What Yoon Suk-yeol’s razor-thin victory means

The writer says the South Korean president-elect’s most immediate challenge is overcoming the divisions left by the campaign.

Robert J. Fouser

Robert J. Fouser

The Korea Herald


March 25, 2022

SEOUL – The closest presidential election in South Korean history ended with conservative Yoon Suk-yeol winning by 0.73 percent of the vote. The divisive campaign alienated broad swaths of the electorate, but Yoon’s ability to keep conservatives united while drawing strong support from young men put him over the top. Yoon also benefited from winning in Seoul, which has gone for liberal candidates in every election except 2007 when Lee Myung-bak won a landslide victory.

Compared to previous winners, Yoon Suk-yeol is new to the political scene. All other winning candidates were all household names with years of experience in politics and public life. People knew who they were and where they stood. Yoon, in comparison, is a mystery, which makes it difficult to predict what sort of president he will be. The challenges he faces, however, are clear.

The most immediate challenge is overcoming the divisions left the by campaign. This is particularly difficult for winners of close elections. Having won only 48.56 percent of the vote, Yoon begins his term with more people having voted for somebody else. He also lacks a majority in National Assembly where the next elections are not scheduled until 2024.

To lead, Yoon should turn his weakness into strength by focusing on issues of greatest concern to the public. The high cost of housing frustrates Koreans but hits younger generations the hardest. Worries about the stability of the pension system abound. Despite political differences, there is wide agreement that these problems need to be addressed, giving the new president a chance to lead.

These two issues stem from South Korea’s transition to a developed economy with an aging population. The aging of the population is a demographic fact and presidential leadership is critical to developing a broad consensus on how to deal with an issue that most Koreans now know cannot be wished away.

Foreign policy offers the new president a chance to build a consensus. Fears of a rising China have grown in recent years, pushing South Korea closer to the US. The Russian invasion of Ukraine has accelerated that drift as relations between the US and China continue to cool. In the campaign, Yoon promised to move closer to the US and doing so now has broader public support than only a few weeks ago.

Japan is trickier, but there is a growing consensus that the time has come to mend relations, particularly amid growing worries about China. Japan, for its part, feels the same way, which should help bring the two countries closer.

Meanwhile, attitudes toward North Korea have changed in recent years. Younger generations view North Korea as a nuisance and have little interest in reunification. Liberal presidents Kim Dae-jung, Roh Moo-hyun, and Moon Jae-in, have all visited North Korea for summits. They have operated under the assumption that engaging North Korea will change its behavior and lead to a relaxing of tensions. This assumption stirs anger in older conservatives but animates liberals; younger generations are indifferent. Pivoting toward younger voters offers Yoon a chance to build a broad consensus for a more pragmatic approach to North Korea.

What does Yoon Suk-yeol’s background say about his ability to build consensus? Yoon is a lawyer and former prosecutor general. His instincts naturally lead him to focus on details. Political leadership, by contrast, is about ideas explained through broad brush strokes. Starting with an idea gives the leader a chance to use details to broaden support for the idea. Starting with the details turns every step into a political altercation that makes progress impossible.

Yoon’s push to move out of the Blue House and turn it over to the people has focused almost exclusively on details. The public, meanwhile, is worried more about heavy news such as exploding cases of COVID-19 and geopolitical tension. A recent poll revealed that 54 percent of the people oppose the move the Blue House to Yongsan while only 45 percent support it. Had Yoon won by a wider margin, the poll most likely would have shown greater support for the move.

As the Blue House debate drags on, the president-elect should draw on another legal idea: “theory of the case.” This idea focuses on a line of reasoning that connects facts together to make a case. From this, he can look at the facts of South Korea’s present and make a case for what needs to be done while leaving the policy details open for discussion. Because in politics, people always like to be asked.

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