What does the Democratic Party’s landslide victory mean for South Korean climate policy?

On April 10, South Koreans voted in their legislative elections for members of their 300-seat National Assembly. President Yoon Suk Yeol’s People Power Party (PPP) and their allied satellite parties lost six seats, taking their total down to 108. The opposition Democratic Party (DP) and their satellites took their total number of seats up to 175 from 156. The only other significant party, the Rebuilding Korea Party (RKP), won 12 seats.

What does this mean for the international climate movement? Well, there are reasons to be optimistic. However, major progress is unlikely immediately after these elections. With the presidential elections coming up in 2027 though, these election results could be a sign of what’s to come.

South Korea’s climate profile

According to the EU’s Emissions Database for Global Atmospheric Research (EDGAR), South Korea was the thirteenth largest polluter in 2022. The country was responsible for 1.35% of global greenhouse gas emissions. This puts the country above Australia and Pakistan, and only narrowly behind Canada.

South Korea’s high levels of emissions is a result of its economic growth in the second half of last century. This growth relied on dirty industries such as steel manufacturers (POSCO) and oil refiners (SK Energy). Whilst this benefited the economy, recent extreme weather events have brought climate change to the forefront of many South Koreans’ minds.  

Unfortunately, the government’s green plan appears to be falling short of what is needed. The Climate Action Tracker (CAT) has ranked its climate change mitigation and energy sector plan as “highly insufficient” to meet the 1.5C target set in the Paris Agreement.

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Under president Yoon, efforts to tackle climate change have slowed. The previous president, DP’s Moon Jae-in, set a 100% renewable energy by 2050 target. President Yoon reneged on this pledge, prioritising nuclear energy instead. Whilst nuclear energy is cleaner than burning fossil fuels, it has several financial, logistical and safety drawbacks in comparison to renewables. Yoon’s presidency has seen a fall in the proportion of renewables and coal being used in South Korea’s power grid, but also a rise in fossil gases.

South Korea’s climate ambitions also score poorly on CAT’s index. Their nationally determined contributions (NDCs), climate targets set by countries themselves, have been ranked as “highly insufficient.” 

The South Korean government aims to reduce emissions by under 40% of 2018 levels by 2030. However, CAT estimate South Korea needs to cut emissions by around twice this amount to be compatible with the Paris Agreement.

The election

These elections were viewed as a referendum on president Yoon and his party before the 2027 presidential elections. The result was therefore damaging for his reputation.

He has been criticised for overseeing increasing inequality, rising house prices and high levels of youth unemployment. The president has compounded his unpopularity through scandals. For example, he was widely condemned for saying the price of green onions, a staple in the Korean diet, were “reasonable” amidst rising inflation. Additionally, his wife was filmed in December accepting a $2,200 designer handbag as a gift and has not been seen publicly since.

There were encouraging signs for climate activists in this election though. This was the first election in South Korean history that both major parties included the climate crisis in their top ten policy issues. Candidates were also selected specifically for their climate credentials. The PPP nominated the Climate Change Centre secretary general Kim Sohee. The DP’s first candidate was Park Jihye, a climate lawyer. This shows climate change is a growing political issue in the country.   

What this means for South Korean climate policy

The result of this election makes legislative gridlock in the National Assembly more likely. The opposing DP have a majority, but not a large enough majority to dominate the agenda from the opposition. Generally, 200 seats are needed for a supermajority which would allow the opposition to impeach the president or advance bills without the ruling party.

The DP though could disrupt the PPP’s nuclear strategy. The opposition favour greater investment in renewable energy and more radical climate action in general. However, there are risks with this approach. Creating stalemates will lead to a continuation in the current strategy which favours nuclear energy and fossil fuels over renewables.

In conclusion, it is unlikely that this election will lead to any major changes in South Korean climate policy. Major changes would be more likely after the 2027 presidential election, especially if the DP win. Environmentalists will be hoping that these legislative elections are an indication of a DP victory in three years’ time.