Words by Ritika Srivatsan, News Print Editor

Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power party won the 20th South Korean presidential election held in early March. Yoon, the former Prosecutor General of South Korea defeated his liberal counterpart Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party by winning 48.6% of the vote. Lee won 47.8%.

The lead-up to the closely contested election showcased both candidates vilifying and mocking each other in what was one of the most heated political campaigns in recent times.

“This is a victory of the great South Korean people,” said Yoon to supporters chanting his name at the country’s National Assembly. He also promised to honour the constitution and said he would, “pay attention to people’s livelihoods, provide warm welfare services to the needy, and make utmost efforts so that our country (South Korea) serves as a proud, responsible member of the international community and the free world”.

Yoon faces tough challenges when he takes office. South Korea is battling severe setbacks due to COVID-19, worsening income inequality, youth unemployment, an ageing population and skyrocketing house prices.

In response to some of the issues, Yoon pledged to issue tax reliefs on property whilst supporting small businesses and those self-employed. He also encouraged the private sector to create jobs and build new homes.

Despite this, Yoon’s largely conservative approach is upsetting to many. During the campaign, he said he intends to tackle economic problems with fiscal conservatism, by introducing a cut in the minimum wage and by dismissing time limits on working hours.

Similarly, the President-elect identifies as an “anti-feminist”, claiming South Korean women do not experience gender discrimination. He has blamed feminism for the country’s low birth rate and wishes to abolish the ministry for gender equality, which he believes is irrelevant now. Instead, he aims to enhance punishments for false accusations of sexual violence, a move condemned by many who assert that the policy will bar women from speaking up. 

North Korea’s return to ballistic missile testing ranked low on voter priorities but Yoon’s team has indicated their intent of restarting talks with Pyongyang. Yoon also wants to build the country’s defence systems and aims to do this by developing technology that can carry out a pre-emptive attack on North Korea if Pyongyang attempts to strike Seoul.

The President-elect strongly supports sanctions placed on the North Korean regime and aligns with the United States’ foreign policy towards Kim Jong-un. US President Joe Biden already sent his congratulations to Yoon and stated his desire to further expand their diplomatic relationship.

Yoon proposed that South Korea should co-operate better with the Quad security alliance, an informal group composed of the US, Australia, India and Japan, whose objective is to counter Beijing’s increasing influence in the region.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson congratulated Yoon via Twitter and over a phone call. The Prime Minister’s Office issued a statement reading “the Prime Minister said he looked forward to deepening the UK’s relationship with the Republic of Korea during Yoon’s Presidency and hoped negotiations would begin later this year on an enhanced trade deal. Both leaders shared their ambition to deepen digital, industrial and military cooperation between the two countries. Discussing the situation in Ukraine, the leaders agreed that Russia’s bombardment of Ukraine was a threat to values shared by the UK and Republic of Korea and an attack on freedom and democracy everywhere.”

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