Contemplating Possible Outcomes and Implications of the South Korean General Election

(Source: Republic of Korea Presidential Security Service. Official Photographer: KANG MIN SEOK)

With less than one month to go until the South Korean general election on April 10, all eyes are on the National Assembly. The outcome of this election looks to be a referendum on the Yoon Suk Yeol government and a setup for the next presidential election in 2027. The latest polling suggests that the election will be close, with neither major party appearing to give any ground. However, things can change quickly in the coming weeks: The South Korean political landscape looks as fluid as ever with the formation of new parties and new scandalous facts being reported about the leadership of both major parties. In this highly uncertain environment, better preparation and understanding are possible through a carefully weighted preponderance of different evidence and scenarios.

The Stakes

This election holds different meanings for different stakeholders. For President Yoon, it is about his legacy. Without a cooperative National Assembly, President Yoon will be a de facto lame duck for the remainder of his term. The National Assembly thus far has not been cooperative because the opposition controls nearly 60 percent of all parliamentary seats.

From a foreign policy standpoint, a cooperative National Assembly would be critical to institute the kinds of reforms and regulations consistent with the spirit of the US-ROK Joint Statements of 2022 and 2023, as well as South Korea’s Indo-Pacific Strategy. Although the Yoon government has succeeded in working with the opposition to pass measures such as the Framework Act on Supply Chain Stabilization Support for Economic Security in late December 2023 and the Special Law on Aerospace Administration in January 2024, the National Assembly is still deliberating on issues related to standard setting on cybersecurity and artificial intelligence (AI).[1] A more cooperative National Assembly means fewer resources wasted on defending policy pursuits and less watering down of the administration’s agenda.

For the major parties, this election is also a testing ground for the presidential election in 2027. Former Justice Minister and prosecutor Han Dong-hoon has finally emerged as the Chairman of the Emergency Committee of the ruling People Power Party (PPP) and its interim leader. He is currently ahead in the polls as one of two leading candidates for a presidential run in 2027, even though he has not declared any ambition to do so (Figure 1). Yet, he represents a generational change within the conservative mainstream and stands as an alternative voice to the 586 generation—South Koreans in their 50s who attended college in the 1980s and were born in the 1960s—who are so dominant within the Democratic Party (DP). [2] In some ways, he has already managed to capture the interests of younger South Korean voters who care more about individualism and personal preferences and less about collectivism, tradition and hierarchy.

Figure 1. Support for Future Presidential Hopefuls, June 2022 – March 2024. (Unit: Percent)[3]

This election will also be a reality check for the main opposition Democratic Party. Lee Jae-myung, who is facing multiple graft charges, will be watching to see if success in this election can provide the momentum needed to justify his renewed presidential bid in 2027. A significant loss of seats in this election will likely be taken as a rejection of Lee’s political aspirations, and the DP will have to regroup and rebuild after the election. However, he is still one of the two front-runners for the presidential bid—that is, if he is not squeezed out by others such as the former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, who is making a strong case for a possible run in 2027.

The Current Outlook

A good starting point for understanding the lay of the land is the current polling data. While this is hardly deterministic, it is a useful rearview mirror to the relative performance of each player as they position themselves in the final stretch of this election cycle.[4] One interesting trend that can be observed in the latest data is the change in public support for the major parties since the Lunar New Year in mid-February (Figures 2 and 3).

The support for the ruling PPP, for instance, increased significantly at the end of February. The DP is also contending, although the gap appears to be growing. This change coincided with a significant drop in independent voters from 34 percent in August 2023 to about 17 percent in the most recent polling. Perhaps discussions around the holiday dinner tables helped some undecided voters finally make up their minds.

Figure 2. Party Support May 10, 2022 – March 14, 2024. (Unit: Percent)[5]
Figure 3. Party Support January 9, 2024 – March 14, 2024. (Unit: Percent)[6]

The above trend also overlaps with the emergence of some newly formed parties that entered the fray late in the game. Although the relative support for these new parties may appear marginal at best, the difference between the two major parties is small enough that these third parties can influence the outcome in April. Take, for instance, Cho Kuk’s new progressive-leaning National Innovation Party (Figure 3). The announcement of its launch came only recently, yet it has already gained quite a following among both independent and progressive voters. Some observers speculate that this party may be able to win as many as 10 seats in the new National Assembly if the latest trend continues.

Of course, smaller parties like the National Innovation Party have an uphill battle in single-member districts (SMD), but they do have a chance at the semi-mixed proportional representation (PR) seats if they can garner more than three percent of the national PR votes. (Of the 300 seats in the National Assembly, 46 are set aside for semi-mixed PR.)[7]

Although the two largest parties have positioned themselves to absorb as many PR votes as possible through the so-called satellite parties, polls indicate that the newly formed third parties are performing relatively well.[8] If the minor parties can compete for some of these PR seats in a close election, they are likely to play a pivotal role in the passage or obstruction of important bills in the next National Assembly.[9]

These parties may have good reasons to be optimistic. The two major parties are facing criticisms for a lack of transparency in the candidate nomination process and political scandals surrounding their leadership. In fact, these two issues explain why many incumbents are leaving the two major parties to join the newly formed parties.

Moreover, the incumbent National Assembly members, who have been denied their respective party nominations, have argued that the internal party process only favors candidates whose preferences align with those of the leadership. Countless media reports seem to support this argument, with most PPP candidates being from the so-called pro-Yoon faction, while candidates for the DP are mainly from the pro-Lee Jae-myung camp. Without reforming the nomination process itself, the criticism against the nomination process is likely to persist.

Lessons and Patterns from Past Elections

While these factors may provide some explanation for the current trends in the polls, history suggests that they do not do a good job of forecasting how the election may play out. This was the case in 2012 and 2016 (Figure 4), when polling was very different from the election outcomes. Polls were more accurate in 2020, but the circumstances surrounding that election were quite unusual, occurring during a pandemic while the conservative opposition was still effectively decimated from President Park Geun-hye’s impeachment in 2017.

Instead, the history of past elections shows that the ruling party generally appears to have an edge over the opposition (Figure 5).

Figure 4. Pre-Election Polling on Party Support and Presidential Approval, 2012 – 2020.[10]

That said, the ruling party lost a sizable number of seats in 2016, and the ruling coalition failed to win the plurality of seats in 2000. The election in 2008 was also somewhat unusual, with parliamentary elections occurring only a few months after a presidential election, enabling the conservative ruling party the benefit of riding the coattails of the conservative candidate’s presidential win. The circumstances surrounding this year’s election, however, are different from all of these rather unique cases.

Figure 5. South Korean General Election Results, 1988 – 2020. Unit: Number of seats)[11]

Some observers suggest that President Yoon’s low approval ratings (Figure 6) work against the ruling party. As the de facto leader of the party, the president is likely to influence support for the ruling party, but in this year’s election, Han appears to be an equally important factor in shaping the ruling party’s image.

Figure 6. Presidential Approval, October 2023 – March 2024. (Unit: Percent)

History also suggests that presidential approval is not always a good predictor of election outcome. The polling data from 2012, for instance, shows that both the president and the ruling party suffered from low public approval just a couple of months before the election, yet the ruling party was able to defend almost all seats won in the landslide election of 2008 (Figures 4 and 5). In fact, the ruling party lost seats in 2016 when presidential approval was significantly higher than in 2012.

Possible Scenarios

In looking at this year’s election dynamics, there are at least four possible scenarios to consider.

The most likely scenario is one where the main opposition loses seats, but the results do not change the dynamics of the legislative process in the National Assembly. That is, the conservatives may gain seats or perhaps even control the majority, but the National Assembly will remain split, requiring bipartisan cooperation and compromise to move legislation forward. This is because the National Assembly requires 180 votes to break the filibuster.[13] In essence, the failure to secure 180 votes on a floor vote implies a greater likelihood for persistence of gridlock in the legislative process and difficulty for the president or ruling party to initiate unilateral changes.

The second possible scenario is one where a viable third party presents a strong alternative to the two major parties with the possibility of a larger coalition forming either on the progressive or conservative side. Currently, the National Innovation Party looks like a party that can attract undecided votes. There is also a strong possibility that the National Innovation Party will coalesce with the DP to obstruct President Yoon’s policy agenda. If the progressive opposition parties are unable to strike a grand bargain to form a united front, they may weaken their chances in the 2027 presidential election. The same logic applies to the PPP and the more conservative-leaning third parties, such as the New Reform Party, if they perform beyond expectation.

A third scenario is one where the DP retains its supermajority grip on the National Assembly and keeps the Yoon administration in check. The likelihood of this outcome is not high since special conditions like what existed in 2012 or 2020 do not currently exist. However, if this were to happen, the progressives would do everything in their power to obstruct President Yoon and the conservatives from pushing their agenda. President Yoon’s domestic agenda is likely to stall while his foreign policy will face growing legislative scrutiny and oversight.

The last scenario is one where the ruling conservative party outperforms all other parties, to everyone’s surprise, and takes control of the supermajority needed to advance bills through the floor votes. This would be interpreted as a vote of confidence on the Yoon administration and the conservatives to institute the kind of reforms President Yoon promised to change the status quo. However, this kind of outcome is not likely for the same reasons a dominant pro-progressive outcome is unlikely.


History suggests that the South Korean political climate can change quickly. However, the above discussion provides useful markers that would signal which of the four scenarios outlined is likely in the days ahead.

One key variable is how the third parties measure up against the major parties or whether some coordination or grand bargain forms between them. Other variables include what changes (if any) are there to the preferences of independent or undecided voters? How do the major parties manage the negative media reporting of their respective leadership? How does media reporting of these events change as the election approaches?

One recent bombshell issue working against the PPP is the Yoon administration’s handling of the special investigation of the former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup, who has been criticized for leaving the country early to assume his new position as the Ambassador to Australia. The issue has become a source of friction between the PPP and the president’s office, and there are signs that public opinion could be shifting against the president. Although Ambassador Lee has been called back to South Korea, it is unclear how the latest development might be perceived by voters in the days leading up to the election. The above list is hardly exhaustive, but it provides some useful guideposts to consider beyond just polling data as we look ahead to the election on April 10.

  1. [1]

    Robert C. O’Brien, “South Korea’s proposed tech regulations would be a gift to China,” The Hill, December 28, 2023,; “사이버안보연구소, ‘국가사이버안보기본법’ 제정 위한 입법 지원 활동 주력,” 보안뉴스 , February 20, 2024,; “사이버안보법 다시 안갯속… 대통령 지적에 전면 재논의,” Digital Today, September 7, 2023,; “국내 AI 법안만 13개 국회서 ‘낮잠’… ‘토종 AI 발전 막아선 안돼,” 파이낸셜뉴스, March 14, 2024,; “‘AI 기본법’ 올해는 빛볼까… 과기정통부 ‘21대 국회 종료 전 통과 목표,’” Digital Today, January 2, 2024,; and “‘챗GPT 시대’ 이미 열렸는데 ‘AI 기본법’ 국회서 수년째 낮잠,” Donga Ilbo, August 2, 2023,

  2. [2]

    Kim Tae-Hyo and Bernard Rowan, “The Rise and Fall of South Korea’s 586 Generation: Implications for the US Alliance,” The Washington Quarterly 45, no. 2 (2022): 23-38,

  3. [3]

    The weighted sample ranges from n = 1,000-1,005 with an approximate margin of error ±3.1 percent point (using a 95 percent confidence interval). The question wording reads: “Who do you think would be a good political leader to lead our country as the future president?” Source: Gallup Korea.

  4. [4]

    Sunmin Kim and Taeku Lee, “Making Opinions Public: Polling and Democratic Responsiveness in South Korea,” Politics and Society, (2023),; Joshua Clinton, “Polling Problems and Why We Should Still Trust (Some) Polls,” Vanderbilt Project on Unity and American Democracy, January 11, 2021,; Courtney Kennedy, Andrew Mercer, Nick Hatley and Arnold Lau, “Does public opinion polling about issues still work?” Pew Research Center, September 21, 2022,; and E.J. Dionne and Thomas E. Mann, “Polling and Public Opinion: The good, the bad, and the ugly,” Brookings Commentary, June 1, 2003,

  5. [5]

    The weighted sample ranges from n = 1,0001,009 with an approximate margin of error ±3.1 percent point (using a 95 percent confidence interval). The question wording reads: “Which of the following political parties do you support?” The x-axis represents the week in a month of the year indicated. Source: Gallup Korea.

  6. [6]


  7. [7]

    Although the number of semi-mixed PR seats was 47 in the last election, the redistricting agreement announced by the National Assembly in late February increased the number of SMD seats by one (each) in Incheon and Gyeonggi Province while reducing one SMD seat in Seoul and one PR seat, making the total PR seat for this year’s election 46; “National Assembly Passes Redistricting Bill ahead of April Elections,” KBS, February 29, 2024,

  8. [8]

    Due to the unique method by which votes are translated into semi-mixed PR seats, the major parties have a significant disadvantage compared to smaller third parties from winning the PR seats in Korean general elections. Hence, instead of relying on the established party ticket for the PR votes, the major parties have resorted to the use of so-called “satellite parties” under a different name that will allow them to maximize the chance that their preferred candidates will win as many semi-mixed PR seats as possible.

  9. [9]

    Keith Krehbiel, Pivotal Politics: A Theory of U.S. Lawmaking (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1998).

  10. [10]

    The percentages are taken from the last available polling data immediately before the election. The asterisk (*) indicates the party of the president. The weighted sample ranges from n = 1,000-1,003 with an approximate margin of error ±3.1 percent point (using a 95 percent confidence interval). Question wording on partisan support reads: “Which of the following political parties do you support?” On presidential approval, the question wording reads: “Do you think President OOO’s performance of his duties as president is well or poor these days? Well (approve) or not good (disapprove).” Source: Gallup Korea.

  11. [11]

    The asterisk (*) represents the party of the president. Bold type indicates the party or coalition that gained the plurality of seats in the corresponding National Assembly. Source: National Election Commission (

  12. [12]

    The weighted sample ranges from n = 1,000-1,009 with an approximate margin of error ±3.1 percent point (using a 95 percent confidence interval). Question wording reads: “Do you think President Yoon Suk-yeol’s performance of his duties as president is well or poor these days? Well (approve) or not good (disapprove).” Source: Gallup Korea.

  13. [13]

    Woojin Moon, “Law Production in Multiparty Presidentialism: Veto Player Theory and its Application to Korea.” Journal of East Asian Studies, 22, (2022): 125-145.

Stay informed about our latest
news, publications, & uploads:
I'm interested in...
38 North: News and Analysis on North Korea