Even by the standards of South Korea’s often ruthless politics, the country’s presidential election, which is nearing the end of its primary phase, has caused many political pundits in Seoul to cringe.
The campaign, which will culminate in a final March vote, has been marked by high-profile corruption allegations, embarrassing gaffes, and salacious personal attacks, some involving the sex lives and religious practices of leading candidates.
South Korea, which emerged from a military dictatorship in the 1980s, is no stranger to cutthroat politics. It can often feel like a zero-sum game; all four of South Korea’s living former presidents have been convicted of crimes, many after their political rivals took power.
However, it’s been a while since an election cycle felt so petty, lamented Kim Su-min, a veteran South Korean political observer.
“At least the candidates used to keep their dignity,” he told VOA. “Now it's just a huge mess.”
A sample of the drama:
Conservative candidate Yoon Seok-youl, a former chief prosecutor, has been dogged by accusations he relies on shamanism and superstition. During a recent television debate, he was forced to deny meeting with an unlicensed religious medical practitioner who specializes in anal acupuncture. But while doing so, he wound up defending the teachings of a long-bearded mystic who claims he can travel between dimensions.
At another debate earlier this year, outspoken provincial governor Lee Jae-myung, who has claimed the nomination of the liberal Democratic Party, offered to pull down his pants after a rival brought up old allegations of an extramarital affair with a well-known actress who had described what she said was a distinctive mole on the candidate's genitals.
Both candidates have also been accused by their political rivals of involvement in a pair of wider corruption scandals. Yoon, the former chief prosecutor, faces suspicions he ordered a subordinate to prepare criminal complaints against pro-government figures on behalf of the opposition party ahead of a crucial election last year. Lee faces questions of whether he knew or was involved in a snowballing real estate corruption scandal that took place during his time as mayor of a town on the outskirts of Seoul.
Both men deny the allegations, and neither has been formally charged with wrongdoing. But the stories have dominated domestic news coverage, drowning out issues such as skyrocketing housing prices, high youth unemployment, and a pandemic-induced economic slowdown. Meanwhile, some of the quieter, experienced candidates who appeal to centrists have fallen out of the race.
The campaign feels so bleak that one editorial writer for the prominent, left-leaning Hankyoreh newspaper declared this the “golden era of bad guys running for president.”
As chaotic as the presidential race may sound, it’s arguably no fiercer than in the past.
Former President Park Geun-hye, the daughter of South Korea’s military dictator Park Chung-hee, remains jailed following her 2017 impeachment and subsequent conviction involving a massive influence-peddling operation.
Ex-president Roh Moo-hyun was also the focus of a corruption investigation that ended prematurely after he jumped off a cliff to his death in 2009.
Kim Dae-jung, another former president, was globally revered for his lifelong democracy activism but was frequently accused at home of being a communist.
So how did it get this way? Experts cite a combination of factors, some which plague democracies worldwide and others that are unique to South Korea.
Complicated media history
A major reason for South Korea’s political turbulence is the ease with which unsubstantiated rumors are allowed to spread in domestic media. Understanding that dynamic requires looking at South Korea's complicated history.
Most of South Korea’s biggest newspapers have links to chaebols — powerful, family-run conglomerates that were the driving force behind rapid economic growth under the postwar U.S.-backed military dictatorship.
During the military rule, South Korean newspapers frequently accused public figures of being communists without evidence, said Erik Mobrand, Korea policy chair and senior political scientist at the Rand Corp., a California-based research organization.
“It was kind of McCarthyism all the time,” Mobrand told VOA.
As South Korea embraced democracy, many of its institutions underwent significant reforms. But the country’s major media outlets were an exception in many ways, said Mobrand.
“The major news agencies are now able to publish stories with accusations that don’t have terribly good grounding,” he said.
With such lax editorial standards, it is often hard to distinguish between what is genuine wrongdoing and what is a media-driven political attack. That helps explain why South Koreans consistently report among the lowest levels of trust in domestic media anywhere in the world.
“There are some real scandals, but there are also things where there is very little underneath it, but where the media has helped to turn an accusation into a scandal," Mobrand said.
“The press is very noisy for better and for worse in Seoul, and trying to read through it is really tricky business,” he added.
The situation has been further complicated by social media, which has fractured the media landscape and sharpened political divides.
As in many democracies, the information explosion has often allowed the loudest and most divisive voices to emerge at the top, pointed out Seong Han-yong, the Hankyoreh writer.
As an example of this phenomenon, Seong cited former Republican U.S. President Donald Trump’s victory over his Democratic challenger, Hillary Clinton, in the 2016 U.S. election campaign.
“Since the information revolution of the 21st century, voters have come to prioritize feelings over facts, and political spin doctors can operationalize outrage to galvanize the vote,” Seong said.
The old boys' club
There is also a generational factor at play in South Korea, which ranks low in international comparisons of gender equality.
Of the 22 candidates who ran in the primary election as members of South Korea’s two largest political parties, only one was female. Of the men, their average age was 63.
That may help explain some of the candidates’ comments that appear out of touch, said Ramon Pacheco-Pardo, a Korea specialist at King's College London.
“The older generation is very male-dominated, and frankly some of them haven't moved with the times,” he said.
Lesser of two evils?
It may also help explain why every leading candidate in South Korea’s election is very unpopular, according to approval ratings compiled by Gallup Korea.
Lee, the main liberal party nominee, has an approval rating of 34%.
On the conservative side, Yoon, the former chief prosecutor, comes in at just 30%. His main rival, politician Hong Joon-pyo, fares worse, at 28%.
“When these candidates face off against each other, people will be forced to choose between who they dislike the least,” said Kim Su-min, the political pundit. “It will be a very dark moment.”