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Supporters with a placard 'April 10 is the Yoon Suk Yeol government, Judgment Day.' attend the Democratic Party of Korea's general election campaign rally at Yongsan Station Square in Seoul, South Korea, April 9, 2024.

Matrix Images / Lee Kitae via Reuters Connect

South Korean opposition likely to clean up in key elections

South Koreans went to the polls today for key legislative elections amid a bitterly polarized environment and a sluggish economy, with early exit polls showing a likely landslide for the opposition Democratic Party. President Yoon Suk Yeol has been stymied by DP control of the unicameral legislature throughout the first two years of his presidency, and his People Power Party was facing daunting odds heading into today.

Cost of living is top of mind. Opposition leader Lee Jae-myung turned the humble green onions that feature in so many Korean dishes into a political weapon after Yoon made remarks on their price that were perceived as being out of touch. Meanwhile, Yoon’s wife, Kim Keon-hee, has been at the center of a luxury gift scandal, which has hardly helped with perceptions of aloofness.

That said, Lee faces graft allegations of his own and is no less of a controversial figure. In fact, he was lucky to survive an attempted assassination in January, when he was stabbed in the neck at a campaign rally. Political violence is not unheard of in South Korea, but the incident underlines the depth of the country’s political divisions.

“Because of the political polarization, South Koreans end up deciding elections based on things like whether the first lady received a $2,000 handbag and didn't report it,” says Eurasia Group senior analyst Jeremy Chan. “It speaks to the underlying dynamic in South Korea, where folks are deciding on the trivial stuff because the political parties can't deal with the big issues.”

And there are BIG issues on South Korea’s plate: The country is getting old and having very few babies, economic growth is weak and unlikely to improve, and, of course, North Korea’s nuclear weapons threaten total annihilation.

Chan expects Yoon to continue focusing on foreign policy if exit polls hold true, including “doubling down on the rapprochement with Japan, broadening relations with Europe, with ASEAN, and with the United States, while moving further away from China and North Korea, because that's where he can exert influence without the National Assembly.”

Official results are expected early Thursday.

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol speaking at the presidential office on TV at Seoul Railroad Station in Seoul. April 1, 2024

Kim Jae-Hwan / SOPA Images via Reuters

Viewpoint: South Korea’s president looks to legislative elections to kickstart his agenda

All 300 seats in South Korea's unicameral legislature will be up for grabs in the April 10 election, offering President Yoon Suk-yeol the opportunity to kickstart his agenda if his conservative People Power Party, or PPP, can gain control of the National Assembly. The center-left Democratic Party of Korea, aka DP, currently holds a majority of the seats in the chamber and has frustrated Yoon’s efforts to advance business-friendly policies since he took office in 2022.

Nonetheless, the PPP faces long odds in flipping the chamber, according to Eurasia Group expert Jeremy Chan. We asked him to explain.

Why the poor prospects for the PPP?

The conservative party would need to gain roughly three dozen seats to recapture the National Assembly, a tall order that will be made even more challenging by Yoon’s low approval rating, which hovers below 40%. While his name will not appear on the ballot, the election is widely seen as a referendum on Yoon’s administration.

For Yoon, failing to recapture the National Assembly would effectively render him a lame duck with more than half of his term in office remaining. It would put his agenda of cuts to taxes and government spending on life support and make him the first Korean president in decades to serve an entire five-year term without ever exerting control over the legislature. Attention would promptly shift to the race to succeed Yoon in the 2027 presidential election.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the groundbreaking ceremony for the construction of a factory in Songchon County, North Korea, February 28, 2024.


IAEA chief backs Japan-North Korea talks

International Atomic Energy Agency head Rafael Grossi said Tuesday that the UN body supports Japan’s efforts to hold a summit with North Korea to boost engagement, even if nuclear weapons aren’t on the agenda.

Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida has said he is prepared to meet with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un as he tries to bring back Japanese nationals abducted to North Korea between 1977 and 1983. Kim’s sister Kim Yo Jong, who holds considerable sway, indicated that Pyongyang would be open to talks with Japan last month.

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North Korean leader Kim Jong Un attends the 10th Session of the 14th Supreme People's Assembly of the Democratic People's Republic of Korea, at the Mansudae Assembly Hall, in Pyongyang, North Korea, January 15, 2024.


What’s Kim Jong Un playing at?

On Tuesday, North Korean state media reported that Supreme Leader Kim Jong Un had proposed changing the country’s constitution to remove all references to reunification with South Korea and to frame Seoul as the country’s “primary foe.” It echoes the rejection of reunification Kim made in his New Year’s speech and comes a week after North Korean forces fired artillery shells across their disputed maritime border with South Korea.

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The Camp David summit
The Camp David summit | Quick Take | GZERO Media

The Camp David summit

Ian Bremmer's Quick Take: Hi everybody. Ian Bremmer here and a Quick Take on the Camp David Principles, the historic meeting taking place in Camp David today between President Biden, the Japanese Prime Minister Kishida, and South Korean President Yoon. It's historic. It's a big deal. It's worth talking about. And frankly, I consider this to be the most significant successful piece of diplomacy of the Biden administration to date. It is roughly equivalent in my mind to the Abraham Accords of the Trump administration. In that case, this was leading to direct diplomatic engagement, opening relations between Israel, America's top ally in the region and the UAE, Bahrain and Morocco, other American allies in the region. With the Saudis, not signing, but certainly getting closer. It's important in part because it stabilized a region that matters to the United States. It also allows for better strategic coordination long-term, and it is broadly speaking, supported by both sides.

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South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol meets with Netflix co-CEO Ted Sarandos during a news conference in Washington, DC.

Yonhap via REUTERS

“Squid Game” diplomacy

When US President Joe Biden hosts South Korea's President Yoon Suk Yeol at the White House on Wednesday, the two leaders will have a lot to talk about.

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Handout photo dated January 14, 2020 shows an MQ-9 Reaper flies over the Nevada Test and Training Range.

William Rio Rosado via Abaca Press via Reuters Connect

What We’re Watching: Drone drama, DeSantis vs. Ukraine, Japan hearts South Korea, Pakistan-Khan standoff

Drone drama over the Black Sea

In what is so far the closest thing to a direct clash between the US and Russia over Ukraine, a Russian jet on Tuesday crashed into an American drone over the Black Sea, sending the unmanned craft hurtling into the water.

Moscow disputes the claim, saying its jets didn't hit the drone. The US accused the pilots of two Russian Su-27s of being “unprofessional” and “environmentally unsafe” for harassing and “dumping fuel” on the $32 million MQ-9 Reaper drone.

But scholars point out that the US didn’t call the act “unlawful.” Russia was evidently within its rights to disrupt a drone in international territory that was almost certainly gathering intel for Moscow’s adversaries in Kyiv. Still, the incident shows the dangers of US and Russian military hardware operating in such close proximity, even if they aren’t in direct conflict.

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North Korean fireworks coming

As their relations with the US have soured, China and Russia have grown more reluctant to help the US and South Korea manage their North Korea problem. This has created more space for the North to develop and show off the weapons capabilities that the nation’s rogue regime deems essential to its survival.

Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un recently called for an “exponential increase” in North Korea’s nuclear arsenal. In response to the heightened threat, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has said that US guarantees of protection may no longer be enough for his country and that it may need to acquire nukes of its own, although he has recently walked back some of those statements.

What could go wrong? We asked Eurasia Group expert Jeremy Chan what to expect this year on the Korean Peninsula.

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