Yoon Suk-yeol of the People’s Power Party (PPP) has narrowly won South Korea’s Presidential election in what was seen by many observers as the most fraught, divisive, and close, presidential election since the democratisation of South Korea in 1987.
With a total voter turnout of over 34 million, or 77 per cent of the country showing up to the polls, President-elect Yoon received approximately just 250,000 more votes than his main rival Lee Jae-myung of the currently governing Democratic Party of Korea.
In what was a first in Korean democratic history, neither leader had any experience in the National Assembly, South Korea’s Legislative branch.
The two campaigns revolved around highly polarising and antagonistic rhetoric with Yoon and Lee both resorting to mudslinging, each accusing the other and their families of corruption, moral misconduct, elitism, and representative of the increasingly resented South Korean establishment.
In this hostile and binary atmosphere, temperate discussion over the substance of policy issues became muffled background noise, fuelling the frustration of that electorate that favoured pluralism and forbearance.
Hee-jae Park, 31, research assistant at the Korea National Open University, told Redaction Report: “The campaigns of Yoon and Lee, mired in political controversies and outrageous remarks, along with the wider heated political landscape in Korea, has left the electorate feeling frustrated, distrustful, and dissatisfied, and yet not unified in their dissatisfaction.
“Tribalism is pulpable in the current socio-political landscape.”
The polarisation of Korean society was evident in the first week of March when, just a couple of days before the election, Song Young-gil, chairman of the Democratic Party, was hospitalised after being attacked with a hammer as he met with voters in Seoul.
Park said: “This election feels not like a real campaign of candidates, but more like a popularity contest – or, in this case, an unpopularity contest. Most people I know dislike both candidates.”
The challenge of social harmony and mutual tolerance, and cooling the temperature of Korean politics in general, will be one of President-elect Yoon’s primary challenges during his five-year term in office.
Yoon, formally politically independent turned conservative, was Prosecutor-General under the current administration of Moon Jae-in and became famous for playing a key role in prosecuting former president Park Geun-hye on corruption charges.
He has both defended and apologised for myriad statements since coming to the national spotlight, which included his defence of relaxing food safety standards on the basis that “poor people should be allowed to eat substandard food for lower prices.”
A self-avowed anti-feminist, Yoon also blamed Korea’s dangerously low and falling birth rates on the feminist movement in South Korea, pledging to abolish the Ministry of Women and Family on the basis that he believes women do not suffer any systemic discrimination in the country.
A proponent of market deregulation and pro-business policies, he has also made statements in support of traditional energy policies over green energy and has voiced his intention to abolish the national minimum wage.
With regards to international policy, Yoon has reiterated staunch commitment to close ties with the United States and expressed that he would push for more US-provided THAAD missile deployments in South Korea, in a “peace through strength” approach in dealing with North Korea.
Yoon’s administration will face significant economic challenges too as the country rebounds from the Covid-19 pandemic and the ongoing war in Ukraine.
While Ukraine is a small fraction of South Korea’s overall international trade, it is the country’s largest provider of noble gases required for semiconductor chip production- South Korea’s single largest export item.
South Korea’s economic model is unique among developed economies and relies heavily on merchandise exports over services, constituting 32 per cent of the country’s GDP. In comparison, the equivalent figure in Japan is 13.9 per cent, while in the US it is 7.6 per cent.
Ongoing turmoil and uncertainty in the Eastern European country could potentially wreak havoc on South Korea’s tech industry if not properly identified and dealt with pre-emptively.
In dealing with these challenges and more upon entering office, Yoon will also have to navigate around the National Assembly legislature, over which the DPK currently hold an absolute majority.
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is set to take office in the Blue House on May 10.
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