What you need to know about South Korea’s new conservative president

South Korea’s new conservative president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol, a former chief prosecutor, has no foreign policy experience and has never held an elected office.

Elected last week by a margin of less than 1 per cent, Yoon will take charge when he assumes office in May of a country that despite phenomenal economic and democratic progress appears ill at ease with itself and its place in the world.

On the Korean peninsula, a recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang is making strides in its nuclear and missile development programs, just as a new confrontation between Russia and the west threatens international unity over North Korean sanctions.

Beyond the peninsula, Seoul has struggled to articulate a coherent foreign policy as it finds itself squeezed by intensifying competition between the US and China, South Korea’s closest security ally and trading partner respectively.

At home, a strong economic rebound from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic belies rising discontent over inequality, skyrocketing property prices in the capital, the gap in wealth and power between conglomerates and SMEs, and structural discrimination and pervasive harassment against women.

North Korea policy

Pyongyang has resisted diplomatic engagement over its nuclear weapons program since talks between North Korea and the US collapsed at a summit in Hanoi in 2019.

Outgoing South Korean president Moon Jae-in went to great lengths to ingratiate himself with Kim Jong Un’s regime, refraining from speaking out against North Korean human rights abuses and going so far as to crack down on activists launching balloons with anti-Kim messages into the North.

Yoon has criticized Moon’s pursuit of dialogue as having become “an end in itself”, echoing a conventional conservative stance that emphasizes the role of deterrence.

While North Korea conducted missile tests earlier this year, it refrained from breaking a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear tests and tests of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the US mainland.

In recent weeks, however, North Korea has conducted two tests of what the US describes as an “ICBM-capable platform” in apparent preparation to launch its first military spy satellite.

South Korean military authorities also announced last week that North Korea has been restoring demolished tunnels at its only known nuclear test site, possibly presaging the country’s first nuclear test since 2017.

Attacking Moon’s fruitless efforts to secure a symbolic “end-of-war declaration” from Kim, Yoon has argued that “the case of Ukraine shows that you can not protect national security and peace with paper and ink”.

But analysts note that Kim is likely to have drawn the same conclusion, making any prospect of a deal with Pyongyang even bleaker than before.

Regional policy

South Korea is the world’s tenth-largest economy and seventh-largest exporter, with its growing international stature illustrated by Moon’s attendance at a G7 summit in the UK last year.

Its manufacturing muscle and prowess in sectors such as semiconductors, electric-vehicle batteries and artificial intelligence make it important to western policymakers who seek to secure next-generation technology and supply chains.

Under Moon, South Korea embarked on a subtle shift away from its longstanding policy of so-called strategic ambiguity in relation to US-China competition, committing to closer co-operation with the US during a landmark summit in Washington between Moon and US President Joe Biden.

But sceptics still see in Seoul a passive, even unreliable ally – an impression compounded by a flat-footed response to Russia’s Ukraine invasion and its hesitancy first to condemn Moscow and then to impose biting sanctions.

In keeping with previous conservative presidents, Yoon has promised a less deferential approach to China, while improving relations with Tokyo and projecting more full-throated support for American-led initiatives in the region including the “Quad” strategic grouping of America, Australia, India and Japan, even if that means an adverse reaction from Beijing.

Domestic policy

The South Korean economy grew 4 per cent in 2021, its fastest annual growth in 11 years, driven by a record surge in exports.

But economists describe a “K-shaped recovery”, as Korean conglomerates thrive from global demand for exports ranging from semiconductors to cargo ships, while SMEs and the service sector struggle to recover from the impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Skyrocketing house prices in Seoul, in particular, have priced many Koreans out of home ownership or living in the capital, with property prices rising 22 per cent over the course of 2020. There is extreme competition for a limited number of high-paid jobs with conglomerates or the new generation of companies in the finance, tech and entertainment sectors.

The resulting challenges are particularly acute for the young, with tensions playing out in the form of a so-called gender war, in which young men compelled to perform compulsory military service express resentment at calls from young women for greater gender equality.

Yoon’s presidential campaign exploited this tension, with Yoon himself blaming feminism for Korea’s low birth rate, promising to abolish the country’s gender ministry and denying the existence of structural discrimination despite the country having the widest gender pay gap in the OECD.

As a former prosecutor who has conducted high-profile graft investigations into leading politicians from both major parties, it is also unclear whether Yoon is willing or able to heal his country’s rancorous political divide.

Comments comparing Moon to “Hitler and Mussolini” – after the presidential Blue House objected to his suggestion that if elected he would launch a legal probe into his predecessor – are unlikely to have endeared the president-elect to the progressive Democratic party, which holds a supermajority in the South Korean national assembly.

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