the U.S. (urging for a stronger, closer relationship), and on security issues with North Korea. Previously, Ahn had been anti-THAAD, but in recent months, has changed his stance. Ahn anticipates a drastic restructuring of Korean politics if the People’s Party becomes the ruling party. He claims that if he is elected, he wants a unified cabinet of members from various political parties, saying, “This is not the time to distinguish between progressives and conservatives.”

4. Bareun Party (바른정당): Yoo Seung-min
This center-right political party is a splinter group from the Liberty Korea Party, formed by 29 Saenuri politicians who wanted to distance themselves from ex-President Park and her party (what is now the Liberty Korea Party.) The split was instigated by pro-Park factions in the National Assembly pressuring members to vote against her impeachment, which caused tension with anti-Park members. Yoo Seung-min is this party’s nominee for the presidential election.

Before entering politics, Yoo worked as an economist for the Korea Development Institute for nearly 15 years. In 2004, he joined the political game by gaining a seat in the National Assembly as a member of the Hannara Party, which would later become the Saenuri Party. Originally very close with ex-President Park, when he served as her chief of staff when she was a regular lawmaker, over the years he grew distant from her as he became critical of her policies. His anti-Park sentiments crystalized after the scandal, and he helped to form the Bareun Party in 2016.

Like Ahn and Hong, Yoo also supports the deployment of the THAAD missile system to ensure national security. His party also supports what they call “clean and warm conservatism,” which would involve more governmental disclosure, more generous welfare offerings, and economic reform.

5. Justice Party (정의당): Sim Sang-jung
The Justice Party is a progressive political party whose presidential nominee is Sim Sang-jung, the only woman running in this election.

Sim is a member of the National Assembly as well as the leader of the Justice Party. In the past, she was a strong labor rights activist, who as a young woman worked to help form labor unions and instigate strikes. At that time, she become so notorious that she was on Korea’s most-wanted list. She is a well-known leader in left-wing Korean politics and has variously been a leader and/or founder of the Democratic Labor Party, the New Progressive Party, and the Unified Progressive Party.

She maintains the most progressive stances of the top five presidential candidates. She promotes a ban on hereditary succession in chaebol (major family-run conglomerates), and wants to find ways of addressing rising wealth inequality. Her position on the deployment of THAAD is quite clear, unlike Moon, the other liberal candidate. She strongly advocates for a nuke-free peninsula and does not want to see THAAD installed. Her social stances also reflect her progressive views for she is the only major candidate to support LGBTQ rights.

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