The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

South Korea’s pivotal presidential election marred by scandals, bickering and insults

Yoon Suk-yeol, the presidential candidate of South Korea's opposition People Power Party, is in a neck-and-neck race with the ruling Democratic Party's Lee Jae-myung. (Chung Sung-Jun/Getty Images; Lee Jin-man/AP)

TOKYO — One candidate is mired in a land development corruption scandal. Another was tied to a self-professed anal acupuncturist who claimed to heal nerve damage. And both of these leading contenders to be South Korea’s next president have come under fire for having shamans, or fortunetellers, as campaign advisers.

The drama extends to their families. One candidate’s wife threatened to put critical journalists “in prison” and disparaged sexual harassment victims, while her mother was convicted of forging a financial document. Another candidate’s wife used her husband’s aides to run her personal errands, while her son is under investigation regarding illegal gambling.

South Korea is no stranger to political scandals — after all, President Park Geun-hye was spectacularly impeached in 2017 over abuse of power and faced allegations of also involving shamans in politics — but the upcoming presidential race has reached such a new low that it has earned a moniker: the “election of the unfavorables.”

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The March 9 election is a globally and domestically consequential contest, which will shape the future of Seoul’s relations with Pyongyang, Beijing, Washington and Tokyo amid South Korea’s growing cultural and economic influence and deepening domestic chasms over income and gender inequality.

Yet the campaign has been filled with bickering of epic proportions between the two front-runners, who are polling in a dead heat. In lieu of substantive policy debates, there is vitriol and political pandering, including promises of taxpayer-funded hair loss treatments for men and an expansion of “smokers’ rights.”

“Lacking a competent solution for South Korea’s complex social problems, each candidate is busy putting the blame on his rival, telling the public that the other candidate will make your life harder,” said Park Sung-min, head of the Seoul-based political consultancy MIN Consulting.

Rather than addressing core policy issues, candidates have focused on appealing to voters with populist “quick hit” proposals like cash subsidies, Park said.

The controversies have been endless, and polls show the electorate is getting exhausted.

Among the latest is the leak of seven hours of phone conversations between a Voice of Seoul reporter and Kim Keon-hee, the wife of the conservative candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol. In an election where gender issues have become a flash point, Kim’s comments questioning the motives of #MeToo victims struck a chord.

The conservative People Power Party has attracted younger men who believe the current liberal president’s push for gender equality has hurt their economic opportunities and so they are leaning conservative as part of galvanized “anti-feminist” movements. After Kim’s comments that sexual harassment victims were just opportunists caught fire, her online fan club grew and her husband saw a bump in the polls.

Meanwhile, the liberal Democratic Party’s candidate, Lee Jae-myung, is linked to a controversial land development deal, in which a small group of private investors profited from a publicly funded project, under Lee’s watch. Two officials who were under investigation for charges related to the scandal recently died by suicide.

Lee is a former governor of Gyeonggi province, the country’s most populous, and built his persona as a troubleshooter and the first governor to offer coronavirus cash aid. Lee, who once said he aspired to be a “successful Bernie Sanders,” is known for leftist economic policies, including his universal basic income proposal.

Yoon, formerly the country’s top prosecutor, helped convict previous president Park in her impeachment trial, and has built his brand as an aggressive anti-corruption prosecutor. A political novice, Yoon has made several campaign blunders, including failing to show his fluency over key policy issues and even his own campaign pledges. Yoon’s platform includes deregulation and a more hard-line approach to North Korea.

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Yoon has denied ties to the shaman and the acupuncturist, and apologized for his wife’s comments about sexual harassment victims. Lee said he is open to an independent investigation into the development deal.

Two other candidates are polling at single digits: Ahn Cheol-soo, a software mogul and former doctor, who positions himself as a centrist candidate from the People Party for voters frustrated with divisive politics; and Sim Sang-jung, a labor activist from the liberal minority Justice Party, who is the sole female candidate.

Last week, the four candidates held their first policy debate, after weeks of rescheduling because of their disagreements on debate rules and formats. But even during the debate, where they clashed on several policy issues, Lee and Yoon kept coming back to the scandals.

“I am asking you what the public wants to know, yet you are just speaking nonsense,” Yoon said, pressing Lee on the land development scandal. Lee snapped back, accusing Yoon of acting like a prosecutor, and attacked Yoon over his own scandals.

The mounting controversies and vitriol have led to rising unfavorable ratings of the front-runners. In a new poll by Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, 58 percent and 54.7 percent of respondents said they “dislike” Lee and Yoon, respectively.

Personality, rather than platform, has long driven presidential elections in South Korea, which has historically had a weak party system, said Darcie Draudt, an expert in South Korean politics at the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. The two front-runners have emerged despite being party outsiders and their involvement in alleged corruption, she said.

The campaign has shown the downsides of a personality-led election and its impact on public trust, with voters increasingly feeling distrustful of political institutions, amid growing divide in the electorate over age, gender and class issues, Draudt added.

“Because this election has been framed as ‘the lesser of two evils,’ all voters — regardless of whether their chosen candidate won — will be dissatisfied with the outcome,” she said.

At the end of January, Lee promised to suspend negative campaigning, apologizing to voters with a 90-degree bow and saying that the presidential election had come to be known as the “election of the unfavorables.” An hour later, he made an unnamed reference to “a leader who drinks too much and shields his aides,” which Yoon aides called a clear attack against their candidate.

Kim reported from Seoul.

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