South Korea’s new president, Yoon Suk-yeol, is a political novice who has been brought to public attention as a prosecutor for his uncompromising investigations into some of the country’s most high-profile corruption scandals.
It looks like he will steer the world’s tenth largest economy in a different foreign policy direction, promising to give up years of delicate diplomacy and crack down on North Korea.
After winning a close election by the narrowest margin ever, he has already rescinded his most controversial promises on the campaign trail — including abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality.
But his lack of legislative experience could prove costly as he faces a Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly likely to scrutinize his policies.
Born in 1960 in Seoul, Yoon studied law and then played a key role in convicting former President Park Geun-hye for abuse of power.
As the country’s top prosecutor in 2019, he also charged a top aide to outgoing President Moon Jae-in with fraud and bribery in a case that tarnished the government’s good image.
This brought Yoon to the attention of the conservative opposition People Power party, who began courting him. He eventually won the party’s primaries and became the presidential candidate.
Yoon became the conservatives’ “icon” because he “was seen as the best person to beat the Democratic Party’s candidate, despite his lack of political leadership experience,” Gi-Wook Shin, a sociology professor at Stanford, told AFP. .
“That doesn’t bode well for Korean democracy, as we can expect further polarization,” he added.
South Korean politics is known for being hostile, analysts say, where presidents serve only a single five-year term.
Every living former leader has been jailed for corruption after leaving office.
Despite his role in Park’s impeachment, Yoon gained support among disgruntled conservative voters by offering a chance for “revenge” against Moon — even going so far as to threaten to investigate Moon for unspecified “irregularities.”
Even Yoon’s wife claimed his critics would be prosecuted if her husband won, because that’s “the nature of power,” according to recorded comments released after a lawsuit.
This suggests that “he and his wife are more than willing to participate in retaliatory investigations against political opponents,” Keung Yoon Bae, a professor of Korean studies at the Georgia Institute of Technology, told AFP.
The outgoing government’s latest order was to pass a reform bill that stripped prosecutors of some of their power, in a move widely seen as an attempt by officials to avoid being targeted after taking office. leave.
Local media have reported that Yoon is especially inspired by wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.
Despite his limited experience in politics, Yoon still managed to “consolidate the support of much of the country’s elite,” Vladimir Tikhonov, a professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.
Yoon has threatened nuclear-armed North Korea with a preemptive strike if necessary, a claim analysts say is wildly unrealistic.
Just last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he would take steps to “develop our state’s nuclear forces at the fastest possible speed,” analysts say in response to Yoon’s aggressive stance.
Yoon also once said he wants to buy an additional US THAAD missile system to counter the North, despite the risk that it could spark new economic retaliation from China, South Korea’s largest trading partner.
His “lack of political skills will spill over into foreign policy,” Minseon Ku, a political scientist at Ohio State University, told AFP.
So far, Yoon’s camp “looked like they were simply copying and pasting foreign policy statements from US Republican presidential speeches,” she added.
He also made a series of gaffes on the campaign path, from praising one of the country’s former dictators to belittling manual labor and Africans.
“The next presidency comes at a time of transition for the world,” especially after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Karl Friedhoff of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told AFP.
“That means we have to make tough trade-offs about compromises that South Korea has not had to make in the past. Can Yoon handle that task?”
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