On March 9, South Korea took to the polls for the 2022 Presidential Election. Former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party lost by a narrow margin of less than 0.7% to Yoon Suk-yeol from the People Power Party. This election outcome will likely stunt the development of basic income in the country. 

As Guy Standing has written previously, this election in Korea is a vital one as Lee Jae-myung is a proponent of basic income. Prior to his candidacy, Lee served as mayor of Seongnam and subsequently governor of Gyeonggi, the province surrounding the capital city of Seoul. Among other initiatives, he famously launched the Gyeonggi Youth Basic Income (YBI) in 2019, providing valuable insights into how this idea might work in a highly developed country as well as an Asian economy. It is not so often that we see a major presidential candidate championing basic income at a national level (Andrew Yang dropped out of the race in 2020). Lee vowed to gradually implement a universal scheme in Korea, focusing on the youth and expanding to cover the entire population.

As the world’s 10th largest economy, a nationwide programme implemented in Korea could lead to tremendous progress in the discourse on basic income. With an advanced economic structure, high automation rate, and rising youth unemployment, Korea has the conditions of a postindustrial society in which a strong case for basic income could be built. Instead, such a prospect was overshadowed by more salient topics such as economic inequality, inter-Korea relations, and China’s influence. Gender equality and anti-feminism were at the forefront of the political debate, with Yoon pledging to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Dubbed the “unlikeable election” due to the prevalence of smearing campaigns, the presidential race was a very close one with neither candidate receiving majority support. Yoon garnered 48.56% of the votes nationwide, ahead of Lee’s 47.83%. A provincial breakdown of the election results reveals a highly divided country with democrat votes concentrated in the southwestern part of the country and conservatives in the east. Lee’s approval ratings in his own province seem to be falling – he barely received half of the votes in Gyeonggi this time, where he served as governor from 2018 to 2021. Now that Lee has resigned his governor seat and lost the presidential race, the cause for basic income in Korea will be affected to a certain extent.

This election outcome may not spell the end to basic income in Korea, however – outgoing president Moon Jae-in lost to Park Geun-hye in 2012, only to be elected as her successor five years later; moreover, a young Basic Income Party is seeking to bring this issue into the mainstream. The party fielded their own presidential candidate this year as well, critiquing Lee’s roadmap. Korea may not be the first country in the world to implement universal basic income just yet, but political tides could change and there is still room for this movement to grow.

On March 9 South Korea took to the polls for the 2022 Presidential Election. Former governor of Gyeonggi province, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party lost by a narrow margin of less than 0.7% to Yoon Suk-yeol from the People Power Party. This election outcome will likely stunt the development of basic income in the country.

As Guy Standing has written previously, this election in Korea is a vital one as Lee Jae-myung is a proponent of basic income. Prior to his candidacy, Lee served as mayor of Seongnam and subsequently governor of Gyeonggi, the province surrounding the capital city of Seoul. Among other initiatives, he famously launched the Gyeonggi Youth Basic Income (YBI) in 2019, which provides valuable insights into how this idea might work in a highly developed country as well as Asian economy. It is not so often that we see a major presidential candidate championing basic income at a national level (Andrew Yang dropped out of the race in 2020): Lee vowed to gradually implement a universal scheme in Korea, focusing on the youth and expanding to cover the entire population.

As the world’s 10th largest economy, a nationwide programme implemented in Korea could lead to tremendous progress in the discourse on basic income. With an advanced economic structure, high automation rate, and rising youth unemployment, Korea has the conditions of a postindustrial society in which a strong case for basic income could be built. Instead, such a prospect was overshadowed by more salient topics such as economic inequality, inter-Korea relations, and China’s influence. Gender equality and anti-feminism were at the forefront of the political debate, with Yoon pledging to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.

Dubbed the “unlikeable election” due to the prevalence of smearing campaigns, the presidential race was a very close one with neither candidate receiving majority support. Yoon garnered 48.56% of the votes nationwide, ahead of Lee’s 47.83%. A provincial breakdown of the election results reveals a highly divided country, with democrat votes concentrated in the southwestern part of the country and conservatives in the east. Lee’s approval ratings in his own province seem to be falling as well – he barely received half of the votes in Gyeonggi, where he served as governor from 2018 to 2021. Now that Lee has resigned his governor seat and lost the presidential race, the cause for basic income in Korea will be affected to a certain extent.

This election outcome may not spell the end to basic income in Korea, however – outgoing president Moon Jae-in lost to Park Geun-hye in 2012, only to be elected as her successor five years later. Moreover, a young Basic Income Party is seeking to bring this issue into the mainstream, fielding its own presidential candidate in the election this year as well. Korea may not be the first country in the world to implement universal basic income just yet, but political tides could change and there is still room for this movement to grow.

Truston Yu is a BIEN life member and former resident of Seoul, specializing in Southeast Asian studies including Korea-Southeast Asia relations. Their commentaries have been featured by numerous outlets including the Diplomat, the Jakarta Post and the Straits Times.

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