On the 9th of March, South Korea announced candidate Yoon Suk-Yeol as the 20th presidential winner after a neck-and-neck race marred with controversies. Yoon from the conservative People’s Power Party won by a 0.73-point margin against his opposition Lee Jae-Myung of the Democratic Party. However, this year was a choice between “two lesser evils” (Kim, 2021), and the tight outcome just shows that neither was a favourite in the eyes of Korean citizens. Ms Jo, a 33-year-old woman from Seoul, currently unemployed, decided not to cast her vote at all stating that she did not have any expectations for the next five years. Presidents in South Korea hold a five-year term and cannot be re-elected. Her sentiments were reflected by Ms Lee, a nurse, who voted for Yoon, stating that Lee’s demeanour on television did not leave her with a good impression.
Looking at the voter turnout by age and region, the age group who cast the most votes were people in their 50s with 19.5%, followed by people in their 40s and 60s. 18-year-olds could also cast their ballots in what was their first presidential election since an electoral reform bill lowering the voting age was passed in 2019. President-elect Yoon's campaign pledges regarding gender rights have caused an outcry by the Korea Women's Associations United, and, according to the voter turnout by gender, Lee received around 12% more of the votes by women in their 20s (Rashid, 2022; NamuWiki, 2022).
Among South Korea's deep structural problems, which have been exacerbated by the pandemic and have disproportionately affected young people and blue-collar workers in metropolitan areas, lie housing and unemployment. Yoon's stance on these issues seems to have played a part in his just narrow victory. So, from the anti-feminist rhetoric to pledges on unemployment and housing, who exactly is Yoon and what can South Korea expect in the following five years from him?
Yoon Suk-Yeol: Man of Justice or Anti-feminist Hawk?
Yoon brings with him a 27-year-long career in the prosecution, and it was the key role he played during the trial of former Justice Minister Cho Kuk which made his name known to the public. Cho Kuk was President Moon's personal choice for Justice Minister and, in the end, the primary reason why both President Moon and his Democratic Party lost the trust of the public, when allegations rose against Cho Kuk and his wife regarding forgery of their daughter's academic achievements, as well as taking part in illicit business. Apart from this trial, Yoon was also in charge of the prosecution for former presidents Park Geun-Hye and Lee Myung-Bak. Therefore, it does not come as a surprise that perhaps for many citizens Yoon embodies the values of justice since he has prosecuted former Presidents regardless of their political affiliation or background. In a country where corruption has remained a barrier in the democratic landscape, it is this continued hope and image of Yoon that ultimately helped him to get a majority of votes (Freedom House, 2021).
Pledge on the Abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family
After receiving news of his victory, Yoon called it the “victory of the great people,” (Bak, 2022). However, his election campaign revealed quite the opposite. Fuelling on the gender war, he instigated division rather than integration and national unity. Claiming that South Korean society does not face problems of structural gender inequality, he announced in January the controversial pledge to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. To some extent, Yoon managed to gain the support of young males, in particular those in their 20s. However, winning only by a margin, such a substantial change of a Ministry needs the approval of the legislative branch in the parliament, where the not-so-likely-to-agree Democratic Party still holds 172 out of 300 seats. The anti-feminist rhetoric of Yoon has alarmed women’s organisations in Korea and has raised concerns among South Korea's international partners regarding the image of the upcoming President. While a certain news outlet reported that he withdrew his pledge just before International Women’s Day, on the 8th of March, this has been denied (Lee, 2022; Dong-a Ilbo, 2022a). South Korea has long struggled with an entrenched patriarchal mindset and old-fashioned laws that have only recently started to change. For example, Article 809 of the Civil Code, dictating that a child can only carry the last name of the father, was abolished only in 2005. Putting an anti-feminist at the forefront of Korean politics threatens to halt the progress in improving gender equality, as well as dampening the confidence of women who have recently dared to speak out against the discrimination they are subjected to on a daily basis.
Pledges on Foreign Policy
In matters of foreign policy, in particular towards North Korea, Yoon’s pledges resemble the policy of preemptive strikes during the Bush administration. As a response to the missile testing of North Korea in the past months, Yoon pointed out that peace talks have led nowhere and that peace can only be achieved with a strong defence. In his words, “peace is the result of the demonstration of overwhelming power” (Hong, 2022). Thus, he pledged to strengthen the US-Korea alliance and the additional deployment of THAAD, Terminal High Altitude Defence, designed to intercept intermediate-range missiles. Stating that the cautious demeanour of the previous administration was just an attempt to please the big neighbour China, Yoon drove on anti-Chinese sentiments, which rose during the beginning of the pandemic (Kim, 2022). He also wants to revive South Korea's competitive edge in nuclear plants and thus reversing the nuclear phase-out scheme set by Moon. Nevertheless, Yoon has been criticised for not providing a comprehensive strategy on North Korea or on China (Aljazeera, 2022). Yoon is a novice in the political field and foreign policy might just be the biggest challenge he will face during his term.
Pledges regarding COVID-19
On the measures implemented to stop the spread of the Coronavirus, Yoon has put forward several pledges which would overhaul the current measures put in place. Hoping to exploit the pandemic fatigue and appeal to small business owners, his statements included allowing self-employed businesses to open again for 24 hours, currently limited until 11 pm, halting what he sees as “forced” vaccination for teenagers and eliminating the need for so-called quarantine passes. These quarantine passes, similar to the proof of vaccination, were implemented by the previous government on November 1, 2021, to restrict the use of certain facilities for non-vaccinated people. In the past weeks, the Omicron variant has caused rising cases (Reuters, 2022) and this is in spite of strict distancing measures. Yoon has attacked the current restrictions as based on unscientific evidence, as many parts of the world are heading towards a ‘living-with-virus’-policy, Yoon’s promises will therefore be most likely welcomed. He will only be able to take charge of quarantine policies in May, after his official inauguration. Since his term starts after the Winter, the warming weather might play in his favour as well.
While political leaders usually seek to leave a legacy behind, in South Korea politics has been marred by corruption and controversies that have their roots in the long years of authoritarian rule, so keeping a low profile is an admirable feat to attain. Yoon’s past in the prosecution meant that he experienced the lessons on the abuse of power closely. But democracy is not only about justice and fairness, it is also about equality and human rights. In this regard, it is uncertain whether Yoon can respect the different voices in South Korean society.
Yoon’s main pledges (NamuWiki, 2022) in short published on his social media as part of his campaign to target younger people (Dong-a Ilbo, 2022b) through short and powerful messages:
여성가족부 폐지 - Demolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family
병사 봉급 월 200만 원 - Raise soldier’s monthly wage to 2 Million Won (around 1600$)
비과학적 방역패스 철회 - Withdraw the need for “non-scientific quarantine” pass
성범죄 처벌 강화, 무고죄 처벌 강화 - Strengthen the punishment of sex crimes and false claims
탈원전 백지화, 원전 최강국 건설 - Stop nuclear power phase-out, restore Korea’s strong nuclear plants
주식양도세 폐지 - Abolish tax on stock transfers
사드 추가 배치 - Deploy additional THAAD
한미동맹 강화 - Strengthen US-Korea alliance
24시간 영업 - Allow 24-hour businesses
방역패스 완전 철폐 - Completely eliminate the need for quarantine passes
코로나 손해 실질적 보상 - Provide compensation for the damage caused by Covid-19
시민단체 불법이익 전액환수 - Confiscate illegal profits from civic groups
여성이 안전한 대한민국 - Create a safe Korea for women
성범죄와의 전쟁 선포 - Declare war on sex offences
Aljazeera (2022, March 9). Yoon Suk-Yeol wins South Korea’s presidential election. https://www.aljazeera.com/news/2022/3/9/south-korean-opposition-candidate-yoon-wins-presidential-election. [Accessed on 10.03.2022]
Freedom House (2021). Freedom in the World — South Korea Country Report. https://freedomhouse.org/country/south-korea [Accessed on 14.03.2022]
Kim, H. (2021, Dec 22). S Korea presidential poll: Choosing the lesser of two evils. Aljazeera. https://www.aljazeera.com/opinions/2021/12/22/sk-presidential-election-choosing-the-lesser-of-the-two-evils [Accessed on 11.03.2022]
Rashid, R. (2022, March 11). ‘Devastated’: gender equality hopes on hold as ‘anti-feminist’ voted South Korea’s president. The Guardian. https://www.theguardian.com/world/2022/mar/11/south-korea-gender-equality-anti-feminist-president-yoon-suk-yeol. [Accessed on 11.03.2022]
박민철 [Bak, Min-Cheol] (2022, March 10).윤석열 “위대한 국민의 승리” [Translation: Yoon Suk-Yeol - “A victory of the great people”]. KBS News. https://news.kbs.co.kr/news/view.do?ncd=5412175 [Accessed on 13.03.2022]
동아일보 [Dong-a Ilbo] (2022a, Feb 15). 윤석열 “‘여성가족부 폐지’는 핵심 공약…공약 철회는 유언비어”[Translation: Withdrawal of Yoon’s core pledge on “Abolition of Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” is merely a rumour]. https://www.donga.com/news/Politics/article/all/20220215/111813639/1 [Accessed on 13.03.2022]
동아일보 [Dong-a Ilbo] (2022b, Jan 10). 尹 ‘강렬한 한줄공약’ 어떻게 나왔나 봤더니…메시지팀 2030 장악[Translation: Yoon: When I looked at the effects of “Poignant one-line messages” … Messaging Team takes over 203]. https://www.donga.com/news/Politics/article/all/20220110/111169620/1 [Accessed on 13.03.2022]
홍민성 [Hong, Min-Song] (2022, Jan 17). 윤석열 "평화는 압도적 힘의 결과…선제타격능력 확보"
[Translation: Yoon Suk-Yeol’s - "Peace is the result of the demonstration of overwhelming power … We need to develop our preemptive strike capabilities”] 한경 [Hankyung]. https://www.hankyung.com/politics/article/2022011736647 [Accessed on 11.03.2022]
김미나 [Kim, Mi-Na] (2022, Jan 30). “윤석열, SNS 통해 “사드 추가 배치” 6글자 단문 공약” [Translation: Yoon Suk’s Yeol: His 6-letter promise published on SNS on “Additional Deployment of THAAD”]. 한겨레 [Hankyoreh]. https://www.hani.co.kr/arti/politics/politics_general/1029333.html [Accessed on 11.03.2022]
이윤주 [Lee, Yoon-Ju] (2022, March 8). 여성의 날에 윤석열 '여성가족부 폐지' '무고죄 처벌' 재소환...왜? [Translation: Why did Yoon Suk-Yeol recall his pledges on “Abolition of Ministry of Gender Equality and Family” and “Punishment of False Claims” during International Women’s Day?] 한국 일보 [Hankuk Ilbo]. https://www.hankookilbo.com/News/Read/A2022030812400002088 [Accessed on 11.03.2022]
나무위키 [NamuWiki] (2022, March 15). 제20대 대통령 선거
[Translation: The 20th Presidential Election]. https://namu.wiki/w/제20대%20대통령%20선거 [Accessed on 11.03.2022]