Yoon Suk-yeol (윤석열) of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) (국민의힘) defeated Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung by a slim margin of 0.8% of the vote to become the 13th elected president of South Korea. What are the challenges it faces and can the policies it proposes respond to them?
Yoon is often referred to as “Korean Trump”, not only because of his political views, but also because of his meteoric rise in the political arena, reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump.
He previously served as South Korea’s attorney general and came to prominence during the trial of former president Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak who had been charged with corruption, the former having been impeached for it.
Even though he served under liberal President Moon Jae-in, Yoon became a conservative favorite for launching an investigation into Moon’s close aide and choice for Justice Minister Cho Kuk, accused of corruption and because of his scathing criticisms of the politics of the former. He has been a steel figure in the anti-corruption campaign ever since.
A novice in politics, he declared his candidacy for the presidential elections of 2022 at the end of June 2021 and in July joined the PPP. Earlier this month, Yoon defeated Liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung with just 263,000 votes; the smallest margin since the Democratic transition in 1987.
Several serious challenges await Yoon both at home and abroad.
Yoon is elected amid a surge in coronavirus cases in South Korea with a record 400,000 cases in a single day. Containing the pandemic would be a colossal task.
A major challenge he faces are the political divisions within the country. Besides the regular demographic factors of age and regionalism, this election has seen an interesting trend of gender and ideological divisions. Yoon’s bitter remarks against gender equality and men being “disadvantaged” due to calls for feminism worked as 58.7% of men in their 20s and 52.8% in their 30s, the group of dominant age in the labor market, voted for him.
An ideological controversy also erupted months before South Korea went to the polls. In the eye of the storm was one of the most popular beverage brands, Starbucks. In January 2022, Vice President of Shinsegae Chung Yong-jin (the parent company of E-mart which owns 67.5% of Starbucks outlets in South Korea) posted an anti-communist message on social media criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s silence on official remarks about South Korea being a “minor country”. He tagged it with the hashtag “멸공” or “destroy communism”. Shortly after, he posted another photo of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un with the same hashtag. It was Chung’s fifth anti-communist social media post in a month. The move angered Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung to the point that he said he would never drink Starbucks coffee again. His supporters rallied, and on January 10, Shinsegae’s stock value fell by 6.8% and closed at ₩23,000. Chung apologized for his behavior and promised not to post any more anti-communist content. While communism as an ideology is prohibited by national security law, progressivism has been a major force. Yoon’s slim margin of victory shows that this strength would pose a recurring challenge.
Another challenge is the massive housing crisis in South Korea. The ratio of mortgage debt to disposable income has risen sharply. It was 138.5% in 2008 and rose to more than 200% in 2020. Households now owe twice as much as they can afford.
Unemployment and the economic downturn are also major problems. In 2021, South Korea’s unemployment rate hit its highest level in more than two decades. The unemployment rate fell from 4.5% in December 2020 to 5.4% in January 2021. There is also widespread disenchantment among young people, who call themselves the “Sampo generation” (삼포세대), that that is, those who have to give up courtship, marriage and children because of unaffordability, due to growing income inequality.
The biggest challenge facing South Korea overseas is repairing relations with Japan that have soured over the years; resolve the strategic dilemma on the balance of relations with the United States on one side and China on the other, and address how far Seoul would be willing to go on the issue of the sovereign status of Taiwan where they have so far now shows ambiguity.
However, the biggest challenge is just across the border. North Korea’s aggressive missile launches and threats to resume its nuclear program, which has been under a self-imposed moratorium since 2017, threaten to destabilize not only the regional order in Northeast Asia, but also the peace and stability of the whole world. The biggest threat is from South Korea.
Policies proposed by Yoon
While his opponent Lee Jae-myung has called for greater government involvement to address these challenges, Yoon believes in free-market solutions and government rollback.
On the housing issue, Yoon promises to build 1.3 million homes in Seoul and surrounding metropolitan areas and another 1.2 million homes using a budget of ₩12.1 trillion. Young first-time home buyers in their 20s and 30s are at the top of his plan and would be offered 300,000 units below market price. These houses could then be sold back to the government after 5 years with a potential return on investment margin of up to 70%.
Yoon is also likely to ease lending restrictions on housing and on the rental market led by private investors.
Unlike Moon, Yoon will abandon the public sector job creation plan and focus on the private sector.
He also called for an easing of restrictions put in place on large conglomerates of family businesses or Chaebols (재볼). Describing Moon’s 52-hour work week policy as a “failure”, Yoon called for greater labor flexibility where workers can choose between permanent and part-time jobs. His earlier statement that workers should work 120 hours a week drew heavy criticism.
He promised to induce investment capital to promote private enterprises such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), nurture fourth industrial revolution enterprises such as artificial intelligence, and promote startups.
Yoon’s political positions are known to have been problematic in some aspects. Not only has his 120-hour weekly work statement been highly controversial, his outspoken appreciation of former dictator Chun Doo Hwan, who was responsible for the brutal Gwangju Massacre in 1980, has drawn much criticism. He later apologized for his words, but quickly followed up with a social media post of a dog being fed an apple. This was seen as a mockery of his apology as “apple” and “apology” are homonyms in Korean, written as “사과”.
Yoon is also considered an anti-feminist. In January, he called for “abolish the Ministry of Women and Family” because he believes that feminism has “negative” effects on birth rates and healthy relationships and that women face “no systematic discrimination”, despite numerous reports to the contrary. His statement received broad support from Idaenam (이대남) or men in their twenties who are known to have negative views on feminism, which many women’s organizations have found this deeply disturbing. His wife is also known to have been extremely critical of the MeToo campaign.
On foreign policy, toeing the conservative line, Yoon is ready to lean more toward the United States. While Seoul’s foreign policy has always had a soft bend toward Washington, progressives like Moon are known for trying to balance relations and find an independent path.
Yoon pledged to continue the agenda of the May 2021 Biden-Moon Summit with a focus on cooperation in several sectors such as semiconductors, aerospace industries, etc.
It would not only join the Indo-Pacific economic framework, but also support Washington’s policies in the region aimed at containing China’s growing influence. Yoon supported the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad (comprising India, the United States, Japan and Australia). He is likely to engage with Moon’s plans to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA).
Yoon is likely to return to deploying the Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the ballistic missile defense system proposed by the United States. The deployment soured relations with China which saw it as a threat to its own sovereignty and was canceled by President Moon when he came to power in 2017.
He said Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would be the second leader after US President Joe Biden he would meet after becoming president, indicating a thaw in relations with Tokyo.
Yoon was highly critical of Moon Jae-in’s conciliatory approach to Pyongyang and called for tougher sanctions against North Korea, which he described as “the main enemy”.
Will they help?
None of Yoon’s proposed policies address the structural problems of the South Korean economy. Its housing and market reforms provide respite limited to only a few economic classes and are exclusive in nature. He has no clear plan to address environmental concerns and health infrastructure that has been severely weakened under the weight of the recent surge in coronavirus cases.
Moreover, his controversial statements on Chun Doo Hwan, workers and women challenge the democratic ideals dear to South Korea and are likely to create opposition against his rule.
His foreign policy proposal also threatens to create instability. While this will lead to a thaw in relations with Japan and could bring Seoul closer to Taiwan, it is expected to worsen relations with China, which could have a huge economic cost. Yoon’s tough stance toward North Korea and plans to strengthen military cooperation with Washington in the region will have a negative impact on inter-Korean relations. While Pyongyang’s attitude to Moon’s reconciliation approach is heartbreaking, negotiations are the only way out. Imposing tougher sanctions would not only add to the drudgery of ordinary people while the political elite in the North would not be affected, but would further encourage Pyongyang to react in an extreme way.
For now, Yoon’s policies present no long-term solution to the challenges he faces. It must be more inclusive in domestic policy-making and take a more rational and moderate course in foreign policy.