The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Seoul Mayor’s Death Sets Critical Test for South Korea’s Ruling Party in 2021

Next year’s by-elections will be unusually important – for the Democratic Party and for the current frontrunner to succeed President Moon Jae-in.

By Cory Bisbee for
Seoul Mayor’s Death Sets Critical Test for South Korea’s Ruling Party in 2021
Credit: Pixabay

Just after midnight on July 10, police located the body of Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon, 64, on Mount Bukak in northern Seoul. Park had cancelled his schedule for July 9, and his daughter reported him missing to the police that evening after he left a message that sounded like a will and turned off his phone.

Local media reported that a former secretary filed a complaint with the Seoul Metropolitan Police Agency the previous day accusing Park of unwanted physical contact and sending suggestive messages. In accordance with the law, Park’s death closes the investigation into these allegations as criminal complaints cannot be pursued by the prosecution for indictment if the suspect dies. This means that Park’s apparent suicide allows him to avoid a criminal justice system that is lenient toward perpetrators of sex crimes and also effectively deprives the woman who reported him of the opportunity to have her complaint properly examined.

The sexual misconduct allegations against Park come during South Korea’s continuing #MeToo movement, which began in 2018 and notably led to the conviction of South Chungcheong Governor Ahn Hee-jung, once a leading 2022 presidential hopeful, for repeatedly raping his secretary. Ahn was subsequently sentenced to three-and-a-half years in prison. The allegations against Park have shocked the public because, like Ahn, he was a self-described feminist, and both men were viewed as champions of women’s rights.

A founder of People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy, easily among South Korea’s most influential progressive civic groups, Park was one of many human rights lawyers and activists to enter electoral politics after the country’s democratization and democratic consolidation in the 1980s and 1990s. Despite sharing that background and path to power with deceased former President Roh Moo-hyun and Roh’s close ally and protégé, incumbent President Moon Jae-in, Park was independent of the Democratic Party’s interrelated pro-Roh and pro-Moon factions and formed his own power center within the ruling party as the longest serving mayor of South Korea’s largest city.

In 2011, a by-election was called due to the resignation of conservative Mayor Oh Se-hoon after a failed policy referendum. Park started as the underdog in the race but received the surprise endorsement of then-independent Ahn Cheol-soo. He went on to defeat conservative Representative Na Kyung-won as a first-time candidate. Voters then re-elected Park to a full term in 2014 and to an unprecedented third term in the June 2018 local elections, both times as the main liberal party’s nominee.

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Since 2011, Oh has repeatedly failed to make a political comeback in legislative and party leadership elections; Na rose to serve as floor leader for the main conservative party but lost re-election to the National Assembly this year; and Ahn launched a briefly successful third party that gradually fell apart after his unsuccessful 2017 presidential bid. Meanwhile, from his perch in Seoul City Hall, Park developed a record as mayor of prioritizing social, economic, youth, and environmental issues.

Moon is constitutionally limited to a single five-year term, leaving the race to succeed him wide open. Before his death, Park was one of many third-tier contenders for the Democratic Party’s nomination in the upcoming 2022 presidential election, although overshadowed by Moon’s former Prime Minister Lee Nak-yeon, the current frontrunner, and Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung, whose star has risen during the coronavirus pandemic. The results of the 2016 and 2020 legislative elections propelled a small group of around 20 of Park’s supporters and associates into the National Assembly. Park reshuffled his political team in April in a move that was intended to better position him for a planned presidential bid.

Among his last acts, on the day before his death Park unveiled the city’s intention to move toward a ban on fossil fuel vehicles as part of his Green New Deal initiative. The day before that, he was among the ruling party heavyweights who controversially lined up to offer flowers and condolences to Ahn Hee-jung for the passing of his mother, an act of sympathy that was criticized for being inconsiderate to Ahn’s former secretary and other survivors of sexual violence.

Park’s death leaves Seo Jeong-hyup, first vice mayor for administrative affairs, as acting mayor until next April.

Once per year, South Korea holds simultaneous by-elections for any vacant legislative or local elected offices. The next regularly scheduled by-elections are set for April 7, 2021.

These 2021 by-elections will feature open races for mayor of South Korea’s two largest cities, and together they will call a fifth of the population to the polls in what was otherwise expected to have been a quiet year for electoral campaigns. Allegations of sexual misconduct have been tied to both vacancies – Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don admitted to sexually assaulting a secretary and resigned a week after this year’s legislative elections. This has added to the popular perception that the ruling Democratic Party in particular has a problem with sexual misconduct, although the country’s #MeToo movement has demonstrated that the problem is not isolated to any one part of South Korea’s hierarchical and male-dominated society.

It is possible that the reach of these by-elections may expand further if Gyeonggi Governor Lee Jae-myung and South Gyeongsang Governor Kim Kyoung-soo, both also considered potential 2022 presidential candidates, are removed from office in the course of ongoing cases dealing with alleged election law violations. If that comes to pass, three-fifths of the country could be headed to the polls in what should be an off year, a scenario that would make these extraordinarily far-reaching by-elections and more akin to quadrennial local elections in their scope.

Inevitably, the results will be heavily affected by Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings on election day – the Democratic Party was boosted in the 2018 local elections by the success of Moon’s North Korea policy and in the 2020 legislative elections by rising public approval for Moon’s response to COVID-19 – and so the by-elections can be thought of as another unexpected referendum on his presidency. Notably, the extent of the ruling party’s victories in 2018 mean they would be defending all four of these seats (if Gyeonggi and South Gyeongsang end up on the ballot).

In 2017, the Democratic Party made serious inroads in the country’s traditionally conservative eastern half with Moon becoming the first presidential nominee of the main liberal party to carry Gangwon province, Busan, and Ulsan and coming within half a point of being the first to win South Gyeongsang province. These wins demonstrated the extent to which voters had abandoned the main conservative party in the wake of former President Park Geun-hye’s corruption scandal and downfall, but they also suggested to some a potential tentative realignment toward the Democratic Party in the southern half of the southeastern Gyeongsang region. Moon’s continuing popularity and the timing of the Singapore summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un gave the ruling party the chance to build on that accomplishment in 2018. That year’s local elections marked the first time that the nominee of the main liberal party won the top office in South Gyeongsang province, Busan, and Ulsan – in each instance by at least 16 points – and next year’s by-elections will provide a better sense of the durability of the area’s recent liberal tilt one year out from the 2022 presidential and local elections.

Park Won-soon’s death does nothing to fundamentally change Lee Nak-yeon’s current leading position as the most likely successor to Moon. But if Lee wins the upcoming leadership contest at the ruling party’s national convention in August, as seems reasonably likely, he will need to lead the Democratic Party to victory in by-elections that put the party on the defensive with an expansive map. And while the outcome of these by-elections may ride more on the popularity of Moon on election day than on anything Lee may do as chairman of the ruling party, if Lee succeeds, it will reinforce his frontrunner status. If he fails, it could make for a serious setback to his presidential ambitions.

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Cory Bisbee is a graduate of Clark University and founder of Sixth Risk, a political risk consultancy. He specializes in South Korean domestic politics and conducts research with a focus on the country’s party system, elections, and government structure.