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South Korea election issues: Green onions, striking doctors, an alleged sexist jab at a candidate

By HYUNG-JIN KIM and KIM TONG-HYUNG
Associated Press

SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — Soaring prices for green onions and apples. Striking doctors. A politician’s allegedly sexist jab at a female candidate. These are among the issues animating voters in South Korea this year.

As South Koreans prepare to vote for a new 300-member parliament next week, many are choosing their livelihoods and other domestic topics as their most important election issues, staying away from traditionally popular agendas like North Korean nuclear threats and the U.S. security commitment.

“I feel drawn to someone who talks about things that can be truly helpful to our neighborhoods,” said Kim Yun-ah, a 45-year-old Seoul officer worker. “I often don’t know when North Korea test-fired missiles.”

Experts say up to about 30% or 40% of South Korea’s 44 million voters are politically neutral and that who they end up supporting will likely determine the results of the April 10 elections.

A look at the upcoming South Korean elections and the issues affecting voters’ sentiments.

MODERATES

South Korea’s conservative-liberal divide is so stark that many voters likely have already determined who they’ll vote for according to their party affiliation, rather than by looking at the policies of the candidates in their districts.

But the extreme polarization has led to an expansion of moderates who are fed up with partisan strife and who focus more on livelihoods issues such as prices, jobs and taxes, according to Choi Jin, director of the Seoul-based Institute of Presidential Leadership.

Choi estimated that roughly 30% of South Koreas are conservatives, another 30% liberals and the remaining 40% moderates. Other experts put the proportion of moderates at 30%.

“In a nutshell, even if conservatives and liberals intensely bicker over political issues, that won’t influence election results much,” Choi said. “The fate of an election is rather determined by the moderates who silently monitor livelihood issues and decide who to vote for.”

Some observers say liberal opposition parties could retain their majority status, making conservative President Yoon Suk Yeol — whose single five-year term ends in 2027 — an early lame duck. But others note many moderates are still undecided, so it’s too early to predict who would win.

Regardless of the electoral outcome, Yoon’s major foreign policy agendas would remain unchanged, such as boosting security cooperation with the U.S. and Japan and taking a tough line on North Korea’s nuclear program, experts say.

GREEN ONIONS

Yoon got more than he bargained for when he visited a Seoul grocery mall last month to promote government efforts to tame food prices but ended up inviting criticism by talking about the prices of green onions.

Looking at a bundle of green onions with a price tag of 875 won ($0.65) — a temporary discount price offered thanks to a government subsidy — Yoon said that “I’ve been to lots of markets, and I would say 875 won is a reasonable price.”

Meanwhile, the average retail prices of green onions has hovered around 3,000 to 4,000 won ($2.2 to 2.9) in past weeks, reaching some of the highest levels in recent years.

Yoon’s throw-away comment has created a mini-crisis for his ruling People Power Party as candidates from the main liberal opposition Democratic Party have brought green onions to election rallies and accused Yoon of underestimating food prices and being out of touch of the reality.

It’s not just green onions. The prices of agricultural products during March increased by more than 20% from the same month last year. The prices of apples increased by nearly 90%, marking the largest one-year-jump since 1980.

Kim Tae-hyung, a 55-year-old moderate liberal, said he’s almost decided to vote for a liberal opposition candidate running in his constituency because he believes the Yoon government hasn’t done well on economy issues.

But he said Yoon doesn’t deserve criticism over his green onion remarks. “Even if he doesn’t know the price of green onions, I don’t think it matters much as I also didn’t know about it,” Kim said.

STRIKING DOCTORS

The weekslong strikes by thousands of doctors is another headache for Yoon’s party.

The doctors, all medical interns and residents, are protesting against Yoon’s push to increase the yearly medical school admission cap by two thirds to create more doctors. They say universities can’t handle such a steep increase in students and that would undermine the country’s future medical services, though critics say they simply worry about lower income in the wake of the supply of more doctors.

South Korea has one of the world’s fastest-aging populations and its doctors-to-population ratio is among the lowest in the developed world. But efforts to add seats at medical schools is a politically risky project that past governments had already failed to achieve because of similar vehement protests by incumbent doctors and medical students.

Yoon initially enjoyed a rising approval rating over his recruitment plan, but now faces growing calls for a compromise as the doctors’ strikes have caused numerous cancelled surgeries at hospitals and other inconveniences for patients.

“We absolutely need to raise the medical school quota. But the government is pushing for its increase in a too steep, abrupt manner that has surprised everyone,” said Lee Chul-seung, a liberal Seoul citizen in his mid-50s.

TOXIC RHETORIC

Fueled by contempt for the other side, the rival parties have spewed highly offensive, abusive language against each other.

When Lee Jae-myung, the Democratic Party chairman, criticized senior ruling party candidate Na Kyung-won over her alleged pro-Japanese views, he called her “nabe,” a combination of parts of the names of Na and late Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe.

Ruling party leader Han Dong-hoon quickly called Lee’s comments “extreme misogyny.” Nabe in Japanese means pot, whose Korean translation is “naembi” that can be used as a derogatory slang term to refer to a woman with many sex partners. Last month, supporters of Na’s liberal rival candidate reportedly spread on social media a poster with a message saying “naembi tastes best when it’s trampled on.”

Han labelled Lee’s past comments as “trash,” drawing rebukes from Lee’s party spokesperson who described “Han’s mouth” “as ”trash bin.”

Also roiling the South Korean election race is former liberal justice minister Cho Kuk, whose newly launched small party is forecast by surveys to win 10-15 seats. Cho was once a rising political star during the government of Yoon’s liberal predecessor, Moon Jae-in, until he faced a slew of scandals that hurt his reformist image and sharply split the nation.

Han called Cho “a shameless petty criminal.” Cho said Han, Yoon and Yoon’s wife and first lady Kim Keon Hee “representative people of a criminal group.”

Article Topic Follows: AP National

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