Yoon: A hardliner in office
Following a closely contested poll, Richard Gregson assesses the policies of South Korea’s nationalist President-elect, and how they might impact the country’s relations with its neighbours and allies
Having won South Korea’s presidency in a cliff-hanger election on March 9, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party (PPP) declared that he will be shifting the President’s executive office and residence from the palatial Blue House to the compound of the Defence Ministry in central Seoul. Blue House will be opened to the public as a park when Yoon assumes office on May 10. Though the President-elect maintains that moving to the centre of the city will help him better communicate with the people, it is also symbolic of the conservative policies that the new administration in Seoul is likely to pursue, as compared to the incumbent President, Moon Jae-in of the liberal Democratic Party, who practised a pragmatic foreign policy, balancing between China and the US, both in matters of security and economic relations.
The ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung lost to his PPP rival by a thin margin of less than one per cent of the votes. Yoon got 48.56 % and Lee 47.83% of the poll in a much polarised election, unprecedented in the country. Moon didn’t fight as incumbent, and former presidents are ineligible to seek re-election.
Besides being close-run, the election campaign was also vitriolic. The Democratic Party campaign banked on issues like strengthening social welfare schemes, anti-corruption measures, direct democracy and environmentally friendly policies. On the foreign policy front, they are known for their soft stance towards China and reconciliation and eventual reunification with North Korea.
Yoon hit back with a nationalistic agenda, calling for opposition unity to dislodge the Democratic Party and its uncompromising position on relations with North Korea. He criticised the feminist movement for being responsible for the country’s low birth-rate and said the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family would be shut down. Additionally, he promised to increase the 52-hour working week to 102 hours during peak season, debunked the food safety regulation, saying that ‘poor people should be allowed to choose, to have inferior food to eat at lower prices’, and even praised the former dictator Chun Doo-hwan. South Korea’s sky-rocketing real estate prices and economic slowdown gave him the added fodder he needed to finally trounce his opponent.
True to his conservative leanings, Yoon’s anti-feminist and pro-business campaign won him the support of a large segment of young males and even older women, with his hard-line stance against North Korea and China giving him the winning edge. In fact, Yoon’s was a tong-and-hammer, Trump-style election campaign.
As one of the most powerful economies of the East, located in a region of great geopolitical significance, political developments in South Korea are being closely watched by world powers. With a conservative President at the helm, the country might see significant changes in its domestic and foreign policy initiatives. Indeed, it will be interesting to observe the changes that Yoon may bring about in South Korea’s relations with its neighbours and allies.
As was visible during his campaign, Yoon is unlikely to pursue the liberal pragmatic policy of his predecessor as far as North Korea and China are concerned. He understands the strategic importance of the Korean Peninsula and will be playing hardball with his northern neighbour. In view of the obstinate attitude of North Korean dictator Kim Jong-un, who remains undeterred by global condemnation of his regular testing of nuclear-capable ballistic missiles – nine tests in 2022 alone –Yoon’s immediate concern will be the threat to national security from the North.
He derides the Democratic Party’s ‘subservient North Korea policy’ and advocates that active measures should be taken with the help of the Americans for its ‘complete and verifiable denuclearisation’.
‘In order to safeguard the territorial integrity and sovereignty of our nation, the PPP calls for strengthening the military and ballistic missile defence capability and even pre-emptive strikes to deter the northern dictatorship,’ he added.
It may be recalled that, following the deployment of the Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system by the US in 2017, Beijing imposed undeclared economic sanctions to punish South Korea. The sanctions were removed after Seoul promised not to install any more THAAD batteries or integrate the existing batteries into the larger American missile defence system.
However, a pacifist stance may not hold any more. Yoon could agree to extending the military tie-up with the US and Japan to the Indo-Pacific. As the Biden administration continues its policy of standing up to China initiated by Donald Trump, the US has been keen to expand this trilateral US-South Korea-Japan alliance to the Indo-Pacific and the Quad. While North Korea directly threatens Japan and South Korea, the emerging China-Russia axis is a matter of concern for US allies in the region. Japan has maritime territorial disputes with both China and Russia, while the South and Southeast China Seas have the potential to become a naval flashpoint at any time.
Ideologically and temperamentally, the President-elect is a Korean nationalist and hates the bureaucratic establishment’s style of cautiously – often meekly – conducting foreign policy that upsets or pleases no-one. With the Ukraine conflict adding another dimension to the North’s irresponsible behaviour, questions are being asked at home regarding outgoing President Moon’s passive approach in dealing with the North Korean dictator, who has been behaving like a spoiled bully in the region.
The President-elect’s aides have already been talking about ‘strategic clarity’ and have signalled that the regime will move closer to Washington and clear the haze over the country’s dealings with China. But this is more difficult to achieve than say. South Korea, a technology powerhouse, and China, an economic giant, have deep trade, commercial and financial relations. There could be a decoupling, but that cannot happen in the short run. During his campaign, Yoon lashed out against over-dependence on China, which is also North Korea’s largest trading partner. With the slowing Chinese economy and collapse of the real estate sector there, emerging markets like India, Indonesia, Bangladesh and Vietnam hold promise. Already there is growing cooperation with India, with many South Korean companies setting up manufacturing units in India. Bilateral trade with India is around 20 billion dollars.
With regard to the PPP strategy of reducing dependence on China, Yoon’s advisors point to the technological advantages of a closer alliance with the US, as this would help South Korea maintain its competitive edge against countries like China. Already there were indications of expanding cooperation with the US in areas of technology, economy, environment and public health. A joint statement issued last year described the US-South Korea relationship as ‘the lynchpin for stability and prosperity’. Yoon and his hawkish aides would like to take this relationship to another level. The PPP leader didn’t mince words when he made this clear in a statement in January that ‘South Korea and the United States share an alliance forged in blood, as we have fought together to protect freedom against the tyranny of communism’.
Clearly, things will be hotting up in and around the strategic Korean Peninsula. Let us hope the North Korean despot doesn’t lose his head, and that China sees reason in forging fraternal ties with its neighbours instead of acting like Big Brother. Beijing, one can only hope, will play a constructive role as a major world power to rein in Kim Jong-un and his nuclear ambitions. As an irresponsible nuclear upstart, North Korea is an ever-present threat to peace in the region and the world.
Richard Gregson is a freelance journalist currently based in Canada