On April 7, 2021, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s Democratic Party (DP) lost important by-elections in South Korea’s two biggest cities—the ruling party’s worst electoral defeat since coming to office in May 2017. In Seoul’s mayoral elections, former mayor and opposition candidate Oh Se-hoon recaptured city hall with a resounding 57.5 percent of the vote. Seoul’s mayor is considered the second most powerful position in South Korea after the presidency. Meanwhile, the DP candidate, Park Young-sun—a political heavyweight who served as minister in Moon’s cabinet—only received 39 percent. All twenty-five of Seoul’s districts voted for Oh. Korea’s second-largest city, Busan, also had a by-election in which Park Hyung-joon, another PPP candidate, received a stunning 62.7 percent of the vote.

The opposition party’s stunning victory in Seoul and Busan is a major boost to the conservative People Power Party (PPP) and significantly improves its hopes of regaining the presidential Blue House in the March 2022 election. Intense power struggles are inevitable in both parties, but there is heavier pressure on the ruling party.

Even as Moon’s lame-duck status accelerates, the DP’s leadership is filled with pro-Moon diehards. The DP’s dilemma is threefold: it must rebrand itself after the by-election wipeout; choose a presidential candidate who can maximize his or her distance from Moon while not alienating the powerful pro-Moon party vanguards; and cleanse the party from the excesses of the Moon era.

Seoul and Busan’s by-elections were held because both mayors resigned in 2020 due to sexual harrasment cases. The opposition PPP’s landslide was a startling U-turn in just one year. In April 2020, the DP had won a whopping 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, while the PPP suffered a humiliating defeat with 103 seats. The remaining seats were captured by minority parties.

Analysts are still poring over polling and voting results, but the political and foreign policy implications will be immense. There will be two main repercussions.

First, it is now clear that Moon and the ruling party have made a strategic error. Their super parliamentary majority had convinced the DP that they could do no wrong, but now the PPP’s victory is going to accelerate Moon’s lame-duck status. It will also trigger a bitter fight for power—to control the party through the March 2022 presidential election and push a viable presidential candidate.

Yet Moon’s ability to influence the all-important 2022 presidential election will now be cramped by his party’s drubbing in the Seoul and Busan by-elections. While pro-Moon leaders insist that Moon isn’t going to roll back his four-year emphasis on “draining the swamp,” detractors argue that such heavy-handed arrogance convinced voters to jump ship to the opposition.

Why did Moon lose so badly? Over the past year, the ruling party and the government railroaded bills through parliament while casting away even the pretense of forging a bipartisan consensus. They pushed through property tax and health insurance payment increases and disregarded skyrocketing housing prices. They ignored a cascading wave of scandals by high-ranking officials such as the former justice minister in the name of taming Korea’s powerful general prosecutor’s office. And they castigated those who criticized North Korea’s human rights atrocities.

Last but not least, the South Korean public became fed up with the government’s self-touting public relations about how it was battling the pandemic. A major reason the ruling party won a landslide in the April 2020 parliamentary election in the midst of a raging pandemic was because voters placed more importance on controlling COVID-19 than on the Moon government’s midterm marks. But Moon overplayed his administration’s achievements in the pandemic war. The government failed to preemptively secure vaccines, and as of March 30, only 1.66 percent of the population in Korea were vaccinated compared with 60.5 percent in Israel, 45 percent in the UK, and 29 percent in the United States. Voters were also fed up with prolonged and often times contradictory pandemic lockdown measures, especially for small and family-run businesses. These mistakes all led to the ruling party’s unparalleled loss.

Chung Min Lee
Chung Min Lee is a senior fellow in Carnegie’s Asia Program. He is an expert on Korean and Northeast Asian security, defense, intelligence, and crisis management.
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In a striking rebuke, Moon and the ruling party lost support from every age group except voters in their forties. But even here, the majority was a slim one: 49.3 percent versus 48.3 percent, according to a combined exit poll by the three main TV stations. Most startling was that 55.6 percent of the youngest voters (eighteen to twenty years old) cast their ballots for Oh, and a striking 72.5 percent men under twenty voted for the PPP. The common assumption that voters in their twenties are inclined to be progressive or left-leaning was disproved. Yet this doesn’t mean that younger Korean voters will support the conservatives in the 2022 presidential election—only that their support for either party should never be taken for granted.

Second, while foreign policy and national security issues weren’t factors in the mayoral and other local by-elections, Moon’s ability to persuade U.S. President Joe Biden’s administration to jump-start U.S.–North Korea talks will be constrained. While the Blue House continues to hope that Biden will reach out to North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un, chances are highly unlikely that Biden will repeat former president Donald Trump’s photo-rich but ill-planned summits with Kim.

And if Moon wishes to build credibility with the United States, it might be wise to look carefully at Washington’s priorities. Moon’s overwhelming attachment to brokering inter-Korean détente misses a larger and much more important agenda for team Biden: joining and helping the United States push back Chinese power and influence.

According to the Chosun Ilbo, Moon is working to schedule his first meeting with Biden in May. The newspaper also reported that the Biden administration was interested in holding a trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan summit. Japanese Prime Minister Suga Yoshihide is slated to visit Washington shortly, although it remains to be seen if he would then return to Washington in a month for a trilateral summit. What is clear, however, is the growing disconnect between Seoul and Washington on how best to meet multiple challenges from China. And while the two leaders will put on their best dipomatic faces, Moon isn’t likely to budge from his well-known foreign policy stances, including his penchant for détente with Kim Jong Un and his abiding belief that North Korea will give up nuclear weapons.

Under Moon, South Korea has been extremely wary of joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (or the Quad), the informal grouping of the United States, Japan, India, and Australia, whose unstated aim is to counterbalance China’s rapid rise.

South Korea’s predicament is understandable given that unlike other U.S. allies, the China factor resonates much more deeply. Korea’s complex and deep historical ties with China stretch back more than a thousand years. China is also South Korea’s biggest trading partner.

Because China is North Korea’s only ally and patron, Seoul worries that South Korea would lose whatever leverage it has vis-à-vis China if it joins the Quad. But the flip side is that South Korea cannot really afford to maintain its position of so-called strategic ambiguity over the Quad, especially as China’s military footprints continue to widen and deepen around the Korean Peninsula. Ultimately, Seoul’s overriding security leverage stems from its crucial alliance with the United States. And placating China won’t change Beijing’s behavior.

Despite a very close economic relationship with China, South Koreans have deeply ambivalent feelings about the country. In an October 2020 Pew global survey, 75 percent of South Koreans viewed China negatively and only 24 percent positively. And 83 percent had no confidence that Chinese President Xi Jinping would do the right thing on world affairs. South Koreans have very different views of the United States. In an annual survey conducted by the Korea Institute for National Unification and released in June 2020, 90.2 percent responded that the U.S.-ROK alliance was necessary. A spring 2019 Pew global survey of how select countries perceived the United States showed that 77 percent of South Koreans viewed the U.S. role in the Asia-Pacific as generally positive, with only 34 percent in favor of China’s role.

On the surface, the United States and South Korea have turned a new page, as shown by the signing of a new five-year defense cost-sharing agreement. Trump wanted South Korea to provide up to $5 billion in annual defense cost contributions; under Biden, South Korea has agreed to pay a little over $1 billion per annum for the next five years. But the utility of Moon’s North Korea card is fast evaporating. Not only is Moon politically weakened, Kim Jong Un is highly unlikely to rely on Seoul to relay messages to Washington in the hopes of borkering a nuclear deal and getting sanctions relief as he did with Trump.

Once the presidential primary season begins in earnest this summer, and as his political grip weakens, Moon is likely to focus on foreign affairs. But as much as Moon may want to reignite South-North détente, including another summit with Kim Jong Un, it is unlikely to happen. Pyongyang is also reading the political trends in Seoul and Washington: Kim knows that Biden isn’t gasping to shake hands with him and that Moon’s ability to nudge Biden is increasingly limited. And North Korea’s ability to forge new ties with the Biden administration is going to be progressively constrained as China pulls North Korea deeper into its orbit in return for providing irreplacable political and economic support.

The one major area where Moon can make a foreign policy difference before he leaves office is in improving Korean-Japanese ties, which have been at the lowest ebb since the normalization of relations in 1965. If a trilateral U.S.-South Korea-Japan summit is held in Washington in May, it would provide a much-needed boost to Korean-Japanese relations and trilateral security cooperation, which has stalled mainly due to intensifying Chinese pressure on South Korea. But regardless of such a meeting, it remains unlikely that Moon is going to spend his dwindling political capital and foreign policy bandwidth on reaching out to Japan. At the same time, Suga is focusing his efforts on continuing Tokyo’s role as America’s most reliable Asian ally—militarily and politically—while attempting to navigate the increasingly treacherous U.S.-China waters.

Much to Washington’s concern, progressive hedging seems to be the modus operandi of the Moon government’s approach to the United States and China. And given the Biden administration’s efforts to constrain China by virtually all policy means, a silent Seoul will receive even less support in Washington.

On Moon’s remaining wish list is reopening U.S.–North Korea nuclear talks, announcing a formal end of the Korean War, and expediting the reversion of full operational control of the armed forces to South Korea before he leaves office in May 2022.

While the Biden administration has emphasized restoring key alliances in Europe and Asia, it seems unlikely that improving ties with North Korea, for example, is going to be the highest of policy priorities. For team Biden, the key emphasis is building a de facto coalition of the willing, beginning with the Quad but expanding to other allies in Europe and Asia. In the increasingly vexing U.S.-China technology wars, Washington also seeks Seoul’s support as a major techo-democracy.

The PPP’s victory in the by-election provides a new political calculus and opens the possibility of the opposition sustaining its momentum through next year’s critical presidential election. Yet the path to victory is not assured. It will depend on whether the party can bring in outside big names and construct a united front, as they did in the by-elections. Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-yeol, who resigned in March after the Moon administration’s relentless efforts to diminish his office’s powers, is seen as a serious presidential contender. If the conservative party attracts Yoon and other outside candidates such as Ahn Cheol-soo (a software entrepreneur turned politician who bolstered the PPP’s victory in Seoul by joining hands with mayoral candidate Oh), then it will be able to field a unified candidate in the 2022 presidential contest.

But the burden is much heavier on the ruling party. The DP’s biggest obstacle is whether its powerful old guard will allow a new generation of party leaders to enact wrenching internal reforms, boost a new presidential candidate, and extricate the party from Moon’s influence. But so far, party stalwarts have refused to back down from the very policies that crushed the party in Seoul and Busan.

If the past four years is any guide, Moon and the wall of ideologues surrounding him, will stay the course and press on. In the last year of the Moon administration, it seems that policies rejected by millions of Korean voters and unstinting political hubris will continue to be core guiding principles.