Commentary: Can South Korea’s new president heal the divisions that helped him get elected?
South Korean president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol called for national unity after a fierce contest marked by divisive politics. It might be a tall task, says Steven Borowiec.
SEOUL: The numbers that came out of South Korea’s presidential election this week paint a picture of a country divided in more ways than one.
The electorate was split almost exactly down the middle between conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung of the left-leaning Democratic Party. Yoon eked out a victory over Lee by less than 1 per cent of the vote, the slimmest margin in South Korea’s democratic history.
Unsurprisingly, South Koreans voted along age, gender and regional lines.
Voters aged 60 and older backed Yoon, whose pledges to get tough on North Korea and invigorate the economy appear to have appealed to this demographic who enjoyed the boom times of the 1980s.
Old regional loyalties also run deep – the agricultural southwest tends to vote liberal while the industrial southeast skews conservative. Despite years of efforts to overcome these divisions, regional differences remain starkly pronounced this election, with Lee winning huge majorities in traditional liberal strongholds and Yoon dominating conservative heartlands.
To be clear, these divisions aren’t new. South Korea has long been a society characterised by competing group loyalties along these lines. But a common thread in political discourse has been the need to transcend these dividing factors and come together to address shared goals of peace and prosperity.
Since his victory, Yoon has said all the right things. “We have to join hands and unite into one for the people and the country”, he declared in his acceptance speech.
Lee gracefully conceded defeat, urging Yoon to “overcome divisions and conflicts”.
But is Yoon the right person to heal these divisions? The available evidence suggests he will make them worse.
STOKING TENSIONS AROUND GENDER TO GET AHEAD
There is a growing division on gender among young South Koreans, which Yoon deliberately exploited by stoking tensions throughout his campaign. A TV advertisement by his campaign contained this scene: At a job interview, a young man hangs his head in frustration after losing out to a smiling young woman.
The advertisement targeted a vocal portion of young South Korean men who feel their government has done plenty for women but little to help men. Mostly in their 20s and 30s, they argue that while the government crafts policies to boost female workforce participation and stamp out violence and harassment against women, men actually have a tougher time and deserve more support.
This type of resentment has existed in pockets of the population for years, but Yoon is the first candidate to so openly attempt to channel young men’s frustrations.
He said he would abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family tasked with handling gender issues, or the Ministry of Women and Family when directly translated from Korean. Some see it as proof that the government prioritises women over men.
At the core of their argument is South Korea’s system of mandatory military service. South Korea maintains a large standing army as protection from the threat posed by North Korea. Young men serve for about two years, which they say leaves them at a disadvantage in a fiercely competitive job market since women are exempt from this service.
At the ballot box, Yoon’s approach worked - 58.7 per cent of men in their 20s and 52.8 per cent of men in their 30s voted for him.
WILL YOON SUK-YEOL’S CALLS FOR UNITY FALL FLAT?
Will Yoon be able to contain the discontent after stirring the hornet’s nest?
For one, unity will be challenging if he can’t get women on board. A majority of young women voted against Yoon, and women’s rights groups have expressed concerns over the possibility of worsening gender conflict with him in office.
In one of his first speeches as president-elect, Yoon said he would follow through with his pledge to dissolve the gender ministry.
On one campaign stop, Yoon called the gender equality ministry a waste of taxpayer money and that the money spent on the ministry would have been sufficient to solve the decades-old problem of North Korea’s nuclear program. He did not explain how any amount of money would in itself be enough to convince North Korea to relinquish nuclear arms.
Part of what makes Yoon's use of gender issues dangerous is how it can bleed into other areas of public concern, like national security, and lead more men and women feeling as though they are competing, instead of working toward a common public interest.
NO CLEAR POLICY VISION NOR LEGISLATIVE MAJORITY
It’s also worrying when Yoon sometimes seemed estranged from reality or unconvincing as a leader while on the campaign trail.
While criticising incumbent president Moon Jae-in’s government’s policy of instituting a legal limit of 52 working hours per week, Yoon said that workers ought to be able to work 120 hours per week – or about 17 hours per day, seven days a week.
Yoon therefore shied away from impromptu speaking appearances after a disastrous appearance on a popular YouTube channel, where he gave rambling responses when asked about policy. In one instance, Yoon stumbled when asked how he would regulate the stock market.
It is therefore somewhat comforting that when he takes office, Yoon will be limited in what kinds of policies he can enact. The Democratic Party holds a majority in the legislature until 2024 and can therefore vote down proposals from Yoon’s side.
The real work of politics will begin in May, when Yoon takes office. A National Assembly dominated by the opposition could be a recipe for further division, with parties bickering and attempting to thwart each other’s efforts to enact policies.
Yoon’s success as a leader requires overcoming political division. On the crucial issue of housing, Yoon has said he will reorient the tax system in a way that he says will disincentivise speculative buying; without cooperation from the opposition he won’t be able to make that happen.
He will need clear vision and political savvy to convince the opposition to back his policies, but it remains to see if this political novice can pull it off.
Hopefully Yoon learns quickly that while sowing division got him to the country’s top office, it won’t make him a successful president or heal his country.
Steven Borowiec is a journalist based in Seoul.