South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Photo: AFP

He has no political, economic, diplomatic, strategic or corporate experience, but Yoon Seok-youl, the darling of South Korea’s right, looks set to lead the conservatives into battle in the March 2022 presidential election.

On Friday morning, South Korean TV news interrupted their coverage of the Tokyo Olympics to report that Yoon had joined the main opposition People’s Power Party, or PPP.

Yoon, formerly a high-profile prosecutor who had clashed with President Moon Jae-in, announced his presidential ambitions on June 29, without citing what party he would join.

Now, after a reasonable interval, widespread predictions that he would join the main opposition were proved correct when he submitted his application to join the party.

“It will be a due obligation to join the main opposition party and follow through with its primary from the first stage openly and squarely to achieve a change of government,” Yoon said, according to local media.

His decision to join the main opposition party – which in June elected a new, young leader in 36-year-old Lee Jun-seok – makes him a certainty to win the party’s primaries. Barring highly unforeseen circumstances, that means he will lead the PPP into battle on March 9 next year.

Although there are 11 candidates in the PPP primaries, Yoon’s run is the most viable in the nation at present, if polls are to be believed.

According to the latest Realmeter Poll in the fourth week of July, Yoon is clocking approval ratings of 27.5%. His key opponent in the ruling Democratic Party of Korea is Gyeonggi Province Governor Lee Jae-myung, a leftist firebrand, who is polling at 25.5%.

A third hopeful, former prime minister and center leftist Lee Nak-yon, also of the DPK, is seeing approval ratings of 16%.

Yoon – coming to politics from outside, has no factional enemies within his own party – may face a less savage fight for the leadership than that now rending the DPK.

“The Lee Jae-myung and Lee Nak-yon camps are beating each other to death and this will get worse when it comes to the primaries,” Lew Han-jin, a conservative columnist, told Asia Times. “Right now, there is more warmth in the PPP, and less personal and familial attacks.”

North Korea’s Ri Jong Hyok, right, vice-chairman of the Korean Asia-Pacific Peace Committee, speaks with Gyeonggi province governor Lee Jae-myung, left, during an international convention for peace and prosperity in 2018. Photo: AFP / Chung Sung-Jun

From progressive to conservative

Seen from the outside, the 60-year-old Yoon might look like an odd choice for the presidency, given his lack of experience. He has been a lawyer and prosecutor for his entire career.

His family hails from the city of Daegu in the southwest, a conservative stronghold. But although Yoon has now donned the armor of the right, in his youth he joined the struggle against the authoritarian Chun Do-hwan regime (1980-1987), a struggle usually associated with the left.

But it was his legal career that generated his fame, for what BTS is to K-pop, Yoon is to South Korean men of law: The ne plus ultra player.

Among a public that has a plummeting tolerance for corruption, old-school politics and political favoritism, that has real appeal. As a South Korean reporter told Asia Times just after the news broke on Friday morning, Yoon’s reputation is as “a man of justice.”

Judicial broadsword

Yoon has fearlessly led hard-charging teams investigating high-profile figures across the swathe of South Korea’s power players – in politics, the bureaucracy and Korean Inc. And despite the reputation of the South Korean prosecution as a blunt instrument wielded by the presidential Blue House, Yoon has shown no political favoritism.

He has probed former members of the leftist Roh Moo-hyun administration, Hyundai Motor Chairman Chung Mong-koo (now retired), former conservative President Lee Myung-bak (currently jailed on a corruption rap) and even the National Intelligence Service (suspected of manipulating public opinion).

He was a central investigator in the biggest South Korean case of all time – the vast corruption and power abuse scandal that led to the repeated jailings of de facto Samsung head Lee Jae-young, who is now in prison, and the impeachment, removal from power and subsequent imprisonment of ex-President Park Geun-hyu, who is serving a 33-year compound sentence.

Little wonder that in 2019, President Moon Jae-in appointed this formidable bloodhound as his chief prosecutor. That appointment would prove to be the biggest mistake of his presidency.

President Moon Jae-in has made some enemies now in key positions. Photo: AFP

Defying the president

Almost every area of South Korean society has undergone reform since the 1997-9 financial crisis. That trauma caused many to question every aspect of the government-bureaucracy-corporate nexus that had lifted their nation out of agrarian poverty in the 1960s and ’70s – at the cost of nepotism, corruption and all-round moral hazards.

One sector that resisted “bone-cutting reforms” was the legal one. It was one of the last areas to open its doors to foreign competitors, and the elite of the sector – the prosecution – held at bay all efforts to change its practices.

The South Korean legal system was put in place by the despised Japanese colonists, and from the 1960s to the 1990s, the prosecution was widely seen as a central cog in the oppressive machinery of authoritarian governance.

Its widespread investigative authority – which includes powers that are usually granted to police in other nations – and its practices – such as psychological pressure tactics and its ability to parade suspects in front of media and hold them without trial – are carryovers from the bad old days.

For the left-leaning Moon, prosecution reform became a key, mid-term agenda. He sought to deploy an investigative body over the prosecution, and also to transfer some of his powers to the police force.

But his appointee Yoon, rather than siding with the president, fought in the prosecution’s corner.

The battle lines were drawn last September when Moon appointed one of his closest associates, Cho Kuk, a brilliant academic, as Minister of Justice. Yoon resisted Cho’s reform drive, leading to huge demonstrations, both for and against.

A trail of resignations

Cho – apparently unprepared for the kind of bruising political and public relations battle that Yoon would fight – which included investigations into Cho’s family – barely lasted a month before resigning.

Moon’s next appointee was a tougher figure in long-term leftist lawmaker Choo Mi-ae. When she suspended Yoon from office, he fired back with two injunctions, amid allegations that Choo’s son had evaded military service.

She, too, resigned after three months.

Three months after Choo’s resignation, Yoon himself stepped down, saying he believed that the rule of law was under attack.

But by then, thanks to his success against Moon’s premier team, Yoon was being lionized in right-wing circles. Talk of presidential potential galvanized Seoul’s chattering classes.

That potential looks set to be tested at the ballot next March.

“His appeal seems to rest on his sort of heroic resistance to Moon,” said Michael Breen, Seoul-based author of The New Koreans. “But I think the right-wing are simply championing someone who gave the middle finger to the president.”

Lew suggested that Yoon’s appeal is broader.

“His main appeal is that he has fought with both sides – the conservatives and the leftists – so has had a broad appeal,” the columnist noted. “He is basically a centrist.”

Lew noted that Yoon has recently expressed regret over the ongoing imprisonments of Lee and Park, the two conservative ex-presidents.

“That appealed to conservatives, even though he was a prosecutor at the time,” Lew said. “I think people feel he had no choice, he was going his job.” 

Another point in Yoon’s favor is his Teflon carapace. In a polity where nepotism and corruption are rife, allegations of his, and his wife’s, impropriety have failed to stick.

Former prosecutor general Yoon Seok-youl during a press conference to declare his bid for South Korea’s 2022 presidential election on June 29, 2021. Photo: AFP / Kim Min-Hee

From prosecution to politics

One question is how well prepared a lawyer is to fight a political battle, for South Korea faces a multiplicity of national challenges.

Strategically and diplomatically, Seoul is being torn between Beijing and Washington and further complications are added by ever-vexed relations with Tokyo. A sound policy stance also needs to be in place toward Pyongyang.

On the economic front, Seoul needs to ensure that industrial policy continues to generate winners in strategic sectors such as chips, batteries and biopharmaceuticals. It also needs to create policies that ensure its world-beating corporate portfolio, populated by world beaters including Samsung Electronics and Hyundai Motor, stays on top of its game.

At the opposite end of the economy, it needs to reinforce South Korea’s current startup ecosystem, while enabling new-economy players like Kakao and Coupang to keep flourishing.

In terms of domestic socio-political issues, soaring metropolitan home prices, a plunging birthrate and elderly poverty present major challenges.

And with the nation expecting to reach herd immunity by November, South Korea’s next president will need to navigate the country adroitly through the risks and opportunities of the post-Covid era.

Yoon is not alone in bringing a judicial background to the Blue House. The two leftists presidents of recent years, Roh Moo-hyun and his protégé Moon, both started their careers as lawyers.

On the other hand, if politics is about personality, Yoon may have what it takes – the combination of a clean man of justice and a hard man with knuckles.

“One quality that Koreans seem to recognize they want is someone who is gentle and humble and polite,” said Breen. “But Yoon has also got some balls – that is what makes him popular.”