Introducing...Yoon Suk-yeol

Richard Swift on the right-wing libertarian and former public prosecutor hoping to ‘teach some manners’ to its North Korean neighbour.

Credit: Emma Peer

An electorate discontented with the self-satisfied political classes can rarely resist the temptation of an ‘anti-politics’ politician, posing as a new broom to sweep away the old corruptions, and promising a new dawn. Take the new president of South Korea, 61-year-old Yoon Suk-yeol. On election day (10 March) the odds were too close to call in the rambunctious contest between Yoon, the candidate of the conservative People Power Party, and the liberal Lee Jae-myung of the governing Democratic Party. In the end Yoon edged out Lee by a hair – 48.56 per cent to 47.83 per cent.

Much like the ‘lesser evil’ electoral theatre in many countries, neither candidate was particularly inspiring to Korean voters, causing media outlets to dub the whole poll ‘the election of the unfavourables’. Koreans take their politics seriously. Turnout was some 77 per cent – perhaps because, until 1987, the country had been ruled by a series of military despots backed by the US. South Koreans have always been willing to go the streets to defend their democratic rights, as they did in Gwangju in 1980 when an estimated 2,000 demonstrators were murdered by the Chun dictatorship, or more recently in 2016 when weeks of street demonstrations brought down Park Geun-hye for her corrupt political practices.

Yoon’s ‘new broom’ reputation is due, at least in part, to his role as a lead prosecutor in the case against Park and 100 of her cronies – as well as against the corporate giant Samsung for its corrupt accounting practices. Under the Korean constitution, newly-elected Yoon will have only a single five-year term to implement his rather vague programme. Similarly to Donald Trump of the US and Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil, Yoon comes to the presidency with the reputation of a bit of a rightwing populist; or libertarian – if you are being polite. Part of his success amongst tech-savvy younger voters has to do with his championing of virtual currencies. One divisive promise is to raise the capital gains tax threshold on Bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies from $2,000 to $40,000 – which would make it the world’s most generous tax-free allowance.

On the other hand Yoon is known for various slips in justifying and forgiving some of South Korea’s most nefarious political characters, including Chun Doo-hwan and Park Geun-hye. Occasionally he has been forced into apologies for such utterances. Yoon is also known for his disdain for women, denying discrimination and calling for the abolition of the Ministry of Gender Equality and the Family. He apparently sought to cash in on a growing anti-feminist backlash in the country.

But it is in the area of geopolitics and the all-pervasive influence of North Korea that Yoon’s rhetoric is most troubling. With no experience in balancing on geopolitical ledges, he promises to ‘teach some manners’ to nuclear toy-wielding Kim Jong-un. Wonder how that is going to go? At least the US has made polite refusals to Yoon’s ideas about re-nuclearizing the South. But then Yoon’s liberal predecessor made little headway in a friendly entente he promised with the man with the famous slicked-back haircut. One thing is for sure: Koreans’ desire for a united Korea will not disappear any time soon.