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A Balancing Crisis: Managing Foreign and Domestic Policy Ahead of the South Korean Election

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A Balancing Crisis: Managing Foreign and Domestic Policy Ahead of the South Korean Election

The April 10 election will have far-reaching implications for the nation’s domestic and foreign policy moving forward.

A Balancing Crisis: Managing Foreign and Domestic Policy Ahead of the South Korean Election

Officials from the election management committee put posters showing candidates to a wall in Seoul, South Korea, Thursday, March 28, 2024.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Ahead of the 2024 South Korean legislative election, the battle for public opinion rages, fierce and fractured, as new political parties are formed and dismantled seemingly overnight. 

Amid the political chaos, South Korean citizens will take to the polls on April 10 to elect the next National Assembly, South Korea’s legislative body. The upcoming legislative elections will not only reflect public opinion on the increased polarization within Korean political party dynamics; the outcomes of the 2024 elections will also render a verdict on President Yoon Suk-yeol’s policy agenda and achievements.

A potential turning point for domestic politics, the election results will have far-reaching implications for both South Korea’s domestic and foreign policy moving forward. 

The National Assembly Elections

Much is seemingly at stake for current South Korean President Yoon as the elections near. Only two years into his single five-year term, Yoon faces the risk of a lame duck presidency if voters on April 10 do not flip enough legislative seats in the People Power Party (PPP)’s favor. 

Since taking office, the Yoon administration has endured the double challenge of an opposition-controlled parliament and persistently low approval ratings. As polarization in South Korean domestic politics deepens, a potential lack in voter confidence for the Yoon administration and by extension the PPP could result in a continued Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) stronghold within the National Assembly. Subsequently, that would ensure little to no parliamentary support for Yoon’s domestic policies for the remainder of his presidential term. 

Under increased pressure to show not only what the South Korean government has accomplished abroad, but also at home, the Yoon administration has made efforts to re-envision international successes as domestic wins. However, as demonstrated within politics in the United States, the balancing act between foreign and domestic policy is often difficult to achieve.

The Potential Cost of a Successful Global Policy  

Over the past two years, the Yoon administration has pushed heavily for a reinvestment in international diplomacy, multilateral organizations, and global industry-to-industry cooperation. 

Even prior to winning office, Yoon’s presidential campaign featured his Global Pivotal State policy platform, which highlighted the need for South Korea to play a larger role on the international stage. By most accounts, the Yoon administration’s “omnidirectional global diplomacy” continues to successfully project South Korea as a proactive and responsible international stakeholder within the global community. 

Moreover, the Korean government’s intertwining of foreign policy with broadening industry and trade deals should not be understated. Bolstering industry engagement, Yoon’s policies emphasize the need to further Korea’s role as key state-of-the-art technology developer, especially within U.S.-China strategic competition and conflicted sectors for supply chain resiliency.

To this end, Yoon launched an assertive foreign diplomacy campaign including 16 trips throughout the Indo-Pacific and Southeast Asia, the Middle East and North Africa, Europe, and North America. From first-ever state visits with key allies to the ground-breaking U.S.-South Korea-Japan Camp David Summit, active engagement abroad has been central to the Yoon administration’s political endeavors. 

By all accounts, the Yoon administration’s foreign policy approach continues to capitalize on expanding cooperation at both state and corporate levels among like-minded countries around the world. South Korea’s foreign policy realignment with key allies in the Indo-Pacific and beyond are incontrovertible successes.

However, the financial cost of Yoon’s focus abroad has not gone unnoticed by the South Korean public, resulting in scrutiny toward Yoon’s amounting $43.8 million dollars in foreign travel expenses, representing a comparative three-fold increase over previous presidential administrations.

With the Korean government steering attention – both domestic and international – towards it diplomatic efforts, these successes are keenly emphasized. So too, however, are the foreign policy letdowns. Most recently, the Yoon administration internalized the risk of an “all eggs in one basket” foreign policy agenda with South Korea’s failed attempt to win hosting rights for the 2030 World Expo in Busan. Despite an expansive push by not only the government but also corporate leaders to fetch international votes for South Korea’s Expo bid, the decisive and shocking proclamation of Saudi Arabia’s win shook domestic confidence in the potentially beneficial outcomes of the South Korean government’s foreign policy campaigns.

A Domestic Policy Crisis and Implications

With the Korean legislative elections just around the corner, the Yoon administration’s main audience will not be foreign political and industry leaders but rather the domestic populace, many of whom are wondering where their needs fit into the larger presidential policy agenda. 

Domestic issues such as tepid economic growth, rising cost of living, and cut-throat employment environments will be foremost in many South Korean voters’ minds. The Yoon administration will need to re-define its recent international successes to reassert the domestic value of a more globally-minded South Korea. 

However, this has not been easy with heated clashes between top-down presidential policy and public communities who have not accepted of these policies. A clear example, the ongoing doctor’s strike, embodies the difficulties of political perception and lack of bottom-up support for Yoon’s domestic agenda.

With the goal of expanding South Korea’s talent pipeline to medical professions, the South Korean government announced an increase to the annual medical school enrollment quota, previously capped at 3,058 students per year, to nearly double the number of students accepted into medical institutions country-wide. In response to the higher-than-expected increase to 5,058 students starting in 2025, many junior doctors voted with their feet by staging walkouts and protests across the nation. 

Now months into the protest, the South Korean government’s medical policy negotiations has reached an impasse. The result has been a starkly politicized standoff between the government’s “non-negotiable” 2,000 minimum for quota increases and the nearly 11,000 trainee doctors who, despite threats and actualization of license suspensions, have remain firm in opposing the change. 

As the conflict continues, the Yoon administration and the PPP have felt the pressure of the prolonged stalemate, with the presidential office experiencing a five-week drop in approval ratings from 41.9 in February to 36.3 percent by the last week of March. 

Moreover, such domestic conflicts continue to hold open the door for the escalation of already fractious and divisive partisanship. Voters are increasingly discontent with the ongoing partisan politics of the country, divided as it is with an essentially two-party system.

Balancing Foreign and Domestic Agendas 

With the elections approaching, it is too early to tell how these frustrations will translate into voter turnout and election outcomes. Particularly, as old and new political parties fight to secure their relevance within South Korea’s increasingly divided political landscape, the role of the presidential office will remain a key focal point for evaluating the successes of both domestic and international policies. 

What should not be forgotten, however, is that government policy (whether foreign or domestic) is rooted in the local. South Korea’s National Assembly election is no exception.

As South Korea seeks to expand its role within the international community, strong domestic support will be paramount for policy cohesion, feasibility, and long-term sustainability both at home and aboard. Lest South Korea’s government overcomes its struggle to balance its outward-focused policy agenda alongside domestic-centered responses, the election results may have far-reaching implications for South Korea’s future domestic and foreign policy moving forward.