Yoon Suk Yeol is already losing momentum on economic reform issues. Image: Tasmin News Agency

SEOUL – The South Korean presidential baton changed hands on Tuesday, passing from the liberal Moon Jae-in to the conservative Yoon Suk-yeol, who will helm the strategically located, US-allied export powerhouse for the next five years.

Yoon assumed power at midnight on Monday when he was briefed in a bunker under the Ministry of Defense in Seoul. However, his first act in office – a bold one – was a refusal to enter office.

At least, not the official office of the presidency, the Blue House presidential compound, which sits on prestigious ground just behind the city’s biggest medieval palace. Considering the Blue House emblematic of past “imperial” presidencies, Yoon has opted for more workmanlike quarters in the Ministry of Defense, adjacent to a vast and largely abandoned US Army compound.

Yoon can bank on a customary honeymoon among voters, but his margin of electoral victory was the slimmest in South Korea’s democratic history, and the National Assembly is controlled by the opposition.

Yoon, a political neophyte before running for the highest office in the land, has shown himself to be a man who sticks to principle – and damn the torpedoes.

Principle dominated his inaugural speech, during which he deployed the word “freedom” 35 times. His widely anticipated alignment of democratic values with policymaking suggests he will get on famously with the first foreign leader he is scheduled to meet: US President Joe Biden will visit Seoul from May 20-22.

More broadly, he has prioritized building bridges with South Korea’s favorite whipping boy, Japan, and has sounded a more defiant note toward China. Pundits expect him to shackle South Korea more closely to fellow democracies and alliances, including NATO and the Quad.

On Tuesday, although he proffered an “audacious” plan to assist Pyongyang if it denuclearizes, he shared none of Moon’s passion for engaging the other Korea.

Yoon has refused to stay in the presidential Blue House, which was opened to the public on Tuesday. Photo: The Blue House

The man, the nation

Yoon gained fame under Moon as the chief prosecutor who led investigations into disgraced conservative ex-president Park Geun-hye, who was booted from office after massive demonstrations led to her impeachment in 2017.

She and most of her cabinet and aides ended up in jail on corruption charges.

However, when Moon subsequently turned his attention to reforming the powerful prosecution, Yoon unexpectedly fought in his organization’s corner. His resistance led to the resignation of two successive justice ministers and humiliated Moon.

Yoon’s victory in that bruising fight led to conservatives wooing him over to the right side of the aisle, and eventual victory in the presidential election in March. Though anti-Yoons consider him a fool due to his political inexperience and the gaffes he made during the campaign, he also has a more positive reputation.

“When I speak to various people in Korea, they see Yoon as a man of principle – when he gets something in his mind, he follows through,” said David Tizzard, a professor of Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University. “Koreans say he is not ideological, but he is principled.”

That adherence to principle is visible both in his defense of the prosecution and his ditching of the Blue House – the latter was a campaign promise.

In a country whose citizens are enthusiastic demonstrators, Moon was always sensitive to the mercurial public opinion that led to Park’s downfall and his own accession. However, Yoon suggested in his inauguration speech that he would operate above volatile emotion and dogmatic partisanship.

“The political process … has failed due to a crisis in democracy and one of the main reasons for such failure is the troubling spread of anti-intellectualism,” he said.

When we choose to see only what we want to see and hear only what we want to hear, when the masses bludgeon and silence those who do not agree with them and do this through brute force, this is how anti-intellectualism gravely weakens our democracy and puts us in peril,” he added.

Certainly, South Korea has rifts. Socially, it suffers from a society that is divided on left-right, gender, generational and income-inequality lines. Economically, it is hammered by high interest rates, exchange rates and inflation.

From Moon, Yoon inherits soaring metropolitan property prices and a fast-silvering populace. Yet in many ways, it is a nation whose day has dawned.

A newly-minted G10 economy, it has one of the world’s top 10 militaries and is a top-10 arms exporter. Its position as a key supplier of self-propelled heavy artillery to NATO members grants it a profile amid the Ukraine war.

Focused on defense against North Korea, Seoul has sought to evade kinetic entanglements overseas since its harsh experience fighting in Vietnam. However, its close familiarity with US military protocols, systems and technologies that Seoul’s alliance with Washington demands, means its forces are in sync with those in countries such as Japan and Australia.

A heavy manufacturing and trade powerhouse built on glittering, high-tech infrastructure, South Korea hosts global brands including Samsung, Hyundai and LG. A world-class player in ships, autos, displays, petrochemicals and consumer electronics, its flagship product is semiconductors.

Chips are arguably the most critical industrial component in a world whose advance into digitization has only been accelerated by Covid, making semiconductors into strategic assets in trade and hybrid wars.

While the over-arching power of big-business families remains a national cause of concern, South Korea has also been home, over the last two administrations, to a buzzing startup scene birthing an expanding flock of unicorns in multiple tech sectors.

Its popular culture – K-film, K-pop, K-drama, K-film and K-gaming – has, in recent years, surged beyond Asian barriers and stormed into the living rooms of the West, burnishing the national brand.

But this conglomeration of national power, prosperity, innovation and sophistication means it long passed the point where all-powerful presidencies could significantly change the nation’s course.  

And Yoon is trammeled not only by his constitutionally mandated single five-year term. He won a slim electoral victory margin of less than 1% and faces an opposition parliament and a bureaucracy that voted against him.

By multiple metrics, South Korea is one of the most successful nations of the modern era. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

New foreign policy stance

Yoon appears set to differ from Moon’s policy in two key areas. He insists that South Korea must take a stand on liberal, democratic values on the global stage and seeks to align Seoul with Tokyo.

In a long series of lines that could have been written by a Biden scriptwriter, Yoon noted on Tuesday that “freedom is a universal value.”

“Liberal democracy creates lasting peace and peace is what safeguards our freedom,” he said. “Peace is guaranteed when the international community that respects freedom and human rights come together as one.”

Unusually for a president of South Korea, who have customarily focused on economic pragmatism while keeping a low diplomatic profile in values-based debates in international fora, Yoon said South Korea would now take a stance. 

“Korea is the 10-largest economy in the world … it is incumbent upon us to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader,” he said. “We must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms that are based on freedom and respect for human rights … the international community expects us to do so. We must answer that call.”

South Korea is, like Japan, torn between strategic ally the US and leading trade partner China. Moon sought to shrink that widening gap – even offering Chinese President Xi Jinping his assurance that South Korea would not join any multilateral alliance against China.

Yoon looks set to lean more closely to Washington, analysts say.

“I think President Yoon’s foreign policy strategy is about a congress between liberal democratic principles and policies – being clearly aligned with the West, or rather, the global democratic bloc,” said Go Myong-hyun, a research fellow at Seoul think tank the Asan Institute.

“I think there has been a growing perception and understanding that Korea can no longer sit on the fence between Beijing and Washington.”

That shift is already underway. Last week, for example, Seoul announced it was joining NATO’s cyber security grouping, drawing some strong responses from Chinese netizens.

Yoon has also shown an interest in the US-led Quad Indo-Pacific alliance. He has met Australia’s ambassador to South Korea and made clear his interest in joining Quad working groups, a precondition for membership.

In another departure from customary South Korean practice, Yoon made clear during the campaign that he wants to improve relations with Japan, a nation widely demonized for its colonial occupation of the peninsula between 1910-1945, and for real or perceived failures to act contritely since.

Japan has a key voice when it comes to membership in both the Quad and the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP), a trade bloc Seoul is interested in.

Moon, conversely, took an aggressive stance toward Japan – one reciprocated by then-Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe. The result was bilateral ties plunging to what has been called their worst state since diplomatic relations were established in 1965.

Yet despite public furies, Yoon may be pushing on an open door.

Two public opinion polls taken in the last 12 months have shown that South Koreans now have a harsher view of China than Japan.

Even though the political or trade disputes of 2017 have died down, people-to-people contacts have been poisoned by online wars between netizens from both sides over historical matters, Sino-Korean antagonisms on South Korean campuses and rising concern in South Korea about Chinese policies in Hong Kong and elsewhere.

These developments suggest anti-Japanese sentiment may possibly evaporate the same way anti-American sentiment has largely evaporated among the body politic, leaving China the demonized nation of choice.

“If you look at some of his actions, Yoon was definitely playing on anti-Chinese rhetoric and anti-communist messaging in his social media posts and campaigning,” said Tizzard. “Because of the historical antagonisms, the South Korean public lapped it up, whereas Moon had gone more for anti-Japanese rhetoric.”

The long-cooled bromance between South Korean President Moon Jae-in and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un is unlikely to be repeated by Moon’s successor. Photo: The Blue House

No thanks, North Korea

At the epicenter of South Korea’s foreign policy is its alliance with the US. Despite endless lip service paid to the equality of that relationship, cynics and realists know who the lead partner is.

Due to this dynamic, the failure of a 2019 North Korea-US summit meant inter-Korean ties, too, turned frigid, dooming Moon’s engagement efforts.

Matters have not improved. At a 2021 Party Congress, Pyongyang announced the development of a vast arsenal of new weapons systems. This year, it has conducted 15 missile tests, including ballistic, inter-continental ballistic and submarine-launched versions.

None of those change the strategic landscape. However, Pyongyang also claims to have tested hypersonic and tactical nuclear-capable missiles, new arms that are, for South Korean generals, worrisome, as they are seen as close-range, offensive weapons.

Against this backdrop, Yoon shares none of Moon’s enthusiasm for meeting the North’s leadership and has sounded generally more hawkish. In his inauguration speech, he said little about North Korea, but did offer an olive branch.

“If North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people,” he said.

That kind of incentive is nothing new. It has been offered by previous conservative administrations in Seoul and found no takers in Pyongyang.

But it is well-calibrated for the present, given that North Korea’s economy is being clobbered not only by crippling global sanctions since 2016, but by a border lockdown it instituted when Covid struck the region.

“North Korea has achieved its nuclear arms, systems, materials and warheads, so in that sense, if North Korea is seeking security then it should be safe by now,” said a Seoul-based North Korea watcher, who requested anonymity as he does not want to irritate Yoon’s team in the sensitive, early stages of the administration.

“Yoon is putting his finger on what North Korea is missing right now – economic growth,” said the source. “If North Korea is to give up some of its nuclear arms, there has to be some kind of economic incentive scheme.”

The question is whether Kim will feel it is in his interests to trade away some parts of his “sacred sword” for economic incentives. The question looms doubly large, given the fragility of security guarantees given to other states that abandoned WMD programs, such as Iraq, Libya and Ukraine, and were then assailed by external enemies.

And that is the crux of a problem that remains one of the world’s most intractable foreign policy issues, admitted the source.

“If you take a realistic point of view, there is a reason why North Korea has invested so much in nuclear weapons,” he said. “They believe that, in absence of a collective security architecture, they are the best security guarantee you can buy for money.”