After a historically close election in South Korea on the night of March 9, 2022, Yoon Suk-yeol emerged victorious as the conservative candidate and leader of the “People’s Power” party. A novice politician, Mr. Yoon defeated democratic candidate Lee Jae-Myung by a margin of 0.73%, the smallest in South Korean history. He is poised to become the thirteenth president of South Korea.
Mr. Yoon’s political career stems from a peculiar but familiar background, one that might raise the question of if his presidency is steeped in irony. Formerly a graft prosecutor and prosecutor general under Mr. Moon Jae-in, the current and outgoing president, Yoon gained notoriety in Korea for his prosecution of former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-Hye. His efforts resulted in their indictment on charges of bribery and embezzlement. His work also resulted in the indictment of three former National Intelligence Service (NIS) chiefs, the former Chief Justice of the Republic of Korea, and over 100 former officials and business executives.
So, one might wonder, if Mr. Yoon had found such tremendous success prosecuting presidents, why did he suddenly decide to become one?
The answer lies in his relationship with his former boss, Mr. Moon. The two experienced a partnership wrought with turbulence, with the most egregious example of this being Mr. Yoon’s suspension from his position as prosecutor general due to alleged ethical violations and abuse of power. While the suspension was temporarily halted and then reinstated, it was eventually overturned by a court after Mr. Yoon argued that the suspension process had been unfair. A few months later, on March 4, 2021, he resigned from President Moon’s administration.
Following his resignation, Mr. Yoon quickly became a vindictive critic of his former boss—a decision that effectively began his ascendancy within the conservative party. However, pre-election surveys indicated that it wasn’t Mr. Yoon or his political platform that encouraged South Koreans to vote for him, but rather his hard-line opposition to Mr. Moon’s administration, which had been widely regarded as ineffective at best and a failure at worst.
During his five years in office, Mr. Moon’s progressive government failed to stop housing prices from skyrocketing. Corruption scandals involving illegal influencing of public opinion polls prior to his election and the purchase of $8.8 million worth of undeveloped land by government officials plagued Mr. Moon’s administration and political allies. His relatively lax approach to the North Korean nuclear weapons program in favor of an amicable relationship was also unfavorable among the public, resulting in many pushing for South Korea to develop its own nuclear weapons in the face of the North’s increasing arms capabilities.
Mr. Yoon’s platform is unsurprisingly based on promises to undo the damage done by Mr. Moon. Among his campaign pledges are promises to build 2.5 million new homes in order to curb astronomical housing prices, crackdown on North Korea’s nuclear weapons program, strengthen relations with the United States, and abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.
Many critics accuse Mr. Yoon of perpetuating and pandering to anti-immigrant and anti-feminist sentiment in South Korea. The claims are not unfounded—Kwon Soon-hyun, leader of the Korea Women’s Political Solidarity group, stated, “Trump pushed anti-immigrant rhetoric and tapped into the anxiety of white middle-class men and women to widen his base and get elected—what Yoon Suk-yeol… [is] doing now.” Young men leaning toward Mr. Yoon cited him as their “only hope” in the face of a growing feminist movement that they fear will lessen their already-limited job opportunities.
The fight for women’s rights in South Korea has been long and hard-fought, and slow to make progress. With the inauguration of Mr. Yoon on the horizon, many fear that newfound victories may soon be overturned. The nation already has the highest gender wage gap according to the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD), and women are severely underrepresented in both government and business. Despite this, the majority of young men claim themselves to be the most threatened and marginalized—a poll of South Korean men in their early twenties showed that an overwhelming 79% believed themselves to be victims of serious gender discrimination. For many, this stems from the difficult economic and social reality in South Korea that deprives young men of pursuing the “luxuries of life,” such as employment, marriage, and apartment life.
This rampant anti-feminism was so widespread that it managed to eradicate almost all pro-feminist rhetoric or promises in the 2022 presidential election, with no major candidate publicly announcing their support for women’s rights, once such an important cause that Mr. Moon declared himself a feminist during his 2017 campaign.
Mr. Yoon capitalized on the anti-feminist wave, promising harsher punishments for wrongfully accusing men of sex crimes. He was seemingly unbothered by concerns that it might prevent women from speaking out against attackers.
Despite his clear opposition to feminist movements, thought and politics, Mr. Yoon made efforts to ensure his female base was not alienated. He strategically recruited Shin Ji-ye, a 31-year-old feminist and liberal-leaning politician, to the position of senior campaign advisor. However, the results were seemingly minimal, as exit polls conducted by South Korean broadcasters determined that while 59% of men in their early twenties and 53% of men in their early thirties cast their ballots for Mr. Yoon, only 34% of women in their twenties supported his candidacy.
While the election of Mr. Yoon is widely regarded among voters as a punishment of Mr. Moon’s government, many voters dubbed it a choice between “unlikables,” comparable to the sentiment towards the 2016 and 2020 presidential elections in the United States.
Mr. Yoon will assume office on May 10, 2022, beginning the first of five years as president. There will be no possibility of re-election for the president-elect, as South Korean presidents are limited to one term. The next presidential election will occur in 2027.