Official campaigning for South Korea's general election kicked off Thursday, with the country's low birthrate and North Korea's missile threat among the key issues as President Yoon Suk Yeol's government prepares to face the verdict of voters on its achievements since its launch in May 2022.

The 300-member National Assembly is currently controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party, led by Lee Jae Myung, who lost to Yoon in the presidential election two years ago, but Yoon's People Power Party was marginally ahead in a Gallup Korea weekly poll of voter support released last Friday.

It was backed by 34 percent of respondents, against 33 percent for the Democratic Party, ahead of the April 10 election, which will determine how much parliamentary support Yoon can count on over the remaining three years of his term.

According to the poll, those who supported Yoon thought highly of his foreign policies. The president has adopted a hard-line stance toward North Korea, in contrast to the rapprochement policy of his predecessor Moon Jae In from the DP.

Lee Jae Myung (3rd from R), who leads the main opposition Democratic Party, holds a campaign kickoff event in Seoul on March 28, 2024. (Yonhap/Kyodo)

North Korea has repeatedly launched ballistic missiles, including intermediate-range ones, in recent years, with its leader Kim Jong Un in January calling the South his nation's "primary foe and invariable principal enemy."

In countering North Korea, Yoon has stressed trilateral cooperation with the United States and Japan and improved his country's ties with Tokyo, which hit their lowest point after South Korea's Supreme Court in 2018 ordered two Japanese firms to compensate South Korean plaintiffs over wartime forced labor.

Han Dong Hoon (2nd from R), the top figure of South Korea's ruling People Power Party, is pictured in a market in Seoul on March 28, 2024. (Yonhap/Kyodo)

While Yoon's government decided in March 2023 to compensate the plaintiffs in a series of wartime labor cases with money from a South Korean government-backed fund, instead of from sued Japanese firms, the DP has insisted the firms and the Japanese government should be involved in providing the compensation and make apologies to the plaintiffs.

South Korea's low fertility rate has become a key issue with the country marking another record low of 0.72 birth per woman in 2023. It is the only member of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development with a rate below 1.

To cope with the fast decline in the number of babies born, the PPP has pledged to introduce longer childcare leave while the DP has proposed offering cash incentives to encourage young couples to have children.

The government's plan to drastically increase the number of students admitted into medical schools to improve health care is the most controversial issue. Thousands of doctors have protested the plan since it was announced in early February, saying the government should address pay and working conditions of medical professionals first.

The government has warned doctors who boycott their workplaces could face losing their licenses.

File photo shows South Korea's National Assembly in session in September 2023. (Kyodo)

The DP has criticized the government's posture on the doctors as too harsh, claiming the government is responsible for disruptions to medical services caused by the protests.

Meanwhile, given the neck-and-neck support rate between the two biggest parties, swing voters are likely be the key to the election.

Several new political parties have also fielded candidates in a bid to break the two-party system. The Korea Innovation Party, formed by Cho Kuk, who served as Justice Minister at Moon's administration, received 8 percent support in the Gallup poll, behind the PPP and the DP.

A total of 254 directly elected seats and 46 proportional representation slots are up for grabs.

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