Who Is South Korea’s New President Yoon Suk-yeol?

Yoon Suk-yeol has threatened a pre-emptive attack on nuclear-armed North Korea if necessary. But just who is South Korea’s new president Yoon Suk-yeol?

Who Is South Korea's New President Yoon Suk-yeol 1

Yoon Suk-yeol, South Korea’s next president, is a political newcomer who gained to prominence as a prosecutor for his relentless probes into many of the nation’s most high-profile corruption scandals.

He appears to be preparing to steer the world’s tenth-largest economy in a new foreign policy direction, vowing to forsake years of cautious diplomacy and go harsh on North Korea, reports France 24.

After winning the election by the smallest margin ever, he has already backed down from some of his most contentious campaign promises, including dismantling the Ministry of Gender Equality.

However, his lack of legislative experience might well be detrimental as he confronts a Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly that will almost certainly scrutinize his ideas.

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Yoon, who was born in Seoul in 1960, studied law and later played a significant part in prosecuting former President Park Geun-hye for abuse of authority.

As the country’s chief prosecutor in 2019, he also prosecuted a top assistant to departing President Moon Jae-in on charges of fraud and bribery, tarnishing the administration’s otherwise impeccable reputation.

This drew the interest of the conservative opposition People Power party, who started pursuing Yoon. He subsequently won the party’s primary and was elected as its presidential candidate.

Yoon became a conservative “icon” as he was “seen as the best person to beat the Democratic Party candidate, despite his lack of political leadership experience,” according to Gi-Wook Shin, a Stanford sociology professor.

“That does not bode well for Korean democracy as we may expect further polarisation,” he added.

Adversarial politics

Analysts believe South Korean politics is notoriously hostile, with presidents serving only a single five-year term.

After stepping down, every living former leader has been imprisoned for corruption.

Despite his involvement in Park’s impeachment, Yoon galvanized frustrated conservative voters by promising “revenge” against Moon, even going so far as to promise to investigate Moon for various “irregularities.”

According to taped conversations obtained following a court struggle, Yoon’s wife claimed that if her spouse won, his critics would be jailed since that is “the nature of power.”

According to Keung Yoon Bae, a Korean studies professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, “he and his spouse are more than willing to engage in retaliatory legal investigations into political opponents.”

The departing administration’s final item of business was to enact a reform law that stripped prosecutors of some of their power, in what was generally interpreted as an attempt by authorities to prevent being pursued after stepping down.

According to local media, Yoon is especially motivated by British wartime Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

Despite his lack of political experience, Yoon was able to “consolidate support of a huge chunk of the country’s elite,” according to Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo.

Pre-emptive strike?

Yoon has threatened a pre-emptive attack on nuclear-armed North Korea if necessary, a statement that critics say is highly unlikely.

In reaction to Yoon’s hardline approach, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un announced last month that he will take steps to develop “the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed.”

Yoon has already stated his desire to purchase an extra THAAD US missile system to deter the North, despite the danger of increased economic reprisal from China, South Korea’s largest trade partner.

His “lack of political skill will spill over to the foreign policy realm,” according to Minseon Ku, a political science scholar at Ohio State University.

Yoon’s camp has so far “looked as though they were simply copying and pasting foreign policy phrases from the US Republican presidents’ speeches,” she noted.

On the campaign path, he also made a number of gaffes, including applauding one of the country’s former tyrants and disparaging manual labor and Africans.

“The next presidency is coming at a time of transition for the world,” particularly in light of Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, according to Karl Friedhoff of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

“That will mean making tough challenges about trade-offs that South Korea hasn’t had to make in the past. Is Yoon up to that task?”

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