[칼럼] Yoon’s Next Three Long Years

- 이정민 (카네기국제평화재단 선임연구위원)


Just a few weeks short of South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s two-year anniversary in his single five-year term, the ruling People Power Party (PPP) suffered one of the biggest losses in Korean political history. The opposition Democratic Party (DP), led by former presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung, already held 162 of the 300 National Assembly seats prior to the April 10 election, forcing Yoon to work with an opposition-led assembly for the past two years.

The April 10 election, however, resulted in an even bigger win for the DP. It now holds a total of 175 seats, while the second-largest opposition party—the Rebuilding Korea Party, led by former justice minister Cho Kuk—gained twelve proportional representation seats. Other minor parties and independents won a combined five seats, meaning that the DP-led opposition now controls 192 seats. The conservative PPP won a total of 108 seats. While this was a slight improvement compared to the 103 seats the PPP won in the April 2020 general election, it was still a huge blow to Yoon and the ruling party.

There will be major ramifications for Yoon since he has a full three years left to lead the Republic of Korea (ROK) with an opposition that is determined more than ever to stymie and block his legislative initiatives. Reforming and lowering the tax rate, new housing and other major infrastructure projects, educational reforms including increasing the number of medical students, and deregulation are all going to face major bottlenecks. How effectively Yoon will be able to govern depends crucially on his ability to totally reinvent his governing style, overcome the widely held perception of a tone-deaf presidential office, and rectify his lack of political acumen.

Since democracy was restored to the ROK in 1987, no president has had an approval rating as consistently low as Yoon’s—which has hovered between 35 and 40 percent since May 2022—in the first two years of a presidency. While his approval rating increased slightly in early 2024, it dropped again with his government’s abrupt announcement in February 2024 that the number of medical students would be increased by up to 2,000 annually starting in 2025, which ran into fierce opposition from the medical community that resulted in paralysis in major hospitals nationwide.

Even if South Korea needs more doctors, the timing for the government’s proposal could not have been worse for the PPP’s chances in the most important election for the Yoon government. Having won the presidency in May 2022 with just a 0.7 percent margin (about 250,000 votes) over the DP’s Lee, Yoon should have known that the April 2024 National Assembly election would not be only a critical midterm election, but a bellwether for the equally if not more important May 2027 presidential election.

The ruling party has had five leaders since the Yoon administration took office in May 2022, which attests to how ineffective PPP leadership has been. At the same time, there have been several clashes between the PPP and the presidential office, in which the party has been overruled by the president. While the prime minister and senior members of the presidential office have offered their resignations in the wake of the National Assembly election, it remains unclear how much house-cleaning Yoon is willing to do and how effective such changes are likely to be in enabling him to govern over the next three years.


In foreign policy, the DP will likely push back against closer trilateral ROK-U.S.-Japan security and defense ties and call for more engagement with North Korea. In June 2023, Lee agreed with Chinese Ambassador to South Korea Xing Haiming’s criticism of the Yoon government’s foreign policy—that Seoul was too closely aligned with the United States. When the National Assembly election campaign began in late March 2024, Lee famously said that South Korea should not get involved in any Taiwan contingency and attacked Yoon for being too close with the United States and Japan at the expense of South Korean–Chinese ties. He also said that South Korea should just say xie xie (thank you) to China and move on:

China was South Korea’s top export market, but now South Korea is importing mostly from China. Chinese people don’t buy South Korean products because they don’t like South Korea. Why are we bothering China? We should just say “xie xie” [to China] and “xie xie” to Taiwan as well. Why do we interfere in cross-strait [China-Taiwan] relations? Why do we care what happens to the Taiwan Strait? Shouldn’t we just take care of ourselves?

Lee was roundly criticized by the PPP for bowing his head to China and for parroting Xing’s rebuke of Yoon’s foreign policy, seen as a gross interference in domestic politics. Lee’s deferent attitude toward Xing also runs counter to South Korea’s very high anti-China sentiment. In a July 2023 survey conducted by the Pew Research Center, 77 percent of South Koreans said they had negative views of China. In August 2022, when South Korea and China marked the twentieth anniversary of their official ties, a survey by Hankook Research noted that 80 percent of South Koreans expressed negative views of China. It is also important to note that China has consistently adopted double standards for international criticism; when foreign governments criticize China for interfering in internal affairs of another country, Beijing scoffs at their “personal attacks,” while envoys like Xing often act like historical viceroys in Imperial China, who often interfered in domestic politics by stating their preferences on various policies and demanding tributes to Beijing. In June 2023, the Chinese Communist Party’s English-language mouthpiece Global Times published an op-ed that noted, in part:

The Yoon government is clearly betraying the long-standing friendly cooperation between China and South Korea, and inciting a new wave of anti-China sentiment in South Korea, which everyone can see. It probably thinks that China, facing strategic pressure from the US, has no choice but to surrender to South Korea. China should not indulge such opportunism. . . . Yoon's thinking and values determine that the China–South Korea relationship will be cool during his tenure. Then let it be cool. China does not need to care too much. (Emphases added.)

But while the DP will continue to attack the Yoon administration’s close alignment with the United States and Japan, chances of a U-turn are slim. An important reason Yoon has been constantly attacked by the DP is his decision early on in his presidency to mend ties with Japan and to significantly bolster ROK-U.S.-Japan trilateral security cooperation, including joint military exercises involving U.S. strategic assets. Yoon was instrumental in restoring shuttle diplomacy with Japanese Prime Minister Kishida Fumio, and at the invitation of U.S. President Joe Biden, the three leaders met at Camp David on August 18, 2023, for the first trilateral summit to be held independently, rather than on the sidelines of a larger international gathering such as a G20 meeting. They announced a “Spirit of Camp David” joint statement, saying:

On this historic occasion, we commit to expand our cooperation trilaterally and raise our shared ambition to a new horizon, across domains and across the Indo-Pacific and beyond. We will strengthen our economies, provide resilience and prosperity, support the free and open international order based on the rule of law, and bolster regional and global peace and security . . . [and] Even as we deepen our security partnership, we will also maintain focus on building robust cooperation in the economic security and technology spheres, leveraging the unique capabilities that each of our countries brings to bear.

The DP’s foreign policy leadership, headed by Lee, will likely advocate for closer ties with China and loosening trilateral cooperation between Japan, South Korea, and the United States. Such a move would be detrimental to South Korea’s core strategic, economic, and technological interests.

Moreover, since late 2023, North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un has vowed to crush the ROK, and in January 2024, he renounced national reunification as a critical inter-Korean goal. Kim told the rubber-stamp North Korean Supreme People’s Assembly that the constitution would be amended to state that South Korea is a “primary foe and invariable principal enemy” and that henceforth, North Korea’s duty will be “occupying,” “recapturing,” and “incorporating” South Korea into North Korea’s fold. By erasing peaceful unification as a major state goal, Kim has contradicted the legacies of his father and grandfather, which will have significant political repercussions within the North Korean power hierarchy, since Kim’s legitimacy is based entirely on his membership in the so-called Baekdu line—descendants of Kim’s grandfather, North Korean founding dictator Kim Il Sung, who is alleged to have led anti-Japanese military campaigns from his base on Mount Baekdu, the most revered mountain on the Korean Peninsula. Kim’s decision to characterize South Korea as a separate state means that from now on, there will be no special attention paid to the common heritage of the Korean people and Kim will be free to deal with South Korea as an enemy state. As a result, prospects for inter-Korean dialogue, which were very low already when Yoon became president, will be even lower over the next three years.

Importantly, if former U.S. president Donald Trump wins the November 2024 U.S. presidential election, he may want to restart denuclearization talks with Kim and to reconfigure U.S. defense commitments to South Korea, which could include downsizing or even withdrawing the 28,500 U.S. troops that are now deployed in the ROK. In such an instance, the DP will likely support Trump’s outreach to Kim, but given Trump’s anti-China stance and efforts to contain China’s high-tech capabilities, he may increase pressure on foreign companies to move out of the Chinese market—including key high-tech South Korean firms such as Samsung and SK Hynix.

Nevertheless, business leaders in South Korea are preparing for all possibilities, including Trump’s return to the White House. Jin Roy Ryu, chairman of both the Poongsan Group and Korea’s largest and most influential business lobby, the Federation of Korean Industries, told Nikkei Asia in January 2024 that even if Trump wins, strong ROK-U.S.-Japan ties would likely remain and that “Trump tends to welcome companies investing in the U.S. regardless of their nationalities.” In the same interview, he also stressed that “South Korea, the U.S. and Japan must unite not only politically but also economically through their businesspeople, which the U.S. also wants strongly.”


It will take several weeks, if not months, for the dust to settle. For now, the DP is celebrating its unprecedented win under Lee, who led a campaign to deal a death blow to Yoon. Lee has never hidden his ongoing presidential aspirations and with the DP’s resounding victory, the party will be even more in his grip. And Lee is calculating that not only will he be reelected as party president, he will also be the clear frontrunner in the May 2027 presidential election.

Nevertheless, Lee also faces critical roadblocks. Foremost on the horizon is Lee’s ongoing trials on multiple charges that have been levied against him over the past several years. Lee continues to maintain his innocence and says that under Yoon, the prosecutor general’s office is pursuing a political vendetta against him and his wife. He was indicted by the prosecution in March 2023 on corruption charges alleging that he took bribes in a $1.5 billion property development scheme that he oversaw when he was mayor of Seongnam. In February 2023, the National Assembly barely rejected a motion to allow the arrest of Lee, who responded, “I will work harder to communicate with our party members and collect more opinions to gather strength and fight against the prosecutorial dictatorship of Yoon Suk-yeol.”

An article published by Reuters the day after the election quoted Mason Richey, a professor at the Hankuk University of Foreign Studies in Seoul, saying that “given his likely lame duck status, the temptation for Yoon will be to focus on foreign policy where he will still have statutory power.” The New York Times reported after the election that “stunned by the election result, Mr. Yoon showed signs of doing something observers had once said he would never do: admitting that he was at fault.”

There is no doubt that Yoon faces a daunting task in cooperating with the opposition and especially in working together with Lee to the extent possible. Over the past two years, Yoon has refused to meet with Lee because, he argued, the head of the PPP should be Lee’s natural partner rather than the president. In the aftermath of the April 10 election, however, it will be very difficult for Yoon to avoid meeting with Lee.

But three years is a lifetime in politics. Although Yoon has no one to blame but himself for an unparalleled defeat and the voters’ stinging rebuke of his leadership style, it is also true that he has three years to totally reinvent himself. At the same time, while the DP will likely impede the PPP’s ability to pass legislation, its 108 seats enable the ruling party in turn to block the DP’s efforts to either revise the constitution or vote for the impeachment of the president, since the opposition parties together do not hold two-thirds of the seats—the number required for such measures to pass.

While it’s true that the DP gained a comfortable majority, observers should also remember that 45.1 percent of votes went to the PPP, whereas the DP received 50.5 percent. Because South Korea has 254 single-seat constituencies and a winner-take-all system, the DP was able to win 161 constituency seats versus the PPP’s ninety despite the narrow gap in votes. The remaining seats are distributed on the basis of proportional representation. In other words, if South Korea had multiple-seat constituencies, the outcome would have been very different.


South Korean voters gave Yoon and his party a thrashing, but not to the point where he could be impeached (as might have been possible if the opposition had gained a two-thirds majority). However, from April 2024, Yoon has to throw away the playbook and start from scratch. It won’t be enough to bring in new faces, including a new prime minister, key cabinet shifts, and major house-cleaning in the presidential office. He has to set out major domestic agendas, such as addressing South Korea’s demographic implosion—the country has the lowest fertility rate on the planet (0.72 percent) and the fastest-aging society in the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development. Yoon must also deal with mounting national debt due to the coronavirus pandemic and with South Korea’s debt-to-GDP ratio, which is expected to reach 51 percent in 2024 and grow to 53 percent by 2027. This is going to be a major election issue in 2027. Although Yoon and the PPP got the blame for rising inflation, it is also true that South Korean exports have risen significantly in 2024 with the return of the United States as South Korea’s second-largest trading partner.

Alarm bells rang many times over the past two years, but Yoon and his office did not pay serious attention. His low approval rating, which rarely went above 40 percent, should have been a clear warning that business as usual was unsustainable. It is rare for any major political leader today to get hit with a major defeat with three years left in their term. If Yoon is serious about turning South Korea into a major Western player in security, defense, economics, and technology—not to mention the growing influence of K-culture—he has no choice but to give up everything sacred and begin from scratch. If he does not, he will go down in history as the president with the longest tenure as a lame duck. If he wakes up, however, Yoon could just manage the most difficult uphill political transformation since the restoration of democracy to South Korea in 1987.

[Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, 2024-04-15]