There are posters all over the streets, and teams of women in bright polo shirts handing out flyers and bowing at passersby. Giant banners featuring airbrushed politicians occupy whole sides of buildings. There’s a man in a suit standing in the back of a truck, making a speech with a bullhorn – but what is he running for? Korea’s local elections take place next week, and while there are a lot of flyers and candidates around there’s not a lot of information. This guide will help you make sense of it all.

When and where will voting take place?

Wednesday, June 4th is the day for local elections across the country, and it’s a public holiday. Hooray for democracy! Polling booths, determined by a voter’s residential address, are usually places like middle schools and senior citizen centers.

I’m a foreigner, can I vote?

Korea allows some foreign residents to vote in local elections (but not in presidential elections). You need to have been residing in Korea on a permanent resident visa for at least three consecutive years. If you are allowed to vote you should have received a package in the mail informing you of the location of your voting booth and information on candidates. You need to bring your ID card along, and expect the staff running the booth to be confused by your presence.

Aside from city mayors, what other positions are up for election?

This is where it gets complicated. People will be voting not just for city mayors and provincial governors, but for a host of other positions. For example, a voter registered in Seodaemun-gu (gu means a city district) in Seoul would be voting not just for the Seoul mayor but also for the Seoul education superintendent, Seoul city councilors, the chief of Seodaemun district, and the district councilors. Provincial voters also get to vote for the governor of their province.

Confused? Most Koreans head to the polls not having a clue about each of the many candidates – no reasonable person could expect to. And in Korea’s unitary political system the real power is concentrated in the position of the presidency anyway. But the one race that really matters is the Seoul mayoral election, often regarded as the most powerful position outside the national administration, and a potential stepping stone to the presidency itself.

Who are the main contenders for the Seoul mayoral election?

The incumbent mayor of Seoul (technically he had to step down last week in order to run again), is Park Won-soon(박원순), a soft-spoken lawyer turned human rights activist who came from nowhere to win the mayoral by-election in 2011 as an independent liberal. He has since joined the main liberal opposition party, the New Politics Alliance for Democracy. Park has served as Seoul mayor for two years and seven months, styling himself as Seoul’s first ‘welfare mayor.’ He has reduced the city’s debt, cancelled several of his predecessor’s biggest construction projects, expanded public housing, and provided more jobs and support for the poor and homeless.

The conservative candidate for the mayoral race, Chung Mong-joon(정몽준), is the perfect opposite of Park. Chung has served for 27 years as a lawmaker in the National Assembly, and as a son of the Hyundai conglomerate founder Chung Ju-yung he is one of Korea’s richest men. Chung is pro-business, pro-growth, and is determined to restart major construction projects, such as the Yongsan Business District and the Han River Art Island, to attract investment and keep Seoul in the international spotlight.

Korean Mayoral Candidate

But who is likely to win?

At the moment, it’s Park by a solid margin according to multiple polls. This has little to do with Park himself and everything to do with the public backlash against the president and her government’s handling of the Sewol tragedy. Chung and other conservative candidates in the president’s party are inevitably going to suffer from the protest vote. It also didn’t help Chung when his son criticized ‘the Korean people’s character’ as ‘uncivilized’ on social media in the wake of the Sewol tragedy.

How will the local elections affect Seoul?

It’s hard to say. While the style and approach of Park and Chung may seem completely different, their policies may not actually be that different. After the tragic loss of life during the sinking of the Sewol ferry on April 16, both men are emphasizing public safety, missing no opportunity to put on a hard hat and inspect a subway line or a power station. Chung has also promised to make welfare a priority, while Park has promised to get started on the Yongsan Business District, only in a slower and more deliberate fashion than Chung.

For a very simplistic summary: if Chung wins expect some big projects to go forward, and perhaps Seoul will get another fantastic  landmark like the Cheonggyecheon, or a controversial landmark like the new Dongdaemun Design Plaza. If Park wins, expect more consultation on construction projects, more delays, and more programs and support for the poor, the homeless, and the elderly.

Will Korea’s local elections really affect expats at all?

If you’re a teacher at a public school they will. On June 4th education superintendents will be chosen to head city and provincial education offices. Candidates for these jobs are obscure but they have real power: the Seoul Metropolitan Office of Education, for example, has a 7 billion dollar budget to play with. For expat English teachers in Korea’s public schools worried about more job and funding cuts, whoever becomes education superintendent probably matters more than who becomes mayor.

About The Author

Richard Whitten

Richard was born in Sydney, Australia, and lived there his whole life until moving to Seoul. Though he's lived here for four years now and is happily married, he hasn't quite lost that 'Wow I'm in Korea!' enthusiasm.