Last week’s presidential elections in South Korea saw 77% of the country’s 44 million eligible voters mobilize to the polls. The race remained too close to call until 98% of votes had been counted early the next day. With a lead of less than one percent of the vote, the narrowest margin in Korean history, Yoon Seok-Yeol of the right-wing People Power Party bested his liberal opponent from the ruling Democratic Party, Lee Jae-Myeong.
Yoon’s victory marks a return to power for the South Korean right, which was ousted in 2017 by the impeachment of then President Park Geun-hye. With Yoon’s inauguration just two months away, many are bracing for the coming assault on progressive politics, and a possible return to South Korea’s autocratic past.
Sliding back to autocracy?
Buoyed by support from young men in their 20s and 30s, Yoon has pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, which since its founding in 1998 has guided national gender equality policies while providing services to marginalized women and children, including single mothers and survivors of domestic and sexual violence. As in other patriarchal societies, South Korean women face the devaluation of their productive labor and an uneven burden of reproductive labor. According to the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), women accounted for 63.5% of all part-time workers in 2020. 20.8% of all employment for women was part-time, compared to just 8.9% for men. Correspondingly, about 28% of women workers earned below the minimum wage in 2018, compared to 12.8% of male workers. The OECD further found that South Korea had the highest gender pay gap among its 38 member countries, and that South Korean women spend roughly 215 minutes a day performing unpaid labor, compared to just 49 minutes a day for men.
Many commentators have pointed to the intensity of South Korea’s culture wars over gender equality as an explanation for Yoon’s anti-feminist politics. As the #MeToo movement swept the globe, several high profile sexual assault and harassment cases involving South Korean celebrities and politicians became the subject of intense media scrutiny. The Moon administration’s attempts to implement greater protections and punishments against sexual violence have provoked backlash and charges of “reverse discrimination.”
While Yoon’s appeals to misogyny do strike a chord with a considerable swath of the electorate, his anti-feminist politics also complement his anti-labor politics. As a self-described proponent of small government and private sector-led growth, the President-elect proposed to slash the minimum wage and raise the ceiling on working hours, which were lowered last year from 68 to 52 hours a week. Housing emerged as a key issue in the election after a surge in real estate prices, with the city of Seoul seeing a 52% increase in apartment prices in under five years. Yoon has eschewed calls to expand the public housing system, and instead offered to lower taxes on property owners as a way to stimulate development. As rising healthcare costs and privatization place additional strain on working people, Yoon has pledged to remove foreigners, particularly Chinese immigrants, from the national health insurance system. When considered comprehensively, Yoon’s misogyny and xenophobia are entirely consistent with a broader capitalist agenda to make all working people more vulnerable to exploitation.
How successfully Yoon will manage to implement his domestic agenda remains to be seen. More than half the seats in South Korea’s National Assembly remain under Democratic Party control, and legislative elections won’t be held again until 2024. Yoon’s People Power Party simply lacks the votes to pass anything without serious compromise, Whether the opposition will hold the line or capitulate in an attempt to broaden their appeal with conservative voters remains to be seen.
While Yoon may not have control of the legislature, he can still inflict considerable damage on South Korea’s progressive movements. In a country that experienced a democratic transition from military dictatorship within living memory, this threat is not taken lightly. The most recent period in which a conservative party held power from 2008-2017 saw heightened restrictions on press freedoms, blacklisting of thousands of artists and brutal crackdowns on working people’s movements.
The anti-communist National Security Law, first implemented in 1948 to facilitate the massacre of an estimated 60,000 people on Jeju island, is still on the books in South Korea. The law, which broadly criminalizes “anti-state activity,” has been applied to varying degrees under different administrations. Under President Park Geun-hye, it was used to outlaw the minor Unified Progressive Party and jail its leader, a member of the National Assembly at the time, for nearly a decade. More recently in 2021, a small publisher was charged under the National Security Law for reprinting deceased North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung’s autobiography. Only time will tell how the Yoon administration deploys the National Security Law. In the meantime, those who see in Yoon a troubling return to South Korea’s autocratic past take no comfort in knowing the legal tools that enabled past reigns of terror remain intact.
Scrapping rapprochement, siding with Washington
The geostrategic significance of the Korean peninsula at the crossroads of the Pacific and continental Northeast Asia has made it a battleground for clashing great powers since the 19th century. As the US steps up its belligerence against China, Korea’s significance as a potential flashpoint in a wider regional conflict also rises. The stakes of South Korea’s handling of its relationships with China, North Korea and the US were clearly demonstrated during the Moon administration. After South Korea agreed to host the US THAAD missile defense shield, China retaliated with sanctions in 2017 that dealt a severe blow to South Korea’s economy. That same year, Korea veered dangerously close to the return of open hostilities as the Trump administration ramped up its infamous “fire and fury” rhetoric against North Korea. The Moon administration responded to these pressures by seeking greater rapprochement with North Korea, advocating for an end to the Korean War, and avoiding Washington’s more explicit anti-China alliances without abandoning the US military alliance.
The President-elect’s foreign policy agenda seeks to upend Moon’s balancing act. While Yoon outwardly supports “normalizing inter-Korean relations,” the substance of his proposals present a clear departure from the past administration’s approach. In a recent essay for Foreign Affairs, Yoon rejected the importance of denuclearization as a peninsular rather than a North Korea-only issue, and stated that inter-Korean cooperation should only proceed if North Korea makes the “bold decision” to denuclearize. Such a position denies Pyongyang’s legitimate security concerns (the US stationed nearly 1,000 nuclear warheads in South Korea from 1958-1991), and essentially amounts to a refusal to negotiate. Past conservative administrations’ attempts at similar strategies did not succeed, and Yoon seems likely to repeat this history, albeit in a much more volatile international context.
In the same piece, Yoon also criticized the “three no’s” the Moon administration acknowledged as necessary to respect China’s security concerns: no new THAAD missile defense batteries, no joining a US missile defense network, and no trilateral military alliance with South Korea, Japan, and the US. Yoon not only called for new THAAD battery deployments on the campaign trail, but even went as far as to declare his intent to request the return of US tactical nukes to the peninsula (the Biden administration quickly rebuffed him). He has supported Seoul’s participation in working groups hosted by the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, a military alliance between the US, India, Japan, and Australia aimed at containing China. Yoon has also campaigned on improving bilateral relations with Japan, with an eye towards enhancing trilateral security cooperation with the US. These signals could lead to South Korea’s membership in the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, as well as the creation of a possible trilateral military alliance with Japan and the US. Both outcomes long sought-after by Washington, and that would drastically raise the stakes in any potential regional dispute.
With 28,000 US troops and the largest US military base outside North America, South Korea has already been a battleground against expanding militarization for decades. The coming of new THAAD batteries and possible other military hardware will only inflame existing struggles and open new fronts in resistance to US occupation. Yet new military installations could be the least of South Koreans’ worries. Yoon’s brash endorsement of a preemptive strike on North Korea under certain conditions alarmed many observers on the campaign trail. While such antics might appeal to some voters, any attempt to follow through on such threats would have obviously catastrophic consequences.
What may prove a more pertinent question is what South Korea’s deepened economic and military alignment with the US could mean for the regional balance of power, particularly as US antagonism against China escalates. With 600,000 active-duty troops, South Korea has one of the largest armies on earth, and plays a crucial role as a “force multiplier” for US security interests. While the current US-South Korea Treaty of Mutual Defense only obliges South Korea to engage its military within the peninsula, South Korea’s potential entrance into new military pacts could change the conditions under which South Korean troops could be deployed elsewhere. As the Yoon era dawns, the shifts in South Korea’s political winds may well set the course for the region and the wider world.
Ju-Hyun Park is a writer and member of Nodutdol for Korean Community Development.