SEOUL – The race between South Korea's two leading presidential candidates has seen unprecedented levels of toxic rhetoric, mudslinging and lawsuits.
How bad is it?
“Hitler,” “beast," and “parasite” are some of the choicer insults leveled by both camps. Some are even calling it “The Squid Game Election," in reference to Netflix’s megahit survival drama where people are killed if they lose children’s games.
And the stakes? There's widespread speculation that the loser will be arrested.
“It’s a dreadful presidential election when the losing contender faces prison. Please survive this dogfight in the mire!” senior opposition politician Hong Joon-pyo wrote on Facebook.
Just days before Wednesday's election, Lee Jae-myung from the liberal governing Democratic Party and Yoon Suk Yeol from the main conservative opposition People Power Party are locked in an extremely tight race.
Their negative campaigns are aggravating South Korea’s already severe political divide at a time when it faces a battered, pandemic-hit economy, a balancing act over competition between its main ally, Washington, and its top trading partner, China, and a raft of threats and weapons tests from rival North Korea.
Opinion surveys show that both candidates have more critics than supporters.
“Isn’t our national future too bleak with an unpleasant and bitter presidential election that calls for choosing the lesser of two evils?” the mass-circulation Dong-A Ilbo newspaper said in an editorial.
Yoon has slammed Lee over his possible ties to an allegedly corrupt land development scandal. Lee has denied any connection, and in turn has tried to link Yoon to the same scandal, while separately criticizing him for his reported ties to shamanism — an ancient, indigenous religious belief.
There have also been attacks on the candidates' wives, both of whom have been forced to apologize over separate scandals.
Yoon described Lee’s party as “Hitler” and “Mussolini” while an associate called Lee’s purported aides “parasites.” Lee's allies called Yoon “a beast,” "dictator" and “an empty can” and derided his wife’s alleged plastic surgery.
Their campaign teams and supporters have filed dozens of lawsuits charging libel and the spread of false information, among other issues.
“This year’s presidential election has been more overwhelmed by negative campaigning than any other previous election, and the mutual hatred won’t easily die down after the election,” said Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership.
Among the fault lines in the electorate are South Korean regional rivalries, views on North Korea, a conflict between generations, economic inequality and women's rights issues.
Yoon is more popular with older voters and those in the southeastern region of Gyeongsang, where past conservative and authoritarian leaders came from. His supporters typically advocate a stronger military alliance with the United States and a tougher line on North Korea, and they credit past authoritarian rulers for quickly developing the economy after the Korean War.
Lee enjoys greater support from younger people and those from Jeolla province, Gyeongsang’s rival region in the southwest. His supporters generally want an equal footing in relations with the United States and rapprochement with North Korea while being extremely critical of past authoritarian rulers' human rights records.
In a notable development, many surveys showed Yoon has received greater approval ratings than Lee from voters aged 18 to 29, most of whom were born after South Korea became a developed country.
“They didn’t experience poverty and dictatorships. ... They are very critical of China and North Korea, and they have rather friendly feelings toward the U.S. and Japan,” said Park Sung-min, head of Seoul-based MIN Consulting, a political consulting firm.
South Korea’s deep divisions are reflected in the troubles of the last three leaders. Their supporters say intense corruption investigations after they left office were politically motivated by their rivals.
During a corruption probe of his family, former liberal President Roh Moo-hyun jumped to his death in 2009, a year after he left office. His successor, the conservative Lee Myung-bak, and Lee's conservative successor, Park Geun-hye, were separately convicted of a range of crimes, including corruption, and given 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 prison term.
Moon's government took a big hit with a scandal involving Moon's former justice minister and close associate, Cho Kuk. Cho and his family members are alleged to have participated in financial crimes and the faking of credentials to help Cho’s daughter enter medical school.
Cho was seen as a reformist and potential liberal presidential hopeful. Moon’s early attempts to keep Cho in office split the public, with his critics calling for Cho's resignation and supporters rallying to his side during large street protests.
Yoon originally served as Moon’s prosecutor general and spearheaded investigations of previous conservative governments. But he eventually left Moon’s government and joined the opposition last year after a conflict with Moon’s allies over the Cho case helped him emerge as a potential presidential contender.
“Cho’s case was a watershed in South Korean politics. It made Yoon a presidential candidate, and many in their 20s and 30s switched their support from Moon,” said Choi, the institute director.
During a recent TV debate, Yoon and Lee agreed not to launch politically motivated investigations against the other side if they win. But some question their sincerity.
In a newspaper interview last month, Yoon said that if elected, his government would investigate possible wrongdoing by the Moon government and also the land development scandal that Lee has been allegedly linked to.
When Moon’s government was conducting widespread investigations of past conservative governments, Lee said they were necessary to eradicate "deep-rooted evils and injustice.”
Cho Jinman, a professor at Seoul’s Duksung Women’s University, said a new president must exercise restraint and calm calls for political revenge by hard-line supporters.
“We now have an election race like ‘Squid Game,’ but it will be a new president’s responsibility to pull us out of it,” he said.
Associated Press writer Kim Tong-hyung contributed to this report.