SEOUL – The upcoming South Korean presidential election’s battle lines between two former legal heavyweights were drawn on Friday after the conservative opposition party named its candidate.
Yoon Seok-youl won the candidacy of the right-wing People’s Power Party. Lee Jae-myung won the ticket for the ruling left-wing Democratic Party of Korea in October. Friday’s development means the next president, regardless of which one emerges victorious in next March’s election, will be an ex-lawyer.
Yoon and Lee embarked upon two very different legal journeys. The former was a prosecutor-general, the latter a human rights and labor lawyer. But both are combative, suggesting that the clash will send off sparks.
“Both of them have a strongman image,” said Yang Sun-mook, a former chairman of the DPK’s international relations committee. “It is unprecedented that a presidential election campaign will be contended by two men from the legal circle.”
They are also united by their inexperience in national-level politics. Yoon has no political experience beyond the last months of intra-party campaigning. Lee has, but none in Seoul, the capital. He ran for president in 2017 but his grounding as an elected official is at the mayoral and gubernatorial levels.
Their policies are diametrically opposed.
“They differ greatly in terms of economics and geopolitics,” said David Tizzard, who teaches contemporary Korean studies at Seoul Women’s and Hanyang universities.
“Lee is going to lead us down the path of universal basic income and engagement with North Korea, while the other is talking neo-liberal economic policies and greater engagement with the US.”
Let the battle commence
With the left occupying both the presidential Blue House and the unicameral National Assembly, Korea’s right has few levers to pull. Indeed, the conservatives have been in a battered, demoralized and divided state since the impeachment and jailing of conservative ex-president Park Geun-hye in 2017 over a vast corruption and power-abuse scandal.
This could explain why the conservatives needed a swordsman. Yoon became their warrior of choice when, as prosecutor-general, he outfought two high-profile justice ministers, forcing their consecutive resignations in 2020.
Yoon’s struggle upended President Moon Jae-in’s ambition to shake up the country’s powerful and reform-resistant prosecution service and was a humiliation for Moon who is widely despised by old-school right-wingers.
“Yoon did not jump into politics, he was prosecuted by the government while he was a prosecutor, so he was invited to run by a lot of people,” said Yang. “I think he is legitimately qualified to run as a presidential candidate – I think the government made him a presidential candidate.”
Lee is a very different character and arguably even fierier. The former human rights lawyer became known as a table-banging proponent of equality and wealth distribution after entering local politics. As governor of Gyeonggi province, surrounding Seoul, he shot to prominence during Covid for handing out universal basic income to all.
There is a long tradition of former lawyers winning power and fame in politics: Abraham Lincoln, Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Barack Obama all spring to mind.
South Korea shares this tradition. Lee may take comfort from the fact that on the political left, the late President Roh Moo-hyun, and the incumbent Moon were both human rights lawyers before entering the Blue House.
Yoon may take less comfort, given that no president hailing from the conservative side of the spectrum has been called to the bar. They hail primarily from the military (Park Chung-hee, Chun Do-hwan, Roh Tae-woo), big business (Lee Myung-bak) and politics (Park Geun-hye).
The big question for Yoon is whether a man with a reputation as a leftist firebrand will prove too extreme for the average South Korean voter – the fate of the US’ Bernie Sanders and the UK’s Jeremey Corbyn.
The big question for Yoon is whether a candidate from a narrow social and professional elite, and who rose to prominence solely on the strength of his battle against a duo of ministers, is fit to deal with wide-ranging policy challenges.
Regardless, whoever wins will need to place a firm and judicious hand on the helm as Korea faces multi-dimensional challenges.
Korea’s strengths, weaknesses and challenges
Economically, the country has successfully contained Covid-19, emerging from the pandemic with an economy that has shouldered its way into the G10. Its leading export item, semiconductors, has been one of the biggest winners of the pandemic era.
The national corporate portfolio – chips, displays, devices, autos, ships, petrochemicals and steel – looks bulletproof over the near term, and efforts by the Moon administration and its predecessor to nurture a start-up scene have born considerable fruit, witnessed in a surging venture scene, a national flock of unicorns and recent big bang IPOs.
On the streets, Korea’s glittering infrastructure, well-presented, well-behaved citizenry and near-total absence of such social ills as homelessness and drug addiction may grant the appearance of a land of milk and honey.
But dark socio-political clouds overshadow this impressive picture. After all, no country’s art scene in recent years has so successfully captured middle-class nightmares – as seen in the Oscar success of the film “Parasite” and the global reach of Netflix’s most popular-ever drama, “Squid Game.”
Korea’s citizenry is massively indebted and successive administrations have failed to quell Seoul’s ever-soaring real estate prices – seen as a key weather vane of inequality.
Offshoring by conglomerates and the vast number of graduates churned out by colleges have shrunk the white-collar job market. As a result, “The Korean Dream” – to dress in a suit, work in a stable prestige job, then return home to a Seoul apartment – has evaporated.
The combination of these issues with a pressure-cooker education system and an often-invasive communal culture has resulted in one of the world’s highest suicide rates. Relatedly, a shortage of marriages and children has cursed Korea with one of the world’s fastest aging populations.
Environmentally, South Korea is one of the world’s biggest emitters and one of its smallest users of renewables. Many questions hang over its roadmap to carbon zero.
In foreign policy, the country walks a perilous tightrope between its strategic relationship with the United States and its economic partnership with China. With the two powers at odds and decoupling in certain sectors, Korea, perched at the center of global supply chains, is being pulled in two directions.
Then there is the ever-thorny issue of relations with neighboring Japan, bedeviled by historical animosities. With the China-US split affecting both neighbors equally, the question must be whether governments in Seoul and Tokyo are willing to let the past go and face matters with a united voice – or bow to nationalistic pressures and continue their animosity.
And the ever-thornier issue of North Korea is likely to see increased prominence next year as that country unlocks its borders as the region and the world is expected to exit Covid. The next president will also have to navigate what may be the final stage of a decades-long transition of wartime operational control of the armed forces from US to South Korean command.
Commentators have mixed sentiments on the two-horse race.
“I think of the two, Yoon presents the greatest risk as he has shown himself to be politically un-savvy and the message that comes out has not been clear or strong,” said Tizzard. “But I am scared of Lee as, from a foreign perspective, I think he will ramp up ethnonationalism and I don’t think that is the way South Korea should be going.”