Korea Move: Korean Politicians and the 2022 Presidential Election
In another instalment of her recurring segment, Korea Move, Cleo covers the politics of South Korea and talks about the promises made during the recent presidential election that threw out Moon Jae-in
The 20th President of South Korea will take office in May, following a March election described as an “election of the unfavourables”, which resulted in a majority so slight it makes the Brexit vote look like a landslide. The winner, Yoon Suk-Yeol, of the conservative People Power Party, went against Lee Jae-Myung from the Democratic Party (the incumbent government, though not the current leader, as South Korea’s constitution dictates a single five-year term without the possibility of re-election, but there are whispers that this might be something Yoon changes).
There was an impressive 77% voter turnout, contributed to by the decision to give many people the day off work or reduced hours — my classes were even cancelled for the day to ensure students and staff alike could vote. South Korean politics has been particularly eventful over the last decade, which has seen Lee Myung-bak (president, 2008-2013) and Park Geun-Hye (first female president, 2013-2017) imprisoned in separate corruption scandals, and Moon Jae-In (president 2017-2022) take the reins of a country that mistrusts its own government, only to spend over half of his term battling the COVID-19 pandemic. Oh, and just to top it all off, president-elect Yoon is a political novice, but was the previous Prosecutor General, and helped Moon prosecute the aforementioned Park Geun-Hye.
To paraphrase a tweet that summarises what’s happened over the past five years (one Korean presidential term):
“Yoon prosecuted Park,
Who was succeeded by Moon,
Who appointed Yoon,
And pardoned Park,
And will now be replaced by Yoon.”
Wild stuff, right? Well, strap yourself in, because it’s about to get wilder…
Yoon’s harsh stance towards North Korea has put many politicians, journalists and the public on edge
Even though at the time of writing, Yoon is yet to be inaugurated, he’s already making quite the stir. Yoon’s team has revealed plans to relocate the presidential office as soon as possible, from the iconic Blue House to the building that currently houses the Ministry of National Defence. This has further disgruntled the ministry, who have already expressed wariness towards Yoon’s harsh stance towards North Korea, and this physical move, from a building upheld by tradition, to a building characterised by war, has put many politicians, journalists and the public on edge. There are also pressing civilian concerns, as not only is this move expected to cost substantial taxpayer money that many believe could be better spent elsewhere, the new location is difficult to access for protests, which has worrying implications for Korea’s vibrant protest culture.
It’s clear that Yoon Suk-Yeol is not afraid to make waves, and he’s only been President-elect for a month! Here’s a brief look at some of his main policies, and what they could mean for Korea over the next five years:
1. Foreign Policy
Yoon’s foreign policy, in classic opposition-party-turned-governing-party-style, is the reverse of the attitudes of his predecessor, particularly concerning their peninsula neighbour, North Korea. With a hardline stance on the denuclearisation of North Korea, and the plan to be in possession of weapons that could allow the South to launch a pre-emptive attack on the North, this aligns South Korea closer with the United States. He has also expressed a desire for closer collaboration with the US regarding China, potentially in a bid to take advantage of the current nosedive in US-China relations, in order to suggest that South Korea provide some of the technological services that China previously have done for the US. Yoon has also controversially suggested that he would allow foreign nationals to be appointed as government officials in fields related to national security (this is currently against Korean law).
What does this mean?
His hardline stance on North Korea will undoubtedly be a blow for many divided families on the peninsula, as under Moon’s mediation-focused approach (including his overseeing of a momentous three-day reunion event in 2018) historical scars seemed to be very gradually beginning to heal. We can also anticipate a fair amount of American influence, which will definitely meet mixed reviews from a populous that runs very hot-and-cold on Americans. His tough talk could be seen as refreshingly dynamic and inspire closer ties, but could equally further entrench separation, and as North Korea are notoriously volatile, we will just have to wait and see.
2. Abolish the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family
A policy that has caught the attention of Koreans and the world media alike, is that of Yoon’s commitment to abolishing the Ministry of Gender, Equality and Family, which he believes has been a drain on government resources. This has appealed to a large section of the young male vote, who claim there is no serious gender discrimination in Korea (despite South Korea coming last place in The Economist’s glass ceiling index every year since its creation), and that the outgoing administration’s policies to encourage women to enter and stay in the workforce are damaging the traditional nuclear family. Yoon is proudly “anti-feminist”, and believes that it is better to focus on individual needs, rather than segregating policies based on gender. His recently-announced cabinet is predominantly male (83.4%), with over half of them hailing from his alma mater, SNU.
What does this mean?
As there is a Democratic Party majority in the National Assembly, it is unlikely that the ministry will be abolished. However, this policy has highlighted the gender divide in the attitudes of young Koreans, and Yoon’s election will likely have emboldened Idaenam (men in their 20s with negative attitudes towards feminism). Unfortunately, as a result, Korea could see an even greater increase in gender-based violence and discrimination.
Yoon wants more jobs to be created by the private sector rather than by government-led projects and plans to spur on the economy by cutting corporate regulations in order to increase jobs. He also has plans to reduce real estate taxes and has pledged to build 2.5 million homes, with many aimed at younger people and first-time buyers. The pandemic, both in general and in terms of Korea’s prolonged curfews and tight border restrictions, hit small businesses particularly hard, and Yoon has promised cash handouts to those affected.
What does this mean?
Reducing real estate taxes will benefit the wealthy, particularly those who own multiple homes — combine that with cuts to corporate regulations and it’s obvious that Yoon is not trying to disguise his intentions to help Korea’s wealthiest. He seems to be promising help for lower earners too, and how achievable those promises are in tandem, I’m not sure.
Many media outlets have referred to Yoon Suk-yeol as “Korea’s Trump”
Many media outlets have referred to Yoon Suk-Yeol as “Korea’s Trump”, and by that card, it looks like the next chapter of government may be just as eventful as the last.
Edited by Ryan Gerrett