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Yoon Seok-Yeol’s Rise From Rebel Prosecutor To President – Analysis

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By Hyung-A Kim*

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South Korea’s fiercely contested presidential election on 9 March resulted in a win for former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-yeol of the conservative opposition People Power Party (PPP). Yoon will become the next president after claiming victory with a razor-thin margin of 0.73 per cent, or 247,077 votes, over his rival Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party (DP).

For the first time in South Korean history, a political novice has won the presidential election, dragging the PPP out of the political wilderness. The victory comes five years after the impeachment of former president Park Geun-hye of the PPP’s predecessor party who was ousted by the Candlelight Revolution of 2016–17.

Yoon has neither experience in the National Assembly nor any proven governing skills. He has been embroiled in many scandals involving his family members. Some conservatives also revile Yoon as a culprit for his role in indicting former conservative presidents Park and Lee Myung-bak, causing Park’s impeachment before she and Lee were jailed. Park was pardoned in December 2021.

But Yoon became a public and opposition idol when, as prosecutor general, he investigated former justice minister Cho Kuk’s alleged corruption. Yoon’s clash with Cho’s successor, former justice minister Choo Mi-ae, over judicial authority ultimately led him to resign and run for presidential office.

Yoon’s election, just 370 days after his resignation as prosecutor general, is inseparable from his proven record as a rebel prosecutor.

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The eldest son of a relatively well-off family of academics in Seoul, Yoon passed the state bar exam on his 10th attempt at the age of 31 in 1991, after sitting nine times for the yearly bar exam since studying law at Seoul National University.

Yoon became popularly known as a rebel prosecutor after he made a bombshell disclosure in October 2013. During a National Assembly examination Yoon claimed that he had been pressured to stop investigating the alleged role of the National Intelligence Service during the 2012 presidential election in manipulating public opinion through online and social media to support Park. Following his disclosure, Yoon became a man in exile, for nearly three consecutive years from March 2014, having been demoted to less important regional branch offices, including Yeoju, Daejon and Daegu.

Yoon’s moment came when President Moon Jae-in, on taking office in 2017, handpicked him as chief prosecutor at the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. He led Moon’s signature ‘clean-up deep-rooted evils’ reform that resulted in jailing conservative ruling elites, including Park and Lee.

Yoon became ‘the most in-demand politician’ after his abrupt resignation as prosecutor general in March 2021. By then, he was regarded by many South Koreans as a defender of the rule of law and public interest, having investigated corruption cases involving President Moon’s close allies, most notably the Cho Kuk scandal. In this context, Moon has been the greatest contributor to Yoon’s unlikely election win.

For Yoon’s supporters, his presidential election is a triumph for South Korean democracy, showing South Korean voters’ willingness to punish Moon and his party’s poor performance. To them, the Moon administration weakened South Korean democracy by monopolising state affairs and the National Assembly, which led to voter backlash.

Yoon’s narrow margin also means that nearly the same share of the electorate voted for Yoon’s DP opponent, showing the sharp split in South Korean society. The president-elect’s most urgent task now is to unite South Korean society and people, disillusioned by sky-rocketing housing prices, widening income and gender inequality and the COVID-19 pandemic.

Moon and Yoon held a long-awaited first official meeting on 28 March after a 19-day delay. At the meeting the outgoing and incoming presidents agreed to cooperate for the smooth transition of power despite Moon’s initial concern about a potential ‘security vacuum’ over Yoon’s plan to relocate the presidential office, the Blue House. Yoon also promised that he would continue the Moon administration’s successful policies and improve poor ones.

But a public clash broke out shortly afterwards. Moon criticised the relocation of the Blue House to the Ministry of National Defense building, where Yoon wants to hold his inauguration on 10 May. Meanwhile, Yoon called out Moon’s so-called ‘parachute appointments’ of pro-government people to major posts in public institutions before his term expires.

Some critics argue that Moon and the president-elect are pursuing hostile positions to reinforce their support bases ahead of the 1 June local elections. Faced with multiple national challenges — including soaring inflation due to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, South Korea’s deadly Omicron wave with record high new infections and deaths and North Korea’s test-firing of an advanced ICBM — both sides need to work together. Yoon, in particular, cannot realise his key commitments, including the reorganisation of the government, without the support of the now opposition DP, which holds 172 seats in the 300-member National Assembly.

Bipartisan cooperation is crucial for Yoon to advance South Korean democracy, especially in overcoming gender inequality. Many citizens have shown concern about Yoon’s anti-feminist platform which he espoused during his campaign.

The June 2022 local election will be the first test of Yoon’s leadership. It will provide a litmus test for how successful his administration will be in promoting inclusive politics and well considered policies based on public consensus, fairness and justice.

*About the author: Hyung-A Kim is Associate Professor of Korean Politics and History at the School of Culture, History and Language, The Australian National University.

Source: This article was published by East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum

East Asia Forum is a platform for analysis and research on politics, economics, business, law, security, international relations and society relevant to public policy, centred on the Asia Pacific region. It consists of an online publication and a quarterly magazine, East Asia Forum Quarterly, which aim to provide clear and original analysis from the leading minds in the region and beyond.

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