On the 9th of March, South Korea took to the polls to vote in the 2022 presidential elections. At 3:51 AM on 10th March (Seoul time), Lee Jae-myung of the incumbent Democratic Party conceded defeat to conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, opening the doors to a new era of conservatism in the region. Both candidates are widely unpopular with their campaigns tainted by name-calling and even violence – Song Young-gil, leader of the Democratic Party, was attacked with a hammer while campaigning for Lee. In a nation notorious for combative domestic politics, what does this win signify?
Who Is Yoon Suk-yeol?
Yoon, 61, is relatively new to the political scene. He previously served as a public prosecutor and lawyer focusing on anti-corruption cases, serving as Prosecutor General under Moon Jae-in. Yoon led successful investigations against impeached former president Park Geun-hye and Samsung’s vice-chairman Lee Jae-yong.
However, after investigating allegations against presidential allies, Yoon fell out of favour with the Democrats and resigned as Prosecutor in 2021. Subsequently, he announced his candidacy for the presidential election, running as an Independent. He later joined the conservative People’s Power Party (PPP), Korea’s main opposition party.
Yoon’s willingness to investigate those close to the incumbent president increased his popularity with conservative voters. After joining the PPP, Yoon built a campaign based on economic de-regulation, inflexibility towards North Korea and powerful anti-feminist sentiments.
Rather than traditional election issues such as inter-Korean relations, economic problems like rising housing prices were the deciding subjects for many Koreans; the average price for an apartment in Seoul has hit US$1 million. Allegations of real estate corruption within the Moon camp may have swayed voters, particularly young first-time buyers, in Yoon’s favour.
Yoon’s policies to tackle economic troubles are notably laissez-faire. Promising to abolish the minimum wage and the 52-hour workweek, policies he refers to as “unrealistic systems”, Yoon’s plans deregulate employment and reduce protection for employees. He argues, however, removing such limits will benefit unskilled workers.
Attempting to tackle the housing crisis, Yoon pledged to build 2.5 million new homes and cut real estate taxes, with benefits most clearly seen by the wealthiest citizens. Such fiscally conservative policies differentiate Yoon from his competitor, who planned to utilise public housing and welfare support.
North Korea, China and the USA
Distancing himself from Moon Jae-in’s tactic of diplomacy, Yoon proposes a bolder stance on relations with North Korea. Most controversially, Yoon promises to request redeployment of American nuclear weapons if emergencies develop on the peninsula, creating the potential for a pre-emptive strike. This, along with supporting sanctions on North Korea, would bring Korea’s policies more in line with those of the USA.
Hoping to develop relations with – though not join – the Quad strategic alliance and strengthen cooperation with the USA and Japan, he takes a hawkish approach to international relations. By doing so, Yoon hopes to counter China’s growing regional influence and become diplomatically closer with the USA rather than Korea’s Asian neighbours.
Courting the Male Youth: An Anti-Feminist Campaign
Gender equality is a divisive issue in South Korea. South Korea’s gender pay gap stood at 31.5% in 2020, the highest of all OECD countries, yet a lack of support for feminism persists. Moon’s policies advocating for more women to enter the workforce were met with backlash and a loss of public support.
Societal groups suffering from Korea’s hypercompetitive job market see the Democratic Party’s attempt to remedy low female participation and representation as reverse inequality. Yoon’s tactic of garnering the appeal of such disillusioned groups, most notably young men, may have been the defining event of this election.
One of Yoon’s key campaign promises is the abolition of the Ministry for Gender Equality, claiming that women no longer face systematic discrimination in Korea. His announcement on social media received over 24,000 likes and amassed positive responses, particularly from young men. This hard-line approach expands Yoon’s previous promises to simply reorganise the Ministry as PPP spokespeople suggest that abolition will allow Korea to focus on solving the issue of low fertility.
By recanting past descriptions of himself as a feminist and shifting blame for socio-economic issues onto rising women’s empowerment, Yoon managed to mobilise men in their 20s and 30s and scrape the less-than-1% lead necessary to secure the presidency. His win therefore legitimised and gave a platform to the anti-feminist political bloc in South Korea.
What Does This Mean?
What does Yoon Suk-yeol’s election truly mean for South Korea? This depends on who you ask. For young unemployed men, Korea is entering an era in which they will no longer suffer under gender equality quotas and corporate regulations. In contrast, women fear the opportunities and assistance they could lose over the following five years. Will such hopes and fears materialise? The world – especially China and North Korea – will have a close eye on the state in the coming months.