What to know about South Korea’s new conservative president

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South Korea’s newly elected conservative president, Yoon Suk-yeol, a former chief prosecutor, has no foreign policy experience and has never held elected office.

Elected last week with a margin of less than 1%, Yoon will take charge as soon as he takes office in May of a country which, despite phenomenal economic and democratic progress, seems uncomfortable with itself and its place in the world. .

On the Korean peninsula, a recalcitrant regime in Pyongyang is advancing its nuclear and missile development programs, just as a new confrontation between Russia and the West threatens international unity in the face of North Korean sanctions.

Beyond the peninsula, Seoul is struggling to articulate a cohesive foreign policy as it finds itself pinned down by intensifying competition between the United States and China, its closest security ally and trading partner, respectively. from South Korea.

In the country, a strong economic rebound from the effects of the coronavirus pandemic belies growing discontent over inequality, soaring property prices in the capital, the wealth and power gap between conglomerates and SMEs, as well as structural discrimination and widespread harassment against women.

North Korea policy

Pyongyang has resisted diplomatic engagement over its nuclear weapons program since talks between North Korea and the United States broke down at a summit in Hanoi in 2019.

Incumbent South Korean President Moon Jae-in has gone to great lengths to ingratiate himself with Kim Jong Un’s regime, refraining from speaking out about human rights abuses in North Korea and going so far as to crack down on activists launching balloons with anti-Kim messages in the North.

Yoon has critical Moon’s pursuit of dialogue as having become “an end in itself,” echoing a conventional conservative stance that emphasizes the role of deterrence.

While North Korea conducted missile tests earlier this year, it refrained from breaking a self-imposed moratorium on nuclear testing and testing of intercontinental ballistic missiles capable of reaching the American mainland.

In recent weeks, however, North Korea has conducted two tests of what the United States describes as an “ICBM-capable platform” in apparent preparation to launch its first military spy satellite.

South Korean military authorities also announced last week that North Korea had restored demolished tunnels at its only known nuclear test site, possibly presaging the country’s first nuclear test since 2017.

Attacking Moon’s failed efforts to secure a symbolic “end-of-war declaration” from Kim, Yoon argued that “the Ukraine case shows that you cannot protect national security and peace with paper and paper.” ‘ink”.

But analysts note that Kim is likely to have drawn the same conclusion, making any prospect of a deal with Pyongyang even gloomier than before.

Regional policy

South Korea is the world’s tenth-largest economy and seventh-largest exporter, with its growing international stature exemplified by Moon’s attendance at a G7 summit in the UK last year.

Its manufacturing power and prowess in sectors such as semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries and artificial intelligence make it an important tool for Western policymakers looking to secure new technologies and supply chains. generation.

Under Moon, South Korea has embarked on a subtle shift from its longstanding policy of strategic ambiguity regarding US-China competition, committing to closer cooperation with the United States over the of one historic peak in Washington between Moon and US President Joe Biden.

But skeptics still see Seoul as a passive, even unreliable ally – an impression compounded by a lackluster response to Russia’s invasion of Ukraine and its reluctance to first condemn Moscow and then impose scathing sanctions. .

In line with previous conservative presidents, Yoon promised a less deferential approach to China, while improving relations with Tokyo and projecting fuller support for US initiatives in the region, including the “Quad” strategic grouping. from America, Australia and India. and Japan, even if it means a negative reaction from Beijing.

Domestic policy

South Korea’s economy grew 4% in 2021, its fastest annual growth in 11 years, driven by a record increase in exports.

But economists describe a ‘K-shaped recovery’, as Korean conglomerates prosper on global demand for exports ranging from semiconductors to cargo ships, while SMEs and the service sector struggle to recover from the recession. impact of the coronavirus pandemic.

Soaring real estate prices in Seoul, in particular, have pushed many Koreans away from owning or living in the capital, with real estate prices rising 22% in 2020. There is extreme competition for a limited number of well-paying jobs with conglomerates or the new generation of companies in the finance, technology and entertainment industries.

The resulting challenges are particularly acute for young people, with tensions manifesting in the form of a so-called gender war, in which young men forced into compulsory military service vent their resentment at calls young women to greater gender equality.

Yoon’s presidential campaign has exploited this tension, with Yoon himself blaming feminism for Korea’s low birth rate, promising to abolish the country’s gender ministry, and denying the existence of structural discrimination despite the fact that the country has the the largest gender pay gap in the OECD.

As a former prosecutor who led high-profile corruption investigations of top politicians from both major parties, it’s also unclear whether Yoon is willing or able to heal his country’s rancorous political divide.

Comments comparing Moon to ‘Hitler and Mussolini’ – after the presidential Blue House objected to his suggestion that if elected he would launch a judicial inquiry into his predecessor – likely didn’t endear the president-elect to the Democratic Progressive Party, which holds a qualified majority in the South Korean National Assembly.

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