South Korea’s 2024 General Election: Results and Implications

On April 10, South Korea held its 22nd general election. The main opposition Democratic Party (DP) emerged victorious, winning a majority of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, with 175 of seats to the ruling People Power Party’s (PPP) 108 seats. The overall voter turnout was 67 percent, which was the highest record in 32 years. Traditionally considered as an implicit referendum on the incumbent president, the election received considerable attention as an opportunity to gauge South Korean citizens’ level of approval of President Yoon Suk Yeol. President Yoon’s domestic and foreign policy will face significant headwinds but given that he inherited a divided government two years ago, we do not expect significant changes.

Q1: What happened in the election?

A1: Despite neck-and-neck poll standings, the electorate showed a strong preference for opposition candidates to act as a counterbalance to the incumbent government, rather than strengthening the ruling party’s position. The DP secured 175 seats, the PPP 108, and the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), led by former justice minister Cho Kuk, captured 12. Specifically, the DP triumphed in 161 districts and added 14 seats via its satellite party, the Democratic Coalition, in the proportional representation seats, where 46 seats were contested based on nationwide party votes. The PPP won 90 districts and 18 proportional representation seats, while the RKP achieved 12 seats solely through the latter, not nominating candidates for district positions.

Remote Visualization

Many issues were on display in this election, ranging from traditionally important issues such as rising price levels, the economy, and candidate controversies to newly emerged issues, including the Yoon government’s plan to increase medical school quotas or the nominations of key personnel. The unfavorable results for the ruling party indicate that the rising prices of essential vegetables for family sustenance, coupled with the opposition’s critique of the administration’s perceived shortcomings in welfare, had a significant impact on the electorate’s mindset. This occurred despite the administration’s attempts to stabilize the economy and actions that were popular with the public during the confrontation with doctors who were striking in opposition to the increase in medical school admissions.

Q2: What does the result mean for President Yoon Suk Yeol domestically?

A2: The victory of the main opposition party suggests the continuation of a strained relationship between President Yoon and the legislative body. Since his inauguration, President Yoon’s domestic policies have frequently faced strong opposition from the National Assembly, predominantly controlled by the progressive opposition, which held about 60 percent of the seats. As of January 2024, only 29.2 percent of the bills submitted to the National Assembly have been enacted, significantly less than the 61.4 percent passage rate under the previous government.

President Yoon has already outlined key future domestic policies, including plans to increase housing supply, relax greenbelt zone restrictions, and implement major infrastructure projects, as promised through numerous town hall meetings since early 2024. Although these initiatives temporarily boosted his domestic popularity, the election outcome, favoring the opposition, will likely complicate efforts to advance these policies, already criticized as “populist” by opponents.

The DP, now joined by the more progressive RKP, is expected to leverage perceived issues within the Yoon administration surrounding his family and controversial nominations to initiate special probes in the assembly. This could also lead to an increase in political maneuvers by the opposition to weaken his standing, including the impeachment proceedings against key administration figures, showcased through earlier cases involving high-profile ministers.

Q3: How will this election outcome affect South Korea’s foreign policy?

A3: Probably not much. South Korea’s foreign policy is likely to stay on its current course because Yoon’s foreign policy is not based on populism. Since the beginning of his presidency, strong opposition from the DP in the legislative body and a relatively low approval rating have not deterred Yoon from reversing the previous government’s foreign policy. Yoon has followed his campaign pledge to strengthen the U.S.-South Korea alliance and take a strong stance on North Korea’s provocations and has also shown that South Korea and the United States are in tight alignment over their regional strategy. Most notably, Yoon has pushed forward to improve South Korea’s strained relationship with Japan despite the risk of political backlash at home.

Expect the opposition party to turn up the volume on its criticism of Yoon’s foreign policy as impractical. Notably, DP leader Lee Jae-myung has advocated neutrality in issues concerning the Taiwan Strait and Ukraine during the recent election campaign. This stance sharply contrasts with Yoon’s approach, which has sought to enhance South Korea’s global profile through enhanced support for Ukraine, hosting the Summit for Democracy, and promoting value-based diplomacy. With the new National Assembly, this strategic division is likely to deepen.

Q4: What are the implications?

A4: First, President Yoon and his party experienced a pyrrhic victory of sorts. Some may take solace in the fact that despite historical trends going against the incumbent president during a midterm election, Yoon’s low approval ratings, and pre-election prediction suggesting a big loss, the actual number of seats that the PPP lost was only six. Initial exit polls suggested a landslide, sweeping victory for the main opposition DP, with some predictions of a near-supermajority (200 seats) that would have greatly emboldened the opposition during the last three years of Yoon’s term.

Second, the DP scored a big victory in this election but did not manage to achieve the goal of the desired three-fifths majority (180 seats) or supermajority (200+ seats) that would have given them much more room to operate on measures such as ending a filibuster or advancing bills to the plenary session for unilateral passage without the PPP.

Third, Cho Kuk’s splinter party, the RKP, has gained critical leverage as a result of this election. His party’s 12 seats could now potentially play a pivotal role if the DP aims for legislative actions that require a three-fifths majority (180 seats). However, the future of the party could hinge on the outcome of the South Korean supreme court’s decision regarding allegations against Cho Kuk of falsifying documents for his daughter’s college admission. A guilty verdict, consistent with the previous two rulings, would strip Cho of his legislator status, though he could still lead the party under its approval.

Lastly, many of the key partisan players on both sides of the aisle won their races, including Lee Jae-myung (DP leader, Incheon-Gyeyang B district), Ahn Cheol-soo (former presidential candidate, Seongnam Bundang A district), Choo Mi Ae (former justice minister and hardline DP progressive, Gyeonggi Hanam district), Na Kyung-won (former floor leader and hardline PPP conservative, Seoul Dongjak B district) and Lee Jun-seok (former head of the PPP, Gyeonggi Hwasung B district), ensuring or even further cementing political polarization. On a positive note, a number of foreign policy experts and former diplomats won seats on both sides of the aisle, including Wi Sung-lac (former ambassador to Russia), Kim Joon-hyung (former chancellor of the Korea National Diplomatic Academy), Park Jie-won (former director of National Intelligence Service, South Jeolla Haenam–Wando–Jindo district), Kim Gunn (former special representative for Korean Peninsula Peace and Security Affairs), and two former unification ministers, Kwon Young-se (Seoul Yongsan district) and Lee In-young (Seoul Guro A district), ensuring substantive knowledge on foreign affairs in the legislature amid the polarized politics.

Victor Cha is senior vice president for Asia and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. and professor at Georgetown University. Jinwan Park is an intern with the CSIS Korea Chair. Andy Lim is associate fellow with the CSIS Korea Chair.

Victor Cha
Senior Vice President for Asia and Korea Chair

Jinwan Park

Research Intern, Korea Chair
Andy Lim
Associate Fellow, Korea Chair