March 11, 2022
SEOUL – Former top prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol rose to the presidency in less than a year, entering politics with a promise to restore fairness following a regime marred by runaway housing prices and corruption scandals. The political neophyte now needs to prove his presidential capacity by addressing the mounting political and diplomatic challenges the nation faces.
Public frustration grew under the administration of Moon Jae-in, who once won in a landslide with great expectations, but who was rocked by the academic fraud scandals of his close aide Cho Kuk, economic despair and deepening polarization.
Lee Jae-myung, the candidate of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, attempted a turnaround under the slogan of an integrated government and political change, but failed to overcome the voters’ desire for regime change.
Hours after he was elected Thursday, Yoon said at a press briefing, “The people put me here with hope in my conviction that I have not yielded to any power for fairness and justice for 26 years.”
He said he was elected due to “the voice of reform to correct” the fairness and common sense of this country, and he would “never forget” the will of the people.
Despite the public longing for regime change, the race was tight. Many agonized until the last minute over Yoon’s lack of political experience, his repeated gaffes and scandals involving his family. He should now prove his political capability to dispel the concerns of voters.
With Yoon winning the presidency, the People Power Party succeeded in recapturing the presidency just five years after its previously elected president was impeached and removed from office. But the party will have to run state affairs with a National Assembly dominated by the Democratic Party.
Currently, 172 of the 295 lawmakers belong to the Democratic Party of Korea. The People Power Party currently holds just 106 seats.
The next general election is April 10, 2024, and Yoon will have to deal with the newly opposition liberal party virtually dominating the legislature for the next two years, nearly half his term.
Appointing the prime minister could be a tough first challenge. For the appointment of the prime minister candidate to pass, a majority of the incumbent lawmakers need to attend the parliament. At least 148 lawmakers must attend and, among them, 74 lawmakers must agree. But even when the number of seats of the People Power Party and the minor People’s Party are added, it falls far below the threshold.
When a new policy is announced, the Democratic Party’s cooperation is urgently needed, as Yoon cannot drive reform unless legislation is supported.
Yoon’s leadership in seeking cooperation from the opposition party will be a top priority in future state administration. And he has promised to do so.
“Politics that saves people’s lives and prioritizes the national interest is impossible only with the efforts of the president and the ruling party,” Yoon said Thursday. “I will communicate with the council and cooperate with the opposition party.”
He also promised to sincerely communicate with the people over pending state affairs.
How to merge with Ahn
People‘s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo, who dropped out of the race and declared support for Yoon, is expected to play a significant role in the new government. Yoon and Ahn announced on March 3, a day before early voting began, that they had agreed on forming a joint government. However, they did not explicitly state Ahn’s role in the new government.
“First of all, it is important to make a quick unification,” Yoon said. “Ahn Cheol-soo is believed to play an important role in our party and the government. Nothing specific is confirmed.”
Political circles see that Ahn is likely to serve as the first prime minister of the new government. Some on Yoon‘s side say that Ahn should be the deputy prime minister of science and technology, as he emphasized Korea being a “science and technology powerhouse.” Ahn’s side responded negatively, saying that is not sufficient to justify a joint government.
There is a possibility that Ahn will chair the presidential committee that will be set up soon. For Ahn’s part, he needs to work with Yoon‘s officials to take over the joint government and reflect the philosophy and vision of state affairs he advocated for during the presidential campaign in the new government policy stance.
Some in the political circle predict that Ahn will challenge for the position of party leader after merging his minor party with the People Power Party. Ahn met with reporters shortly after the declaration of unification on March 3 and said, “One of the things I really want to do is to change the current People Power Party into a more practical and central party.”
Stronger ties with US, Japan; tougher on North
There are also many diplomatic challenges facing South Korea in international relations.
North Korea, which hinted at a nuclear test and the destruction of the moratorium on the launch of an intercontinental ballistic missile, is threatening the Korean Peninsula. South Korea’s diplomatic choice amid the struggle for supremacy between the US and China is now a matter of survival. As the new Cold War becomes more apparent due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Korea will likely be forced to make strategic choices.
Yoon said his foreign and security policies would be different from the last five years of the Moon Jae-in administration.
He made it clear that he would move away from China and closer to the US. Yoon pledged to participate in a vaccine, climate and new technology working group under the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a strategic security dialogue between the US, India, Japan and Australia, and to seek formal membership.
Yoon is also expected to strengthen cooperation among Korea, the US and Japan by improving relations with Japan, which have reached the worst point in recent history under the current administration.
The president-elect is also expected to implement a stricter policy against the North than Moon.
During an election rally, Yoon warned of a major shift in North Korea’s policy, saying Moon’s government has made inter-Korean relations abnormal and undermined public pride in a submissive manner to North Korea.
“North Korea’s illegal and unreasonable actions will be dealt with firmly following the principle, but the door to inter-Korean dialogue will be open at any time,” he said at the rally.
Widening gender gap
The president-elect also faces challenges in resolving the widening gender gap in society.
As he was running a tight race against the Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung, he appeared to take a strategy to amp up gender-biased rhetoric in his campaign narratives, as a way to secure votes from the undecided male electorate in their 20s and 30s — age groups seen as sensitive to gender-related issues.
His pledges, such as abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality, and claims like there being no structural gender discrimination in Korea raised the ire of women.
This, critics viewed, has deepened the ongoing conflict related to the gender divide in society.
However, Yoon contended that his way of thinking that the gender issue should not be deemed as a structural problem is a better way to “to protect women.”
As his comments and election pledges have been criticized as being strategically intended to create a divide between women and men, Yoon refuted simply that he has never caused a divide between the two genders.
“I never created a divide between women and men. But what I think is that instead of considering the gender gap as a matter of equality, I thought it was important to see it as individual cases of problems,” Yoon said in a question period with reporters after he delivered his speech as the president-elect on Thursday.
“We have the law and system in place to handle those unfair practices. And I have always thought that it is important that the government pays close attention to these problems.”
He said his election campaign was interpreted wrongly by critics and there was no reason for him to create such a divide.