South Korea’s General Election: Implications for Foreign and Security Policy
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South Korea’s General Election
Implications for Foreign and Security Policy

by Ahn Ho-young
April 20, 2024

Ambassador Ahn Ho-young discusses the impact of South Korea’s parliamentary election. He assesses the prospects for persistent legislative gridlock and considers the implications for the government’s foreign and security policy agenda under President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The outcome of the parliamentary election held in South Korea on April 10 is perceived as a major setback for the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and President Yoon Suk Yeol. The PPP garnered only 108 out of 300 seats (90 seats in the parliamentary districts and 18 proportional seats through its satellite party). The Democratic Party (DP), the major opposition party, obtained 175 seats (161 seats in the parliamentary districts and 14 proportional seats through its satellite party). The Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), hastily formed just before the election as an offshoot party from the DP, did not run any candidate in the districts but secured 12 proportional seats. The RKP is expected to collaborate closely with the DP.

When Yoon was inaugurated as president in May 2022, the DP held 187 seats in the National Assembly. South Korea has suffered from legislative gridlock for the past two years, which is expected to continue in the new National Assembly. However, the PPP avoided the worst-case scenario. The DP and the RKP failed to reach a supermajority of two-thirds of seats, which would have enabled the opposition parties to override President Yoon’s ability to veto bills or even threaten the government with constitutional reforms.

What impact will the parliamentary election have on South Korea’s domestic politics and foreign policy? This commentary assesses the prospects for persistent legislative gridlock and considers the implications for the Yoon government’s foreign and security policy agenda.

Continuing Gridlock in Domestic Politics

The Republic of Korea (ROK) as a nation faces many challenges ahead, including a low birth rate and aging population, obstacles to maintaining its technological edge and economic momentum, and a worsening international security and economic environment. The Yoon government tried to respond to these challenges through major reforms of the national pension system, education, and labor conditions. These efforts, however, have not made much progress, as the government has been unable to overcome the legislative gridlock. This situation will likely persist under the new National Assembly. Many observers are worried that the Yoon government will be forced to continue to veto bills unilaterally pushed through by opposition parties. This would aggravate the already strained relations with these parties and make it even more difficult to make legislative progress. There is only so much that the government can achieve without necessary legislation.

For this reason, many observers are suggesting that President Yoon will need to make renewed efforts to promote bipartisanship. This would require major changes in the PPP’s modus operandi of managing relations with the opposition parties. For their part, the opposition parties are vowing to call for special prosecutors on pending political scandals and create other challenges for the government. If they agree to bipartisan cooperation at all, they are expected to demand significant concessions in return.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and several presidential advisors, including President Yoon’s chief of staff, submitted their resignations to answer for the outcome of the parliamentary election. Their positions are expected to be filled with a new group of leaders with more experience in the National Assembly.

Staying the Course in Foreign Policy

The Yoon government has most clearly differentiated itself from the preceding Moon Jae-in government in foreign policy, where it has made important achievements. In contrast with the gridlock in domestic politics, President Yoon has been less inhibited in the exercise of foreign policy power.

In particular, President Yoon is deeply concerned by the challenges around the world to the rules-based international order, which made it possible for South Korea to develop its economy, achieve political democratization, and gain a voice in the international community. In December 2022, he introduced the ROK’s Indo-Pacific Strategy as a centerpiece of his foreign policy to make a contribution to maintaining and promoting the rules-based international order.

In this scheme, President Yoon has made concerted efforts to further strengthen relations with the United States. During his state visit to the United States on the occasion of the 70th anniversary of the alliance, the two countries issued a joint communiqué that demonstrated the wide-ranging scope and depth of their relationship. With respect to North Korean nuclear and missile threats, President Yoon and President Joe Biden announced the establishment of a new Nuclear Consultative Group to strengthen extended deterrence, discuss nuclear and strategic planning, and manage the threat that North Korea poses to the nonproliferation regime.

The Yoon government also has tried hard to improve relations with Japan, which had been badly strained during the preceding Moon government. Significantly, President Yoon visited Japan in March 2023. This marked the resumption of the summit-level exchange of visits between the two countries after a twelve-year hiatus and paved the way for the trilateral summit held with President Biden at Camp David in August 2023. The three leaders emphasized the historic nature of the summit, stating that “our countries are stronger and the world safer as we stand together.”

With respect to South Korea’s relations with the People’s Republic of China (PRC) over the past two years, Seoul has consistently declared its intention to continue to develop relations with China on the basis of the rules-based international order, mutual benefits, and mutual interests. Irrespective of this declared intention, there has been a noticeable drop in the high-level exchanges between the two countries and the volume of bilateral trade and investment. This drop in fact had started well before President Yoon assumed office and dates back to the United States’ deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) system in South Korea in 2017.

South Korea’s relations with Russia are also going through a difficult phase, especially after the Russian invasion of Ukraine. On March 28, Moscow vetoed the extension of the terms for the UN expert panel assisting the North Korean sanctions committee, which had played a key role for North Korean sanctions for the past fifteen years. This move was followed by the exchange of South Korean sanctions and Russian threats.

Some politicians and commentators in South Korea have argued that President Yoon’s one-sided efforts to improve relations with the United States and Japan led to the PRC and Russia turning their backs on the ROK, undermining its security and economic interests. Although these arguments are weak on facts and lack balance, they will likely grow even more vociferous in the wake of the parliamentary election. However, such objections are not likely to lead to significant changes in President Yoon’s foreign and security policy. He remains firmly committed to promoting the rules-based international order, and more than 80% of South Korean citizens support strong relations with the United States.[1]

Ahn Ho-young is Chair Professor at Kyungnam University and the former South Korean ambassador to the United States. He is a member of the Board of Directors at the National Bureau of Asian Research.


[1] This percentage is based on an opinion poll conducted by the East Asia Institute during August–September 2023.