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Conservatives’ turn in South Korea with Yoon Suk-yeol's victory

Print edition : Apr 08, 2022 T+T-

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol celebrating with his People Power Party colleagues and legislators after his narrow win, at the National Assembly in Seoul on March 10.


People reading messages on ribbons placed on a barbed wire fence, wishing for the reunification of the two Koreas, at the Imjingak Pavilion near the border with North Korea, to celebrate the Lunar New Year in Paju, South Korea, on February 1. With a conservative as President-elect, the peace process is begining to look shaky again.

The conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, who fuelled his election campaign with a rhetoric of confrontation with the North reminiscent of the Cold War era, is South Korea’s new President-elect. But the National Assembly, still dominated by progressives, is likely to act as a check on the extreme policies he has promised.

The political trend that has been consistent over a couple of decades in South Korean politics has continued with the election of a conservative as the country’s next President. Every five years, the government alternates between so-called progressives and conservatives. South Korea went to the polls in the second week of March with public opinion sharply polarised. Until the last ballots were counted, the contest was on a razor’s edge. Different opinion polls predicted victory for both the centre-right and the centre-left candidates.

In the end, the conservative People Power Party candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, edged past his challenger, Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party. The winning margin was less than 1 per cent. It was the closest electoral contest in the country’s history since the overthrow of the military dictatorship in 1987.

Yoon made his political reputation while serving as the Prosecutor General in the Cabinet of the current President, Moon Jae-in. In all he has spent 27 years as a state prosecutor and played a key role in the prosecution of two former conservative Presidents, Lee Myung-bak and Park Gyeun-hye, for abuse of power. Both were sentenced to long prison terms. Yoon became a popular media figure after the sentencing of Park and other high-profile cases, including the one against the head of the powerful Samsung conglomerate for corruption. Samsung’s market capitalisation accounts for one-fourth of the value of all listed companies in South Korea.

With his popularity as an anti-corruption crusader growing, he locked horns with the government he was serving by filing corruption charges in 2019 against one of President Moon’s top aides. That move tarnished the government’s image. Moon had been voted to power five years ago on an anti-corruption platform. Yoon resigned last year from the government after the ruling party accused him of pursuing his own personal political agenda, tarnishing the President’s image and sabotaging the judicial reforms he was attempting to put in place. After his falling out with President Moon, Yoon did not waste any time in joining the main opposition party last year.

Also read: Conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol wins presidential election

The conservative party leadership, trying to capitalise on Yoon’s reputation as an anti-corruption crusader, had lured him with promises of being elevated to the top most office in the country. His main rival, Lee, started his career as a human rights activist and rose to become the Governor of the country’s largest province, Gyeonggi. He is known as the champion of the poor and the underprivileged. He had promised to expand the country’s welfare projects if elected, including giving every young South Korean an annual grant of $837. Lee also advocated continuation of peace efforts with North Korea and carrying forward the country’s current foreign policy. South Korea, while officially a military alliance partner of the United States, has been trying to stay somewhat neutral in the looming confrontation between the U.S. and China in the Asia Pacific region.

Corruption always a major issue

Corruption issues have always played a big part in the country’s politics. Four former Presidents in recent history have served jail time after being found guilty of corruption. Another President, Roh Moo-hyun, who had tried to build bridges with the North, committed suicide after a politically motivated probe by his hard-line conservative successor, Lee Myung-bak. The current President, despite being known for his financial probity, could also face investigations from the incoming conservative government. Yoon had said that if he won the election, he would order a probe “into the deep-rooted corruption” in the Moon administration. President Moon felt deeply insulted by the allegations and expressed his “strong indignation” at the attack. The Moon Jae-in government had put many senior ministers and party officials in the previous government in jail for corruption.

During the election campaign, Yoon’s wife, who will now become the First Lady, was caught on tape saying that journalists who were critical of her husband would be prosecuted “because that is the nature of power”. Her comments caused a brief outcry but were soon forgotten in the din and hustle of campaigning.

The major issues of the campaign were unemployment, unaffordable housing, inequality and small businesses hit by the pandemic. Housing problems and unemployment could have prompted many young voters who usually vote for the progressive candidates to switch their votes this time to the conservative candidate.

Before Yoon entered the presidential race, the right-wing People Power Party was in the doldrums, faring badly in the midterm elections. The entry of a so-called anti-corruption crusader into its leadership made a large section of the electorate forget what happened five years ago when the conservative President Park, belonging to the same party, was impeached for corruption by the parliament.

Social conservatism

Yoon’s outspoken anti-feminist views struck a chord among the conservative sections of the electorate and a significant number of young male voters. On the campaign trail, he had even vowed to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming that there was no systemic discrimination against women in South Korea, despite plenty of evidence to the contrary. South Korea has the highest gender gap among wealthy countries. Fewer than one-fifth of the country’s parliamentarians are women.

Also read: New President Yoon Suk-yeol wants to relocate capital from Seoul

The older generation of voters, steeped in anti-communist rhetoric and hatred for the North, were happy with the new President-elect’s stance. Voters aged 60 and above constitute 30 per cent of the electorate. Many young South Korean males resent the small privileges given to women in a hyper competitive jobs market. Despite a booming economy, many graduates find it difficult to find jobs commensurate with their qualifications. Yoon’s scaremongering talk of immigrants coming to take up scarce jobs struck a chord with the unemployed and underemployed Korean youth. He has also promised to build 2,50,000 new homes to ease the acute housing shortage, if elected.

Foreign policy: pro-U.S. tilt

A conservative President will be occupying the “Blue House” (the Presidential Palace) once again after five years. On foreign policy issues, Yoon, if his campaign rhetoric is anything to go by, plans to take the country back to the era of Cold War politics. Yoon even said that, if needed, he would order a pre-emptive strike on the North to destroy Pyongyang’s nuclear and missile capabilities. He has recommended the redeployment of American nuclear weapons on Korean soil. He has also called for the resumption of the annual U.S.-South Korean military exercise.

The annual war games on the Korean peninsula were scaled back in 2018 as part of the Moon government’s policy towards the North. This had been the North’s precondition for talks with both Washington and Seoul. Yoon has described the North Korean leader as “a rude boy” who should be taught a lesson and has accused the Moon government of damaging Seoul’s relations with Washington by pursuing “a subservient, pro-China, pro-North Korea policy”. In one of his many controversial statements during the election campaign, he claimed that “our people, especially most of the young people, don’t like China”.

Yoon won the election despite his lack of expertise in both domestic politics and foreign affairs. On the campaign trail and in his public statements after entering the political fray, Yoon advocated a tough stance against North Korea and strongly criticised President Moon’s policy of engaging with Pyongyang and encouraging the dialogue process between Washington and the North. President Moon had played a key role in facilitating the two meetings between the former U.S. President Donald Trump and the North Korean leader, Kim Jong-un.

Yoon, in a departure from the current government’s policy, has said that he wants U.N. sanctions on the North to continue until the country is completely de-nuclearised. Unlike the present Moon’s government, Yoon has said he will only keep the dialogue process open with the North if it gets rid of its nuclear weapons. All signs indicate that the North is preparing the grounds for more nuclear tests as the U.S.’ Joe Biden administration shows no signs of restoring the dialogue process that was initiated by his predecessor, Donald Trump.

Yoon has also said that he is against the outgoing government’s efforts to formally notify the cessation of the Korean war, which ended more than seven decades ago. Officially, South Korea and the U.S. are still in a state of war with the North. According to Yoon, a formal cessation of war would be “appeasement that would only weaken Seoul’s defence posture”. Lee, who narrowly lost the election, had said that Yoon was seeking “to intensify confrontation rather than to avoid war and encourage peace”. Yoon has pledged to buy additional THAAD American missile systems. These systems are being located in the Korean peninsula to target China. After the first delivery of the missile system was made in 2016, Beijing had protested strongly and had retaliated economically against South Korea, causing damage running into billions of dollars. The number of Chinese tourists to the South, for instance, has gone down drastically since then.

Also read: New South Korean president Yoon Suk-yeol to try different tack with North Korea

Lee, on the other hand, had called for greater reconciliation with the North and the need for a nuanced foreign policy to deal with the growing U.S.-China rivalry. Traditional Korean policy has been “America for security, China for the economy”. Yoon has indicated that he would like his country to work closely with U.S.-led security alliances like the Quad and cooperate with the Biden administration on ensuring a so called “free and open Indo-Pacific”. If he carries out his foreign policy pledges, the South Korean policy of “strategic ambiguity” will be a casualty, as the country veers to an even tighter embrace with Washington. “You have to lead the nation’s business with strategic clarity,” Yoon told a South Korean newspaper.

Yoon has pledged to strengthen the existing trilateral military alliance between the U.S., Japan and South Korea. He has also signalled that Seoul will openly side with the U.S. in its looming military confrontation with China. In the last decade, relations between the two countries improved substantially as Seoul’s relations with Tokyo started souring over a host of issues, most notably on the question of war reparations for “the comfort women” who were forced into the sex trade by the Japanese army during the Second World War. For most of the first half of the 20th century, Korea was a Japanese colony. Most Koreans do not have fond memories of their former colonial masters.

Going by its track record, the North will also adopt a more non-compromising posture towards Seoul once the new right-wing conservative government is in place. The “sunshine policy” towards the North introduced by the first liberal President of the country, Kim Dae-jung, was jettisoned by the conservative governments that came to power subsequently. The sunshine policy had led to South Korean companies like Hyundai setting up industrial parks in the North. Tensions in the Korean peninsula always rise when the conservatives are on the ascendant in Seoul.

The incoming government will find it difficult to implement many of its controversial promises in its first two years in office. The National Assembly will be under the control of the progressives until 2024. The South Korean political establishment, according to observers of the region, will have a moderating influence and in all probability will temper down some of the extreme policies that the President-elect espoused during the election campaign.

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