By Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra*
In an exceptionally close South Korean presidential election, Yoon Suk-yeol of the opposition People Power Party (PPP) defeated Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party (DP) by “0.8 percent points.”In his post-election speech, President-elect Yoon Suk-yeolasked “to work together” and promised to “cooperate with the opposition.” It will still be a tough road ahead.
Yoon Suk-yeol made many unorthodox promises during his campaign. For example, he proposed to do away with the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He blamed feminism for South Korea’s low birth rate, and said that discrimination against women in the country was a thing of the past. Many thought that his pronouncements were targeted at young males in their 20s and 30s, a majority of whom support the abolition of affirmative action for women. The president-elect however seems to be serious about his promises. Following the election, a name change for the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family to Ministry of Population and Family has already been floated. In this context, South Korea’s position at the bottom of gender equality rankings among the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries must be emphasised.
The president-elect has also been a supporter of market mechanisms to determine prices and product quality. In one of his speeches, Yoon Suk-yeol argued that the food safety provions must be done away with so the poor can access lower-quality food, if they wish to do so. Citing Milton Friedman, he advocated freedom of choice rather than the state playing a big brother role in regulating markets.
Yoon Suk-yeol’s approach towards North Korea is also going to be different—he feels that sanctions and pressure can be more effective instruments in changing North Korea’s behaviour. He even suggested during his campaign that in case of an imminent threat of a North Korean nuclear attack, South Korea may decide on pre-emptive action.
Further on the foreign policy front, Yoon Suk-yeol wants a strengthening of the US-South Korea alliance. In one of his election speeches, he went to the extent of welcoming American reinstallation of tactical nuclear weapons on the Korean peninsula. Unlike the Moon Jae-in administration, the president-elect has indicated that he may not be averse to South Korea cooperating with the Quad. In fact, his fourth phone call as president-elect was with Australian Prime Minister Scott Morrison, even though Australia is otherwise low on South Korea’s foreign policy priorities. He also had phone conversations with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi. Both of these have been seen as his administration’s positive interest in the Quad.
During his election campaign, the president-elect pointed to Japan as the second-most important country for Seoul, and said that he would make efforts to reach out to Tokyo. Japan-South Korea relations have been hostage to several historical, legal, and economic issues over the past five years. It will be interesting to see if Yoon Suk-yeol’s gestures pacify Japan, and whether the two countries manage to at least revert to the pre-2017 state of their bilateral relations.
The most challenging task for the president-elect, however, will be China. Yoon Suk-yeol has indicated his interest in expanding the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system on the Korean peninsula. China will undoubtedly react negatively to any such move.
Overall, four main issues are likely to pose challenges for the president-elect over the coming months. First are allegations about his seeking political advice from non-political figures, such as a shaman leader. His wife, Kim Kun-hee, also allegedly intervenes in his political duties. The second stumbling block will be his political party’s lack of majority in the National Assembly. Yoon Suk-yeol doesn’t have enough political experience and potentially lacks a finer understanding of compromise and accommodation. This could come in the way of reaching out to leaders on the other side of the political aisle. Third, his foreign policy preferences will be seen negatively by China. China is South Korea’s number one trading partner and a deterioration of Seoul’s relations with Beijing will have economic repercussions. Fourth, even though South Korea intends to join the Quad, the US may not be as eager. While the US is reportedly keen on South Korea being part of the Indo-Pacific strategy, it hasn’t made the same noises about South Korean participation in the Quad.
The most fundamental question is the direction of the president-elect’s policies. Will he dilute his stand on any of these issues after taking the oath of office on 9 May? He appears to be uncompromising so far, and the times ahead are likely to be challenging both for Yoon Suk-yeol and South Korea.
*Dr Sandip Kumar Mishra is Associate Professor, Centre for East Asian studies, SIS, JNU, & Distinguished Fellow, IPCS.