South Korea’s next leader: A political novice with a hawkish stance on Pyongyang

South Korea’s new president-elect is a political novice who shot to public attention as a prosecutor for his uncompromising investigations into some of the country’s most high-profile corruption scandals.

But conservative Yoon Suk-yeol’s hawkish stance on North Korea has drawn some controversy, while his misogynistic pledges and his insensitive remarks on issues ranging from poverty and the Ukraine crisis have been widely criticized.

And his lack of legislative experience could prove costly as he faces a Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly that will likely scrutinize his policies.

Born in Seoul in 1960, Yoon studied law and went on to play a key role in convicting former President Park Geun-hye for abuse of power.

As the country’s top prosecutor in 2019, he also indicted a top aide of outgoing President Moon Jae-in over fraud and bribery, in a case that tarnished the Moon administration’s upstanding image.

This attracted the attention of the conservative opposition People Power Party, which began courting him. He eventually won the party’s primary and became their presidential candidate.

Yoon “built his reputation as a fierce fighter against power abuse, not a conventional democratic leader who would value negotiation,” said Gi-Wook Shin, a sociology professor at Stanford.

He became the conservatives’ “icon” because he was “seen as the best person to beat the Democratic Party candidate, despite his lack of political leadership experience,” Shin said.

“That does not bode well for Korean democracy as we may expect further polarization,” he added.

South Korea’s politics is famously adversarial, analysts say. Presidents serve just a single term of five years.

Every living former leader has been jailed for corruption after leaving office.

Despite his role in Park’s ousting, Yoon fired up support among disgruntled conservative voters by offering a chance at “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 taped comments released after a court battle.

This suggests “he and his spouse are more than willing to engage in retaliatory legal investigations into political opponents,” said Keung Yoon Bae, a Korean studies professor at Georgia Institute of Technology.

Pre-emptive strike?

Local media have reported that Yoon is particularly inspired by wartime British Prime Minister Winston Churchill.

As an avowed anti-feminist he has pledged to abolish the ministry for gender equality, claiming South Korean women do not suffer systemic discrimination — despite voluminous evidence to the contrary.

On North Korea, Yoon has threatened a pre-emptive strike on the South’s nuclear-armed neighbor if needed, a claim that analysts have pointed out is wildly unrealistic.

He has described Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong Un as a “rude boy,” and said that once he wins, he will make Kim “snap out of it.”

He wants to buy an additional THAAD U.S. missile system to counter the North, despite risks that it could prompt new economic retaliation from China, Seoul’s biggest trade partner.

Yoon’s “lack of political skill will spill over to the foreign policy realm,” said Minseon Ku, a political science scholar at the Ohio State University.

So far, Yoon’s camp “looked as though they were simply copying and pasting foreign policy phrases from the U.S. Republican presidents’ speeches,” she added.

He also made a string of gaffes on the campaign trail, from praising one of the country’s former dictators, to belittling manual labor and Africans.

“The next presidency is coming at a time of transition for the world,” especially following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Karl Friedhoff of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs said.

“That will mean making tough challenges about trade-offs that South Korea hasn’t had to make in the past. Is Yoon up to that task?”

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