South Korea’s new president knows he has his hands full.
Yoon Suk-yeol, 61, took office on Tuesday warning of a world in turmoil amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, and the intensifying competition between China and the United States – one, South Korea’s biggest trading partner and the other, its main security ally.
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War, disease, climate change, food and energy crises, he said, were wreaking havoc across the globe, “casting a long and dark shadow over us”.
At home in South Korea, he spoke of a brewing “crisis of democracy”, with unemployment and an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor stoking discord and leaving many without a sense of belonging or community.
But with characteristic bravado, Yoon told the crowd of 40,000 gathered for his inauguration on the lawn of Seoul’s National Assembly that “nothing was impossible”. He promised to tackle the “complex and multi-faced challenges” by championing “freedom”, “liberal democracy” and rapid economic growth.
Obstacles abound for the new leader, however, chiefly because of his low popularity and his lack of political experience.
A former top prosecutor, Yoon ran on the ticket of the conservative People Power Party and won the March election by a margin of 0.7 percent – the narrowest in South Korea’s democratic history. Analysts described him as more of an “accidental president”, for whom many South Koreans voted in protest against his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, after the Democratic Party politician failed to deliver on key promises to tackle inequality, rein in sky-high housing prices and broker peace with North Korea.
Moon was, in fact, partly responsible for Yoon’s rise.
The former leader had appointed Yoon as chief prosecutor in 2017 after he gained fame for successfully prosecuting the former conservative President Park Geun-hye on charges of corruption. But the pair fell out after Yoon began targeting the then-president’s inner circle, including filing fraud charges against his Justice Minister Cho Kuk.
Korea expert Kyung Hyun Kim says Yoon was “regarded as Mr Clean” for prosecuting prominent businessmen and politicians across the spectrum.
“It didn’t matter which administration was in power, whether it was the left or whether it was the right. Yoon went after corruption in the system. He has a track record of pursuing justice, no matter what the political cost may be,” said the professor of East Asian Studies at the University of California Irvine in the United States. “And in a society that is seen to be largely unfair, where there’s deep divisions between the rich and the poor, and where many ordinary people feel as if equal opportunity is not guaranteed, there’s hope that he will bring justice to South Korea.”
But despite the respect for Yoon’s tenacity as a prosecutor, the new president begins his single five-year term with historically low approval ratings. Only 55 percent of respondents surveyed for a recent Gallup Korea poll believe he will do well in office. By comparison, his predecessors had received about 80-90 percent before they started their presidencies.
Yoon’s low popularity, according to analysts, partly reflects South Korea’s fractious politics, which is marked by deep divisions between conservatives and liberals, but also several of his own contentious policies, including a campaign promise to abolish the country’s gender equality ministry. Critics had condemned the pledge as a misogynistic ploy from Yoon – an avowed “anti-feminist” – to exploit South Korea’s poisonous gender politics and attract votes from young men anxious about losing ground to women.
The new president’s cabinet picks have also caused consternation.
His nominee for education minister, Kim In-chul, resigned last week amid misconduct allegations, including claims he used his influence as president of the Korea Fulbright Alumni Association to help his son and daughter obtain the prestigious Fulbright scholarships for study in the US.
Yoon’s pick for health minister also faces similar allegations, while his nominee for justice minister is under fire over media reports that his teenage daughter exaggerated her extracurricular activities to secure a place at university.
Controversy has also swirled around Yoon’s decision to move his office and residence from Seoul’s Blue House compound to the defence ministry complex. The move could cost about 50 billion won ($41.14m) and some Democratic Party officials say Yoon is being influenced by masters of feng shui, who believe the Blue House is inauspicious. The new president denies that.
Jaechun Kim, professor of international relations at South Korea’s Sogang University, says Yoon’s choice of ministers, as well as his insistence on pushing ahead with the relocation of his residence – despite widespread criticism – has eroded his support.
“I really don’t have high hopes for Yoon’s presidency”, he said. “He’s not a politician. He pretty much goes his own way. And he has no qualms about that. I just hope he doesn’t make any serious mistakes. If he can bring back normalcy to South Korean society, politics and economy – after a disastrous Moon Jae-in presidency – I’ll be happy.”
Other analysts say Yoon – who has never held elected office – is also yet to outline a clear vision for how he plans to tackle South Korea’s various challenges, including North Korean provocations and relations with China and the US.
On the campaign trail, he signalled a hard line on Pyongyang by threatening a preemptive strike in case of signs of an imminent attack. He also said he would ditch Moon’s “strategic ambiguity” between the US and China, in favour of Washington, and join the Quad grouping of the US, Australia, Japan and India.
He also pledged to buy an additional THAAD missile system from the US, something China has previously opposed, claiming the system’s powerful radar could penetrate its territory. The last time South Korea deployed the THAAD five years ago, Beijing responded with unofficial sanctions, including ending Chinese tour group visits to South Korea and boycotts and bans of Korean-owned businesses in China.
Since winning the election, Yoon has backpedalled on some of his earlier statements, and in his inauguration speech offered North Korea an “audacious” economic plan if it committed to denuclearisation. His cabinet picks have also said “further study” is required before an additional THAAD battery is deployed.
Some experts say Yoon must show consistency and clarify his policies.
“He lacks a direction where exactly he wants to take South Korea and its people,” said Hyung-A Kim, associate professor of Korean Politics and History at the Australian National University. “Previous presidents all had a clear set of directions, but with Yoon, we don’t know exactly.”
Others, however, say the nature of the challenges the new president faces will help refine his policy priorities.
“Although the Yoon Suk-yeol presidency is beginning with a lot of obstacles, I think the future is bright,” said Youngshik Bong, research fellow at the Yonsei University’s Institute for North Korean Studies.
“North Korea’s provocations and strategic competition between China and Russia on the one hand, and the US and other countries on the other hand, is going to help clarify the policy priorities for the new South Korean government … Challenges and crisis can turn out to be strange friends for the new president in South Korea.”