‘Gladiator Politics’ Dominate Election Season in Polarized South Korea

The elections are ostensibly about the 300 seats in Parliament, but when South Koreans go to the polls on Wednesday, they will also be signaling support for one of two leaders who are locked in what is known here as “gladiator politics.”

The do-or-die rivalry between President Yoon Suk Yeol and the opposition leader Lee Jae-myung, whose party holds the majority in the National Assembly, has made the elections as fraught with fear and resentment as any in South Korea​n history. Neither leader commands broad popularity, instead relying on hard-line supporters who either want to see Mr. Yoon, a conservative, impeached for abuse of power, or Mr. Lee, a progressive, imprisoned for corruption.

“This election is about who you want to punish, Yoon Suk Yeol or Lee Jae-myung,” said Eom Kyeong-young, an election analyst at the Zeitgeist Institute in Seoul.

On the global stage, South Korea is the dynamic exporter of cars, phones, K-pop and K-dramas. But at home, voter discontent runs deep. The country’s economy is slowing. Its birthrate is the world’s lowest. Its Gen Z youth — frustrated with widening economic inequity and priced out of the housing market — fear that they will be the first generation in the country’s history economically worse off than their parents.

Amid these fundamental crises, the country’s politics are more divided than ever. Online demagoguery proliferates through YouTube and other social media, mainstreaming hate. In January, a disgruntled older man stabbed Mr. Lee in the neck with a knife. (The attacker said South Korea was “in a civil war,” adding that he wanted to “cut the head” of the country’s “pro-North Korean” left wing, according to a manifesto he sent from his prison cell to Choo Chin-woo, an investigative journalist.) A few weeks later, an angry youth attacked a governing-party lawmaker, striking her in the head with a stone.

Lee Jae-myung, who lost the presidential race in 2022 but continues to lead the opposition Democratic Party, was attacked in January by a man who stabbed him in the neck.Credit…Yonhap, via Reuters
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