What the Election Loss Means for President Yoon of South Korea


In political banners, campaign slogans and everyday conversations, South Koreans used two words to convey the high stakes of this week’s parliamentary election: “Judgment Day.” It was an opportunity to issue a verdict on the first two years of President Yoon Suk Yeol, a leader who has made strides on the global stage but is deeply unpopular and divisive at home.

The results, released on Thursday, were disastrous for Mr. Yoon.

Voters pushed him to the verge of being a lame duck, giving the opposition one of the biggest parliamentary majorities in recent decades. He becomes the first South Korean president in decades to contend with an opposition-controlled Parliament for his entire time in office.

The outcome — and the increasingly polarized South Korean political climate that Mr. Yoon helped intensify — heralded deepening deadlock in a country that is crucial to U.S. efforts to counter China and North Korea. It reduces the odds of Mr. Yoon achieving anything that requires bipartisan support. And it raises the prospect of him leaving office in 2027 with little to show other than redirecting his country’s foreign policy toward expanding military ties with Washington and Tokyo.

For months, political analysts, local media and even critics within his own party had been warning Mr. Yoon about his “disconnect” from everyday people and his “hubris” in dealing with the opposition, a national disaster, a prolonged strike by doctors and allegations of corruption involving his wife, Kim Keon Hee.

“His leadership has been a runaway train,” said Ahn Byong-jin, a political scientist at Kyung Hee University in Seoul, referring to Mr. Yoon’s obstinacy in pushing unpopular decisions.

During his two years in office, Mr. Yoon’s business-friendly domestic agenda has remained paralyzed by his toxic relationship with the opposition-controlled National Assembly, South Korea’s unicameral legislature. He was more successful overseas, basking in the spotlight in Washington and European capitals for his foreign policy and his country’s growing importance in the war in Ukraine.

For the United States, South Korea under Mr. Yoon is a key and willing partner in building a coalition against China — an effort highlighted by President Biden’s meetings this week with the leaders of Japan and the Philippines.

And while foreign policy largely rests in the hand of the president, Mr. Yoon’s weakened domestic stature could hamper his diplomatic initiatives, some of which have been highly controversial at home.

Lee Jae-myung, whose progressive Democratic Party carried the election, has vehemently criticized Mr. Yoon for expanding military cooperation with Japan, a former colonial master of Korea, and for alienating China, South Korea’s biggest trading partner, on Washington’s behalf. Mr. Lee also prefers dialogue with North Korea, unlike the approach by Mr. Yoon and by Washington of prioritizing sanctions and military deterrence.

When Mr. Yoon won the presidency in 2022, he inherited the Assembly elected two years earlier. He often blamed the opposition-controlled Parliament for blocking or watering down his domestic agenda, such as labor and health care policies. But for this week’s election debacle and his party’s continued lack of parliamentary majority for the rest of his term, Mr. Yoon had few to blame, except for himself.

Still, the election result could have been even worse for him.

The opposition Democratic Party and its coalition partners won nearly 190 seats, falling short of a supermajority of 200 seats, which would have allowed lawmakers to override a presidential veto or pursue an impeachment of the president. Mr. Yoon’s People Power Party and its affiliates won 108 seats, down from the 114 they control in the outgoing Parliament.

“This wise decision from the people left President Yoon and the opposition with no option but to start dialogue,” said Sung Deuk Hahm, a political scientist at Kyonggi University. “If they don’t wake up, things can get really ugly.”

Mr. Yoon needs help from the opposition in addressing runaway housing prices, a rapidly aging population and a long-delayed overhaul of the national pension system. Mr. Lee, who was defeated by Mr. Yoon two years ago and hopes to run for president again, also needs to build his leadership credentials.

Stunned by the election result, Mr. Yoon showed signs of doing something observers had once said he would never do: admitting that he was at fault.

Prime Minister Han Duck-soo and many of Mr. Yoon’s top aides tendered their resignations on Thursday to open the way for the president to reorganize his government. The expected shake-up did not include foreign policy aides, a sign that Mr. Yoon intended to maintain his diplomatic initiatives.

Presidential aides also told reporters that Mr. Yoon would try to build a cooperative relationship with members of the opposition, whom his party had called “criminals” during the campaign. Mr. Yoon did not speak publicly, but his chief of staff, Lee Kwan-sup, relayed a message from the president.

“I will humbly accept the will of the people as reflected in the election result and will overhaul the way the government is run and do my best to stabilize the economy and the people’s livelihood,” Mr. Yoon was quoted as saying.

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