The Security Implications of South Korea's Legislative Elections

The Security Implications of South Korea's Legislative Elections

March 2024

Executive Summary

  • South Korea’s upcoming legislative election is set to be a highly contentious vote that will have wide-ranging security implications for not only the country but also the Asia-Pacific region. Tensions linked to the close standing between the progressive oppositional Democratic Party (DP) and the ruling conservative People Power Party (PPP) have seen incidents of political violence arise in Seoul, including the stabbing of the DP’s leading politician by a PPP supporter. In concert, political protests – whilst peaceful – are also set to be a persistent concern for business operations during the election period, with South Korea’s vibrant demonstration culture likely to lead to notable logistical disruptions in and around the city centres of large cities, such as Seoul or Busan.
  • In the wider Asia-Pacific region, the realistic possibility of the ruling PPP gaining a high plurality of seats within the National Assembly heightens the risk of South Korea’s relations with North Korea further deteriorating due to a weakened opposition. There is a risk that South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol’s hawkish approach towards Pyongyang will result in North Korea engaging in further provocative activity – such as ballistic missile tests or cyberattacks – in the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan, especially if the PPP win a majority within the National Assembly. Such incidents are unlikely to target any critical infrastructure intentionally. However, they could nevertheless impact sectors such as maritime and aviation firms due to falling debris and/or cancelled/delayed flights in the Japan-China-South Korea region.

The 2024 Legislative Election

South Koreans are set to head to the polls on 10 April 2024 to elect new members of its National Assembly, the country’s 300-seat unicameral national legislature. While its legislative elections are often seen as less important than the country’s presidential election – which is not set to occur until 2027 –, this upcoming poll will have widespread implications on the success of the second half of South Korea’s ruling People Power Party’s (PPP) administration.

Figure 1: Political Parties' Approval Ratings in South Korea

The PPP rose to power in 2022 after incumbent President Yoon Suk-yeol beat the then-ruling DemocraticParty’s (DP) candidate Lee Jae-myung. This was due to growing criticism of him, former DP President Moon Jae-in, and the party for their high-profile corruption scandals and failure to address issues such as the worsening relations with North Korea, the country’s high youth unemployment rates, and skyrocketing property prices. Since taking office, President Yoon has undone many of former President Moon’s economic policies and worsened relations with North Korea by opting for a more hawkish approach towards Pyongyang by further increasing its security cooperation with the US and regional allies, such asJapan. However, Yoon’s first two years in office have delivered mixed results, with his market-driven economic growth and deregulation policies not alleviating the country’s pre-existing socio-economic concerns.

A Highly Contested Election

Despite the criticism of Yoon's administration thus far, the effectiveness of Yoon's cabinet has also been significantly impeded by the country’s current National Assembly. In April 2020, the DP won a supermajority (60.0%) of the country’s vote, which allowed former President Moon Jae-in and the DP to enact their policy programme virtually unchallenged (see Figure 2). However, despite the PPP taking control of the presidential office in 2022, the now oppositional DP has maintained its supermajority in the National Assembly1. The DP has progressively utilised its supermajority to stymie the PPP’s legislative policy proposals, which has coloured Yoon’s administration as ineffective and unable to maintain its campaign promises, such as creating sustainable jobs in the health and cultural content start-up sectors through regulatory reform.

Figure 2: National Assembly Party Distribution after 2020 Elections

Despite the PPP’s currently low approval ratings (40%), the DP’s internal and systematic party concerns have prevented the oppositional party from growing its popularity in the general polls. According to the South Korean research company Gallup Korea, the DP’s approval rating has persistently remained between 31-35% since October 2023 (see Figure 1).

South Korea’s National Assembly allows for a plurality of parties to be represented and inform the country’s policy programme. However, this upcoming legislative election will likely be dominated by the country’s two largest parties, the PPP and the DP. With less than one month until the legislative contest, there is still currently no clear party with a dominant lead. While that indicates that the poll will be highly contested between the two leading parties, this also signals the end of the DP’s supermajority and control within the National Assembly. It is currently unclear how severe the DP’s decline will be. However, given the DP’s declining approval rating (see Figure 1) and the high support the PPP maintains amongst South Korea’s older population (see Figure 3) – an estimated 60% of the population is over 40 years old – there is an elevated likelihood of the conservatives gaining a high number of seats during this upcoming poll. Any seat total near or above 50% will ensure that the PPP is able to push through its campaign promises – such as doubling the state funds reserved for the renewable energy sector – during the second half of Yoon’s presidency with less resistance than during the first three years. While a stronger PPP will likely increase efficiency and policy stability towards key economic issues and businesses, it will also likely increase the country’s political polarity amongst conservatives and progressives and the political violence linked to South Korea’s fracturing society.  

[1] The PPP was formed in February 2020 through a merger of severalconservative parties. Therefore, it was not formally a part of the 2020elections.

Domestic Security Implications

Domestically, the upcoming elections heighten the risk of political violence increasing in the weeks leading up to and after the vote. Political rhetoric between the two main parties (the PPP and the DP) has continuously worsened since the PPP took the presidency in 2022 and severely heightened political polarity between conservatives and progressives. According to a poll published by data analysis firm Statista, nearly “83% of respondents said that the conflict between conservatives and progressives in South Korea is of a serious nature”. Such tensions came to a headway in January 2024 when a conservative voter stabbed DP opposition leader Lee Jae-myung in the neck to allegedly prevent him from becoming president of South Korea. Less than two weeks later conservative PPP member Bae Hyunjin – who is a close aide to President Yoon and his former spokeswoman – was physically assaulted with a “rock-like” object.While neither injury resulted in death, they do highlight the growing tensions amongst South Koreans over the upcoming legislative election and subsequent presidential vote. However, such acts of violence should be seen as outliers and not a growing trend of violence that could impact businesses, with election-related attacks extremely rare in recent years.

Figure 3: Political Party Support per Age Group & Gender

While the direct risk of attack posed to business is likely minimal given the attacks will be targeted against political leaders, the heightened security protocols linked to these incidents will likely lead to business disruptions in major South Korean cities like Seoul and Busan. More specifically, South Korean police are likely to put in more robust roadblocks and increased security checks outside political buildings or around political rallies as they increase in the lead-up to the election. As such, businesses with supply chains in these city centres -such as transport firms, fast fashion, hospitality, etc. - are likely to experience notable and persistent disruptions from these security measures until the end of the election in April.

Meanwhile, despite political violence in South Korea – such as physical assault – being rare in recent decades, there remains a notable threat posed to business operations by South Korea’s vibrant protest culture. Political supporters in South Korea have historically launched frequent and disruptive rallies during moments of political upheaval. The 1980s democratic transition was seen as the country’s most volatile period, with large-scale protests frequently resulting in clashes with security forces. This view that protests are vehicles for political change remains deeply engrained within South Korean society. However, recent protests have not reached the levels of disruption seen by their 1980s counterparts. Instead, demonstrations in recent years have been organised by rival political activists using social media, such as YouTube, to galvanise supporters and set up in a “semi-concert” type fashion, with colourful banners, dance troupes, and protest songs. These hours-long demonstrations usually end in a march through the city along car roads under police escort. While violence is rare, such rallies have, nevertheless, resulted in several city blocks being closed and traffic rerouted because such rallies are organised in the centre of major cities – such as Seoul or Busan. Such activity presents the risk of negatively impacting SMEs and large businesses reliant on logistical networks transporting goods via roads - such as hospitality, technology, or transport - in these major cities.

Despite political violence in South Korea being rare in recent decades, there remains a notable threat posed to business operations by South Korea's vibrant protest culture.

These protests are likely to remain a persistent concern for South Korea-based organisations up until the 10 April election. However, there is a moderate likelihood that small to medium-scale protests will emerge depending on the poll’s results, with a thorough DP or PPP victory inciting unrest from their rival parties. Moreover, a win by the PPP would allow them to pass their policies through the National Assembly more easily and heighten the risk of anti-government protests emerging sporadically over the months in response to passed legislation. These protests are highly likely to be organised near political buildings in large cities – such as Seoul or Busan. Such activity is at an elevated risk of causing reoccurring logistical disruptions for organisations operating near these locations.

Tensions with North Korea

Figure 4: The Ranges of North Korea's Short-, Medium-, Intermediate-range Ballistic Missiles

Meanwhile, the outcome of this upcoming election also has geopolitical implications for the wider Asia-Pacific region as well. Most notably, the potential of the conservatives regaining more control over the country’s legislative chamber heightens the risk of South Korea’s relations with North Korea further deteriorating. President Yoon has been a staunch critic of former President Moon Jae-in’s return to the “Sunshine” style of diplomacy with Pyongyang. Since taking office, Yoon has undone much of the goodwill his predecessor built up and attempted to force Pyongyang into diplomatic dialogue but on its terms. Moreover, Seoul has engaged in more frequent and closer coordinated military operations with the US and Japanese governments to form a deterrent for any North Korean-directed hostilities, gaining the ire of Pyongyang.

However, the oppositional DP has persistently criticised the PPP’s actions against Pyongyang in the National Assembly for being too aggressive against North Korea. Yoon’s hardline and hawkish approach resulted in North Korea conducting a record number of ballistic and cruise missile tests in 2022-23 (100+) to air its political grievances. Further highlighting the decline of North-South relations was North Korean leader Kim Jong-un’s January 2024 announcement he was closing the country’s reunification government agency - signalling the end of Pyongyang’s open dialogue with the South - and that the country’s constitution has been changed to designate Seoul as a “principal enemy”.

A PPP victory in the upcoming legislative election would give it more freedom to propose and pass anti-North Korea policies it views as necessary for its national security – such as further sanctions or bills publicly shaming North Korea – regardless of whether it further antagonises Pyongyang. While the direct implications of this North-South breakdown on businesses in the Asia-Pacific region will be limited, the growing tensions between the two sides and the closure of their formal diplomatic communication corridors heighten the risk of businesses experiencing accidental or indirect threats.

Figure 5: The Range of North Korea's Intercontinental Ballistic Missile

Most notably, North Korea is highly likely to continue launching ballistic missiles into the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan as a form of retaliation. While they are unlikely to target any critical infrastructure intentionally, the impact on sectors such as maritime and aviation firms will be notable. Given that Pyongyang does these tests without warning, firms operating in both industries will be at a heightened risk of having their assets damaged due to falling debris. Similarly, energy firms that maintain assets – such as wind farms – around the Korean Peninsula will also be at a heightened risk of having their infrastructure accidentally damaged by debris. In concert, commercial aviation firms are highly likely to cancel or delay their flights for 30 minutes to several hours in the Japan-China-South Korea region immediately after a test, so time-sensitive business trips and activities in the region are likely to be impacted.

There also remains an elevated risk of South Korea-located businesses being targeted by North Korean cyberattacks. Pyongyang is listed by Western intelligence services as one of the “Big Four” cyber threat actors alongside China, Russia, and Iran that pose the biggest threat to Western firms. In line with this, the South Korean National Intelligence Service (NIS) claims that North Korean hacking groups launch an average of 1.5 million cyberattacks against the South Korean public sector per day. Whilst not directly impacting private sector firms, organisations that work closely with the public sector entities in South Korea are at a heightened risk of being targeted or indirectly impacted by North Korean cyberattacks – such as ransomware – due to their close relations with South Korean public sector entities. Sectors of typical interest for Pyongyang-directed hackers, such as energy, banking, or technology, will be at the highest threat of being targeted by North Korea’s hacking groups, such as Lazarus.

North Korea is highly likely to continue launching ballistic missiles into the Yellow Sea and the Sea of Japan as a form of retaliation. While they are unlikely to target any critical infrastructure intentionally, the impact on sectors such as maritime and aviation firms will be notable.

What Now?

The geopolitical particularities linked to South Korea’s election are assessed to have wide-ranging implications not only for firms operating in South Korea but also in the wider Asia-Pacific region. To ensure that your business is able to maintain operational continuity and minimise its exposure to the aforementioned risk, organisations’ executive leaderships are advised to implement measures such as:

  • Build out an in-house or hire a third-party geopolitical risk intelligence function to keep your organisation abreast of ongoing developments related to the Korean Peninsula and the potential political, economic, and security threats posed to firms operating in the Asia-Pacific region.

Proximities can help you gain these key insights and turn them into tangible material. Using our ‘What?’, ‘So What?’, ‘What if?’ and ‘What Now?’ narratives, we help partners and clients not only understand the importance of trends and events but, more specifically, to understand what it means for you and your business from strategic to operational consequences. Curious and interested to see how we could help you? Don’t hesitate to contact us, we will be happy to support you.

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