SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — The race between South Korea’s two leading presidential candidates has seen an unprecedented level of toxic rhetoric, mudslinging and lawsuits.
How bad is it?
“Hitler,” “beast,” and “parasite” are some of the choicest insults practiced by both camps. Some even call it “The Squid Game Election,” a nod to Netflix’s megahit survival drama in which people are killed for losing children’s games.
And the stakes? There is widespread speculation that the loser will be arrested.
“It’s a terrible presidential election when the losing candidate faces jail time. Please survive this dogfight in the swamp!” senior opposition politician Hong Joon-pyo wrote on Facebook.
Just days before Wednesday’s election, Lee Jae-myung of the liberal ruling Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol of the main conservative opposition People Power Party are in an extremely close race.
Their negative campaigns are exacerbating South Korea’s already deep political divide at a time when it faces a struggling, pandemic-ravaged economy, a balancing act over competition between its main ally Washington and its key trading partner China, and a slew of threats and weapons tests dated rival North Korea.
Opinion polls show that both candidates have more critics than supporters.
“Isn’t our national future too bleak with an uncomfortable and bitter presidential election calling for choosing the lesser of two evils?” said the mainstream Dong-A Ilbo in an editorial.
Yoon has slammed Lee for his possible ties to an allegedly corrupt land development scandal. Lee has denied any connection and has again tried to link Yoon to the same scandal while separately criticizing him for his alleged links to shamanism – an ancient, indigenous religious belief.
There were also attacks on the candidates’ wives, both of whom were forced to apologize for separate scandals.
Yoon described Lee’s party as “Hitler” and “Mussolini,” while a staffer called Lee’s alleged aides “parasites.” Lee’s allies called Yoon “a beast,” “dictator,” and “an empty can” and poked fun at his wife’s alleged plastic surgery.
Their campaign teams and supporters have filed dozens of lawsuits alleging defamation and spreading false information, among other charges.
“This year’s presidential election was more overwhelmed with negative campaigning than any previous election, and the mutual hatred will not die down easily after the election,” said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute for Presidential Leadership.
Fault lines in the electorate include regional rivalries in South Korea, views on North Korea, a generational gap, economic inequality and women’s rights issues.
Yoon is more popular with older voters and those in the southeastern region of Gyeongsang, where former conservative and authoritarian leaders came from. His supporters typically advocate a stronger military alliance with the United States and a harder line on North Korea, and they credit the former authoritarian rulers for the rapid development of the economy after the Korean War.
Lee enjoys greater support from younger people and those from Jeolla Province, the rival region of Gyeongsang in the southwest. His supporters generally call for an equal footing in relations with the United States and a rapprochement with North Korea, while being highly critical of past authoritarian rulers’ human rights records.
In a notable development, many polls showed that Yoon received higher approval ratings than Lee from voters between the ages of 18 and 29, most of whom were born after South Korea became a developed country.
“They have not experienced poverty and dictatorships. … They are very critical of China and North Korea and have rather friendly feelings towards the US and Japan,” said Park Sung-min, head of Seoul-based policy consultancy MIN Consulting.
South Korea’s deep divisions are reflected in the troubles of the last three leaders. Her supporters say intense corruption investigations after she left office were politically motivated by her rivals.
During a corruption probe into his family, former Liberal President Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death in 2009, a year after leaving office. His successor, conservative Lee Myung-bak, and Lee’s conservative successor, Park Geun-hye, were separately convicted of a range of crimes, including corruption, and sentenced to lengthy prison terms after Roh’s friend and current president, Moon Jae-in took office in 2017.
Park was pardoned in December, but Lee is still serving a 17-year sentence.
The Moon government suffered a major blow with a scandal involving Moon’s former justice minister and close aide, Cho Kuk. Cho and his family members are said to have participated in financial crimes and forging credentials to help Cho’s daughter enter medical school.
Cho was considered a reformist and a potential liberal presidential contender. Moon’s early attempts to keep Cho in office divided public opinion, with critics calling for Cho’s resignation and supporters siding with him at large street protests.
Yoon originally served as Moon’s Attorney General, leading investigations into previous Conservative governments. However, last year he left Moon’s government and joined the opposition after a clash with Moon’s allies in the Cho case helped him establish himself as a potential presidential candidate.
“Cho’s case was a turning point in South Korean politics. It made Yoon a presidential candidate, and many in their 20s and 30s switched support from Moon,” said Choi, the institute’s director.
During a recent TV debate, Yoon and Lee agreed not to open politically motivated investigations against the other side if they win. But some question their sincerity.
In a newspaper interview last month, Yoon said his government, if elected, would investigate possible wrongdoing by the Moon government and also the land development scandal Lee was allegedly linked to.
As Moon’s government conducted wide-ranging investigations into previous conservative governments, Lee said they were necessary to root out “rooted evils and injustices.”
Cho Jinman, a professor at Seoul’s Duksung Women’s University, said a new president must exercise restraint and restrain calls for political revenge from hardliners.
“We have a campaign like ‘Squid Game’ now, but it will be the responsibility of a new president to pull us out of it,” he said.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.