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  • Ryan Lee

South Korea’s Unlikability War – Are we headed for nuclear Armageddon?


President-elect Yoon Suk Yeol visiting Seoul National Cemetery as the first item on his official schedule.

The recent 2022 South Korea Elections pitted Lee Jae-Myung of the incumbent Democratic Party (DP) against Yoon Suk Yeol of the opposition centrist, People Power Party (PPP). Winning with just 48.56% of the vote, Yoon edged out Lee, beating his opponent by an incredibly narrow margin of just 0.73%, translating to around 250,000 votes. Dubbed the “Squid Game Election” by many critics, the election was characterised by vicious attacks by the 2 frontrunners. The battle between Lee and Yoon was one marred by mudslinging, name-calling and controversy which some critics say may spell trouble in the immediate future for South Korea.

Serious accusations have come out against both candidates. For Lee, it is with his denial of trying to admit his brother to a psychiatric hospital - despite evidence contrary to these claims - and a rumoured affair with an actress. Yoon has more serious accusations attached to him, involving ethical violations, abuse of power and interference into investigations during his tenure as Prosecutor General. Both have also made anti-feminist statements and statements in support of ex-dictator Chun Doo-Hwan who is widely panned due to having ordered the violent crackdown of the Gwanju Uprising.

It comes as no surprise given the statements and controversies associated with both candidates that Yoon and Lee are unlikable, with a recent Gallup Korea poll listing their unlikability as being greater than their likability.

Both candidates are centrist-right populist candidates, with Yoon drifting further right than Lee. This can be observed in both candidates having anti-feminism views with Yoon being more unabashed and open with his anti-feminism, specifically in his campaign promise to abolish the Ministry of Women and Family. This is all very much in line to capture the growing population of Idaenam (20-year-old men with anti-feminist views), who along with the older generation are conservative and form the bulk of South Korea’s voter base. Yoon’s and Lee’s views reflect the prevailing societal sentiment, textbook populist manoeuvres to appeal to the greatest number of voters possible.

Even though Moon Jae-In’s presidency was widely appreciated by South Koreans, there were three specific issues, all happening at the tail-end of Moon’s presidency that flipped voters into becoming anti-incumbent. First is Moon’s inefficacious real estate policy in failing to cool the heated real estate market. Secondly, the perception of Moon’s poor handling of COVID. Despite widely-regarded successful COVID-19 policies, voters were quick to blame the incumbent government for any observed shortfalls in COVID-19 strategies. Lastly, the Justice Minister corruption scandal. Cho Kuk, appointed by Moon as Minister of Justice, was indicted with over a dozen charges including bribery and resigned after a scandal emerged involving falsifying documents to allow his daughter to gain university admissions.

The pull to support an opposition candidate was simply too large and Lee was unable to overcome his negative association with DP. Coupled with the fact that both candidates appealed to the same conservative audience, disgruntled voters chose Yoon simply because he represented the opposing PPP in an attempt to force a change in government, edging out Lee.

Some have speculated that under Yoon’s charge, formal investigations will be launched into Lee’s allegedly corrupt behaviour, seeking a conviction and a cementing of PPP power in the Blue House. This is extremely probable given Yoon – in his previous role of Prosecutor General – has allegedly deployed the tactic of ordering senior prosecutors to file politically motivated criminal complaints against DP politicians ahead of the 2020 legislative elections. Yoon has wielded the legal system as a political tool in the past and he will likely do so again.

Some have also speculated that there will be greater volatility in the region due to Yoon’s harsher stance towards North Korea. However, this is unlikely. While Yoon does make dangerous claims of calling for nuclear weapons to be redeployed in South Korea, this has largely been taken to be a joke by the international community. The original reason for denuclearising South Korea was because of a mutual agreement between the USA and Russia, and the logic of reducing tensions is still maintained by USA and China, who have put out official statements outright rejecting Yoon’s calls for nuclear weapons and referring to Yoon’s statements “irresponsible” respectively. While there may be a slight increase in tensions due to Yoon’s propensity to make these outlandish statements, this is unlikely to escalate into a global crisis.

In an unlikability race, the winner is a winner by compromise, and Yoon certainly has an uphill battle to prove his legitimacy if he wants the PPP to maintain its grip on South Korea in future following elections. This election has certainly divided South Korea, and Yoon needs to work hard both to ensure he does not get embroiled in more scandals and to fulfil some of the grand election promises he has made.

Image Source: Flickr (Republic of Korea)



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