Its northern neighbor is engaged in nuclear brinkmanship with the US. Its elected President was just impeached and indicted on corruption charges, leaving behind a gaping power vacuum. And the economy is slowing down, leaving the country’s highly-educated youth struggling with unemployment.
And yet, amid all these challenges, South Korea’s presidential election can often feel like a festival.
Ahead of a recent televised presidential debate, the scene outside the TV station looked more like a rock concert. Or rather, like five rock concerts taking place side-by-side, simultaneously, at full volume.
South Korea election
“If we dance more and more, Hong Jun-pyo will be more powerful,” said Choi Wan-hee, 21, who left the stage panting, with strands of red tinsel from bushy pom-poms still clinging to his hair.
Other supporters of Hong – a 62-year-old, bespectacled former prosecutor running on the conservative Liberty Korea Party ticket – wore little glowing cat ears on their heads and performed moves reminiscent of a hyperactive Hawaiian hula.
His rivals were equally well represented, with their supporters wearing primary-color costumes and dancing on mobile stages to Korean pop songs adapted to include the names of their candidates.
This flashy, K-pop style approach to politics is something of a necessity as candidates muscle for attention in a crowded field of 13 presidential contenders.
“This is a country where you go to any extreme to achieve your aim,” said Andrew Salmon, author of “Modern Korea: All That Matters.”
“If your aim is to become president, then you’re going to have to field divisions of singers and dancers out on the street doing anything they can to grab public attention and seize those votes.”
Which may explain why Yoo Seong-min of the conservative Bareun Party found himself posing for photographs on an electric scooter next to a dancing Smurf.
“The political campaign is becoming kind of entertaining, something like a party,” he said, after watching dancers perform with the help of the costumed cartoon character.
Yoo – who has been trailing in the polls – conceded he was having a difficult time attracting support after the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye.
He was once a prominent supporter of Park, but as her administration was engulfed in scandal, he helped lead a split from her Saenuri Party, since renamed as Liberty Korea Party.
“I’m trying to persuade people how important it is to look to the future, not the past,” Yoo said.
Dancing to victory
It’s not just the stragglers who are relying on flashy gimmicks, though. Front runner Moon Jae-in, of the leftist Democratic Party, has his own dance troupes.
“My father didn’t understand me at first,” said 32-year-old Lee Mi-seon, who was hard at work rehearsing in a basement dance studio.
“But he knows that I love the presidential candidate very much,” the self-confessed dance novice said. “So he changed his mind.”
With that, she and her colleagues donned matching bright-blue jackets and headed out onto the streets.
While Lee and her fellow Moon dancers attracted a small crowd as they whooped and stepped in unison in a Seoul park, not everyone was impressed.
“I don’t like it,” said Oh In-kyun, a businessman in his 50s who sat on a nearby bench.
He said he was still deciding whether to vote for Moon or another left-leaning candidate, based on changes he wanted to see in the country’s labor policy.
Choi Young-hun and his friend Kim Tu-yi, both 26, said they liked the dancers’ youth and enthusiasm. “In the past it was elderly ladies who did the dancing,” Choi said.
Both men said they were still undecided voters. “I want transparency in government,” Choi said. “I want a country that looks after ordinary people.”
Meanwhile, 89-year-old Kim Bong-su tapped his cane to the beat of the throbbing speakers erected on the back of a truck emblazoned with Moon’s face.
“It cheers up the atmosphere,” he said, as a campaign worker stepped down from the truck and unsuccessfully tried to follow along with the dancers, before retreating into the vehicle.
Unfazed, the energetic performers continued their show, determined to dance their candidate’s way to victory.