“Dear contestant Yoon, Feminism is not Voldemort.” If you don’t follow South Korean politics and haven’t read the Harry Potter saga, you may have missed this reference. but by comparing the defense of women’s rights to the character “whose name must not be spoken”MP Jang Hye-yeong pointed out one of the characteristics of South Korea’s presidential election winner: Yoon Suk-yeol claims to be an “anti-feminist”.
The curator, who was narrowly elected at the beginning of March, has to resign on Tuesday, March 10. RFI recalls that less than a year after entering politics and despite numerous controversial appearances during the election campaign, which earned him comparisons to a “Korean Donald Trump”. This rapid rise is “very unusual” for the country, notes sociologist Gi-wook Shin, director of the Korean Studies program at Stanford University, who was contacted by franceinfo. “Career”, Yoon Suk-yeol, comes from a fairly wealthy background. And the teacher’s son has a stubborn nature: admitted to one of Korea’s most prestigious universities, he had to work nine times to pass the bar exam, reports the Wall Street Journal*.
Yoon Suk-yeol was appointed prosecutor in 1994 and quickly gained “a reputation as an advocate of corruption and abuse of power,” explains Gi-wook Shin. He excelled in investigating two former Conservative leaders: Lee Myung-bak, who was sentenced to 17 years in prison for corruption, and Park Geun-hye in particular. She was accused of embezzlement in a scandal involving several executives from Korean companies (including giant Samsung) and was fired in 2017 after monster demonstrations. Sentenced to 20 years in prison, the former leader was eventually pardoned by her successor, Democrat Moon Jae-in, in late 2021.
The latter in particular gave Yoon Suk-yeol access to the highest judicial offices. “When Moon Jae-in came to power in 2017, he promised to crack down on corruption,” says Gi-wook Shin. The prosecutor is then stationed in the provinces, a “punishment” for alienating part of the political class in the course of his investigations. The new president appointed him district attorney for the capital Seoul and then attorney general. “Moon Jae-in thought that Yoon Suk-yeol would be won over to the democratic cause,” the sociologist continues.
“At the time, Yoon Suk-yeol’s position required him to be politically neutral: he appeared as an independent, unaffiliated with either major party.”
Gi-wook Shin, sociologist
Back in 2013, Yoon Suk-yeol proclaimed that he “owes loyalty to no one”. Not even the President. Quickly in a dispute with the administration, the attorney general sued several of Moon Jae-in’s relatives, reports the New York Times*. “Yoon Suk-yeol rose to popularity among the conservatives and somehow became their champion at a time when no leader within the party was conspicuous,” decodes Gi-wook Shin.
In March 2021, the prosecutor is leaving office, citing disagreements with the presidency. He only officially joined the Conservative Party at the beginning of the summer. “No one could have predicted that he would win this election,” said Gi-wook Shin. Starting with the candidate himself. “Until recently, I never imagined going into politics,” the 61-year-old Korean is quoted by the New York Times as saying that the incompetent and corrupt Democratic Party is in power.”
The fight for the Blue House, the presidential palace, is marked by Yoon Suk-yeol’s “mishaps”. He claims former dictator Chun Doo-hwan is “a good politician,” reports the BBC*, questions the relevance of a 120-hour week (Korea recently lowered the legal working week to 52 hours) and his wife threatens “to put in jail” any journalist critical of the government if her husband is elected, Le JDD said.
In a divisive electoral strategy reminiscent of Donald Trump’s, Yoon Suk-yeol is increasing sexist outings to mobilize young male voters. He blames feminism for South Korea’s low birth rate and affirms that there is no systematic discrimination against women in the country. However, the numbers say the opposite. In 2019, South Korean women were paid 32.5% less than men, according to the OECD*, compared with an average of 12.5% across the organization’s 38 member countries. And the world’s 10th-largest economy ranks last on The Economist* glass ceiling barometer, which ranks the status of working women in 29 countries.
Feminist activists hold a press conference to urge President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol to stand up for gender equality March 11, 2022 in Seoul, South Korea. (CHRIS JUNG/NURPHOTO/AFP)
Regardless of the reality of this discrimination, Yoon Suk-yeol plays on the resentment of “young men who feel women are being favored to their detriment,” analyzes Gi-wook Shin. The populist candidate even goes so far as to abolish the Department for Equality and Family, which is responsible in particular for combating domestic violence.
This strategy is fueling a virtual “gender war” among the younger generation, a Korean journalist said in a Washington Post op-ed. But it has had mixed election results: If a majority of men under 30 vote for Yoon Suk-yeol in the March 10 election, the conservative will win the presidential election by less than a point, according to a poll shared by Time* him opponent. The closest election in South Korean history.
The mandate of the new head of state promises to be “completely different” from that of his predecessor, says Gi-wook Shin. “He has relied on party officials in his transition team and should therefore pursue policies that will be within the conservative norm,” notes the Korean Peninsula specialist.
“The foreign press has often compared Yoon Suk-yeol to Donald Trump for his lack of experience and inflammatory statements. But in reality he is more like a South Korean George W. Bush: he defends the positions traditionally held by conservatives.”
Gi-wook Shin, sociologist
This return to “classic conservative politics” can be observed particularly internationally. While Moon Jae-in promoted dialogue with North Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol pledged firmness to their neighbor, who has been firing missiles since the beginning of the year. He compared leader Kim Jong-un to a “rude child” and even raised the possibility of “preemptive strikes” against Pyongyang, reports CNN*.
At the same time, the new President wants to strengthen military and economic cooperation with the USA and initiate rapprochement with Japan, adds the Brookings Institute*. The “biggest question mark” remains the future relationship with China, “which has become an important trading partner for Seoul,” observes Gi-wook Shin. Beijing, an ally of North Korea, has already warned of economic consequences if the South buys new missiles from the Americans.
A South Korean delegation meets with Japan’s Foreign Minister in Tokyo on April 25, 2022. (MINISTRY OF FOREIGN AFFAIRS OF JAPAN / AFP)
The populist also wants to set himself apart from the Democrats in the economy. With house prices exploding, he pledged to cut taxes in the sector and build 2.5 million homes in five years, reports The Washington Post*. Above all, Yoon Suk-yeol wants to deregulate the labor market, a measure he believes will promote full employment and growth.
In order to implement this program, the inexperienced head of state must now bring together a deeply divided country. And deal with a National Assembly that is still in the hands of Democrats. “Yoon is not a classic politician, experienced in party negotiations,” Gi-wook Shin recalls. The curator therefore runs the risk of quickly becoming “frustrated” by resistance both in parliament and in public opinion, argues the expert.
Yoon Suk-yeol during a campaign rally in Seoul, South Korea, on March 8, 2022. (JUNG YEON-JE / AFP)
Whoever built his prosecutor’s career on “tours of violence” will he then be “tempted to use the judiciary to attack his political opponents”? “In that case, we will see even more polarization in Korean society,” the sociologist warns. Yoon Suk-yeol must prove that he has the qualities of a leader and unifier.”
From the day of his victory, the President-elect seemed to be making a gesture in that direction. “For now, our rivalry is over. We must unite for the people and the country,” he told the opposition, according to The Guardian*. A month before his inauguration, he also put on hold one of his most emblematic reform projects: the abolition of the Ministry for Equality and Family. But feminists are warned: “The project is still standing.”
* Links followed by an asterisk point to content in English.