President Yoon Suk-yeol: Challenges and Prospects

Yoon Suk-yeol (윤석열) of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) (국민의힘) defeated Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung by a razor thin margin of 0.8% vote share to become South Korea’s 13th President-elect. What are the challenges he faces and can his proposed policies meet them?

The Man

Yoon is often referred to as the ‘Korean Trump’ not just because of his political views but also because of his meteoric rise in the political arena, reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump.

He has previously served as the prosecutor general of South Korea and grabbed the limelight during the trial of former president Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak who had been charged with corruption, with the former being impeached for it.

Even though serving under liberal President Moon Jae-in, Yoon became the conservatives’ favourite for launching a probe on Moon’s close aid and pick for Justice Minister, Cho Kuk, on charges of corruption and due to his scathing criticism of the former’s policies. He has ever since been a steely figure of the anti-corruption campaign.

A novice to politics, He declared his candidature for the 2022 Presidential elections in late June 2021 and by July joined the PPP. Earlier this month, Yoon defeated the liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung with just 263,000 votes; the slightest margin since the Democratic transition in 1987.

Grave Challenges

Several grave challenges await Yoon both on the domestic front and abroad.

Domestic Challenges

Yoon gets elected amidst a sharp rise in South Korea’s coronavirus cases with a record 400,000 cases in a single day. Curbing the pandemic would be a humongous task.

A major challenge that he faces are the political divisions within the country. Apart from the regular demographic factors of age and regionalism, this election saw an interesting trend of divisions along gender and ideology. Yoon’s bitter remarks against gender equality and men being at a ‘disadvantage’ due to calls for feminism worked as 58.7% of the men in their 20s and 52.8% in their 30s, the dominant age group in the workforce, voted for him.

An ideological controversy also erupted months before South Korea went to polls. At the eye of the storm was one of the most popular beverage brands, Starbucks. In January 2022, Shinsegae’s Vice Chairman  Chung Yong-jin (the parent company of E-mart which owns 67.5% of Starbucks outlets in South Korea) posted an anti-Communist post on social media crticising Chinese President Xi Jinping’s silence on his official’s remarks of South Korea being a ‘minor country’. He labelled it with the hashtag “멸공” or “destroy communism”. Soon after, he posted another photo of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un with the same hashtag. This marked Chung’s fifth anti-communist social media post in a month. The move irked Democratic Party Presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung to the extent that he declared never to drink a Starbucks coffee again. His supporters rallied and on January 10, Shinsegae’s stock value decreased by 6.8% and closed at ₩23,000. Chung apologised for his behaviour and promised not to post anti-Communist content again. While Communism as an ideology stands banned under the National Security Law, progressivism has been a major force. Yoon’s wafer thin margin of victory shows that this force would  pose a recurrent challenge.

Another challenge is the massive housing crisis in South Korea. The ratio of housing debt to disposable incomes has been rising sharply. It was 138.5% in 2008 and rose to over 200% by 2020. Households now owe twice more than their means to spend.

Unemployment and economic downturn are also major issues. In 2021, South Korea’s jobless rate hit the highest in more than two decades. Unemployment rate surged from 4.5% in December 2020 to 5.4% in January 2021. There is also widespread disenchantment among the youth, who call themselves the “Sampo generation” (삼포세대) i.e. those who have to give up courtship, marriage and children because of unaffordability, due to growing income inequalities.

Challenges abroad

The biggest challenges that South Korea faces abroad is to mend relations with Japan that have worsened over the years; resolve the strategic dilemma over balancing relations with the United States on side and China on the other, and address how far Seoul would be willing to go on the question of Taiwan’s sovereign status where till now they have shown ambiguity.

The biggest challenge however, sits just across the border. North Korea’s aggressive missile launches and threats of resuming its nuclear programme which has been under a self imposed moratorium since 2017 threaten to destabilise not just the regional order in Northeast Asia but also peace and stability of the whole world. The biggest threat is to South Korea.

Yoon’s proposed policies

While his opponent Lee Jae-myung called for greater government participation to meet these challenges, Yoon believes in free market solutions and retreat of the government.

On the housing issue, Yoon promises to build 1.3 million homes in Seoul and surrounding metropolitan areas and additional 1.2 million homes using a budget of ₩12.1 trillion. Young first-home buyers in their 20s and 30s are at the top of his plan who 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 investment return margin of upto 70%.

Yoon is also likely to ease both loan restrictions on housing and on the rental market led by private investors.

Unlike Moon, Yoon will abandon the plan of creating more jobs in the government sector and  focus on the private sector.

He has also called for easing restrictions put in place on the large family run business conglomerates or Chaebols (재볼). Describing Moon’s 52 hour week work policy a “failure”, Yoon has called for greater labour flexibility where workers can choose between permanent and part time jobs. His earlier statement that workers should work for 120 hours a week drew heavy criticism.

He has promised to incentivise investment capital to promote private ventures like  Small and Medium sized Enterprises (SMEs), fuel Fourth Industrial Revolution ventures such as in Artificial intelligence and promote startups.

Yoon’s political stances are known to have been problematic on certain aspects. Not only was his 120 hour week work statement highly controversial but his open appreciation for former dictator Chun Doo Hwan, who was responsible for the brutal Gwangju massacre of 1980, has drawn much flak. He later apologised for his words but soon followed it up with a social media post of a dog being fed an apple. It was considered a mockery of his apology as “apple” and “apology” are homonyms in Korean language, written as “사과”.

Yoon is also seen as an anti-feminist. In January, he called to “abolish Ministry of Women and Family” as he believes feminism has ‘adverse’ effects on birth rates and healthy relationships  and that women face “no systematic discrimination”, despite many reports claiming otherwise. His statement received high support from Idaenam (이대남) or men in their 20s who are known to hold negative opinions towards feminism, while many women’s organisations found it deeply disturbing. His wife is also known to have been extremely critical of the MeToo campaign.

On foreign policy, toeing the line of the Conservatives, Yoon is all set to tilt further to the US. While Seoul’s foreign policy has always had a soft corner towards Washington, Progressives like Moon are known to have attempted to balance relations and find an independent course.

Yoon has vowed to continue the agenda of the May 2021 Biden-Moon summit emphasising on cooperation across multiple sectors such as semiconductors, aerospace industries, etc.

He would not only join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework but would also support Washington’s policies in the region focussed on containing growing Chinese influence. Yoon has supported the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad (comprising India, US, Japan and Australia). He is likely to commit to Moon’s plans of joining the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA).

Yoon is likely to return to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD),  the anti-ballistic missile defense system offered by the US. The deployment soured relations with China which viewed it as a threat to its own sovereignty and  was cancelled by President Moon when he came to power in 2017.

He declared that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would be the second leader after US President Joe Biden whom he would meet after becoming the President, indicating a thaw in relations with Tokyo.

Yoon has been highly critical of Moon Jae-in’s reconciliatory approach towards Pyongyang and has called for harsher sanctions on North Korea, which he described as the “main enemy”.

Will they help?

None of Yoon’s proposed policies address the structural issues in South Korea’s economy. His housing and market reforms offer limited respite to only a few economic classes and are exclusive in nature. He has no clear plan when it comes to addressing environmental concerns and healthcare infrastructure which 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 South Korea’s cherished democratic ideals and are likely to create opposition against his regime.

His proposed foreign policy too threatens to create instability. While it will lead to a thaw in relations with Japan and might bring Seoul closer to Taiwan, it is set to worsen relations with China which might come at a huge economic cost. Yoon’s harsh stance on North Korea and plans to enhance military cooperation with Washington in the region will have an adverse impact on inter-Korean relations. While Pyongyang’s attitude over Moon’s reconciliatory approach is upsetting, negotiations are the only way out. Putting harsher sanctions would not only add to the drudgery of the common people while the political elite up North stay unaffected but would further embolden Pyongyang to react in extreme ways.

At the moment, Yoon’s policies do not present any long term solutions to the challenges that he faces. He needs to be more inclusive in domestic policy making  and adopt a more rational and moderate path in foreign policy.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.