South Korea’s liberal opposition parties scored a decisive victory in the recent National Assembly elections, routing the ruling conservative party of President Yoon Suk Yeol.

The election earlier this month was seen as a referendum on Yoon’s first two years in office and the results risk turning him into a lame duck for the rest of his single, five-year term. The opposition will be emboldened to impede Yoon’s domestic policies and reform plans.

However, South Korea’s president likely will continue foreign and security policies that closely align with U.S. strategic interests.

Yoon was elected in May 2022 after espousing principled security policies to strengthen South Korea’s alliance with the United States, overcome historic animosities with Japan to focus on current regional challenges, and push back against the rising threats from China and North Korea. He pledged to increase defense spending and improve South Korea’s military.

Yoon delivered on his promises, enabling a resurgence in allied deterrence and defense capabilities against North Korea’s growing nuclear and missile arsenals. In 2022, the U.S. and South Korea resumed large-scale military exercises and Washington restarted rotational deployments of strategic assets (bombers, submarines, and aircraft carriers), both after a four-year hiatus.

Yoon’s courageous outreach to Japan was harshly criticized by the opposition party but invigorated bilateral relations and enabled resumption of trilateral military cooperation with the United States.

Yoon’s April 2023 summit in Washington and the historic Camp David summit in August with the U.S. and Japan were both resoundingly successful in affirming and expanding allied cooperation on wide-ranging security, diplomatic, and economic topics.

Resounding Election Loss for Yoon

South Korea’s unicameral National Assembly is elected every four years, but the one-term president is elected every five years.

In the April 10 election, the progressive Democratic Party and affiliated Democratic United Party won 175 of a total of 300 seats, while the ruling People Power Party and affiliated People Future Party won 108 seats. (The Rebuilding Korea Party won 12 seats and could align itself with the progressive opposition.)

The opposition gained enough seats to fast-track legislation and end filibusters, but fell short of the 200-seat supermajority that would have given it the power to override presidential vetoes, amend the Constitution, or impeach Yoon.

Voter turnout, at 67% of the electorate, was the highest for a South Korean legislative election in 32 years. Major issues included the slowing national economy, rising prices, and various candidate scandals.

Foreign and security issues did not seem to resonate with the electorate. Voters punished Yoon’s party for its perceived mismanagement of the economy and unwillingness to work with the opposition.

Biggest Impact on Domestic, Not Security, Policies

Yoon’s term has been marked by government gridlock, with legislative resistance to his policies as well as his frequent vetoes of National Assembly initiatives.

This impasse will continue, with Yoon finding it difficult to implement his promised reforms to the country’s education, pension, and labor systems.

Yoon isn’t a traditional politician, having spent his career as a prosecutor. He is less interested in polling data on policies or his personal popularity. He has set a firm course for aligning with the U.S. and Japan while raising South Korea’s international role as a “global pivotal state.

Yoon will be undeterred by his party’s loss at the polls and will maintain his foreign and security agenda. After narrowly winning election two years ago, he has faced a majority opposition party in the National Assembly and low popularity ratings throughout his tenure. Despite those factors, he implemented bold foreign policy changes.

However, Yoon now may face greater challenges in implementing his policies due to an energized opposition party that is eager to obstruct his priorities, his own political party’s distancing itself from an unpopular president, and bureaucrats’ fear of being perceived as too closely aligned with Yoon lest it hurt their careers after a possible party change in the 2027 presidential election.

The opposition party is expected to step up its criticism of Yoon’s foreign policies, since it favors a more accommodating stance toward Pyongyang and Beijing, resistance to improving relations with Japan, and greater independence from U.S. policies.

But such policies have less public support due to the failed U.S. and South Korean summits with North Korea in 2018-19, Pyongyang’s rejection of all requests for dialogue, and escalating provocations.

Pressing Ahead on Strengthening Alliances

Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida have been stalwart allies in Washington’s efforts to rally Indo-Pacific nations to enhance measures to combat the growing Chinese and North Korean threats.

Both South Korea and Japan have made significant improvements to their militaries and have striven to assume larger security roles in the region.

The U.S. should intensify ongoing initiatives to develop a latticework of multilateral security partnerships in the Indo-Pacific, as well as economic collaborations to reduce China’s ability to economically coerce or retaliate against nations that anger Beijing.