The Korea Herald


The weight of likely union of Democratic Party, rising third power

Yoon faces new political reality of near two-thirds opposition majority

By Kim Arin

Published : April 11, 2024 - 17:59

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President Yoon Suk Yeol casts an early vote at a polling station in Busan, a southern port city, on April 5. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol casts an early vote at a polling station in Busan, a southern port city, on April 5. (Yonhap)

Cho Kuk, onetime justice minister under former President Moon Jae-in, is once again in the political limelight, nearly five years after he was dragged down by a corruption scandal in late 2019.

His Rebuilding Korea Party, or the “Cho Kuk Revolution Party” as its Korean name suggests, emerged as the party with the highest number of proportional representation seats from the results of the National Assembly election on Wednesday, behind only those affiliated with the two major parties.

Cho seems to be on track to becoming an unusual third-party success in South Korean politics.

But with just a dozen seats, he will need the support of the Assembly-controlling Democratic Party, and possibly that of other minor parties, to deliver on his policy pledges.

The “two main pillars” of his ultimate objective in venturing into politics, he says, are to bring an end to what he calls “the dictatorial regime of the prosecution service” and to establish a “new constitutional structure.”

In a press conference on April 4, less than a week before the election, the former justice minister proposed a revision of the Constitution to revamp the presidential system.

“The South Korean people must be in charge of their government. But under the current system, the government rules over the people like a monarchy. After Yoon took power, we are witnessing how badly the system we have can be exploited when in the wrong hands,” he said.

For the last five years, Cho has been mired in legal battles that are still ongoing. In his second trial in February, he was sentenced to two years in prison for cheating to get his children into top schools and for meddling with an internal probe into a close aide of then-President Moon while he was a senior presidential secretary.

For Cho, one of Moon’s best-known ministers, his legal troubles have not hurt his popularity.

He is seen as an anti-establishment visionary by his supporters who say they are tired of “Democratic Party of Korea inaction.”

“Cho Kuk is the man to finally do all the things the Democratic Party could have done with their 180-something seats, but didn’t,” a supporter in his mid-40s told The Korea Herald at the last campaign rally in Seoul’s central Gwanghwamun on Tuesday.

As one of his first steps, Cho has vowed to push a special counsel investigation into first lady Kim Keon-hee as well as his political nemesis Han Dong-hoon, who as a senior prosecutor handled an investigation that led to his jail sentence.


Political landscape facing Yoon

The crushing defeat of the ruling People Power Party in Wednesday’s election presents a stumbling block for President Yoon Suk Yeol, who has three more years left in his term.

The People Power Party president, who has frequently blamed the opposition for stymying his administration’s efforts to implement policies, now faces a new political reality of having to work with a nearly two-thirds opposition majority.

The Democratic Party and the other left-leaning third parties together occupy 189 seats -- a majority powerful enough to fast-track bills and end filibusters. The party by itself has won over half of the Assembly at 175 seats, which gives it the power to pass bills, budgets and nominations without a single vote from the ruling party.

This means Yoon must have the consent of the Democratic Party to appoint his ministers and judges to the Supreme Court and Constitutional Court. His Cabinet and the ruling party will be unable to legislate in the absence of Democratic Party input.

On top of having such influence over the president’s policy decisions, the Democratic Party can also bring the impeachment of prime ministers, judges and Cabinet members to an Assembly vote.

The speaker of the National Assembly will also most likely be chosen from the Democratic Party, as the party with the most seats. The speaker has the power to set the agenda for plenary sessions and interpret laws and regulations concerning the proceedings of the Assembly.


Likelihood of alliance

In the wake of the new Rebuilding Korea Party’s surprising success, Democratic Party insiders, including lawmakers poised for leadership roles, have refrained from commenting on the possibility of joining hands with the former star minister-turned-lawmaker who leads the party.

Rep. Woo Won-shik, a four-time Democratic Party lawmaker, told The Korea Herald three days before the election on Sunday that the highly speculated merger with Cho’s party “might be something a little too difficult to be realized, at this point.”

He pointed out that the reform initiatives pledged by Cho are “nothing brand new.” “To be honest these are what he should have done, but had failed to do when he was justice minister under the Moon administration,” he said.

Shortly after the vote count revealed a victory for the Democratic Party on Wednesday evening, Woo noted that the unusual success the former minister experienced as a minor party “seems to be the result of public confidence in an opposition victory.”

Rep. Kim Yong-min, who is seen as being on the more progressive front within the Democratic Party, told The Korea Herald that the support Cho is getting was “definitely a plus” for the opposition.

“There is a perception that Cho’s party and the Democratic Party share the same political fate of keeping Yoon in check. That may be true, but it’s more complicated than that,” he said.

“People forget that Cho’s party was created by people who left the Democratic Party because they were not happy with the way things are. These are people who were disappointed with, or even fed up with our party because they feel we haven’t done enough, or that we are not distinctly liberal enough,” he said.

“So working together can be a lot harder than it seems.”