Photo: Yoon Suk-yeol (left) attends a winter festival with First Lady Kim Geon-hee. Credit: Office of the President.
Shortly after Yoon Suk-yeol 윤석열’s election in March, TBR expected the following from the president-elect:
[Yoon’s] closest analogue may be the Lee Myung-bak 이명박 administration from 2007 to 2012, a conservative president with a weak hold of his own party as he battled his intra-party rival Park Geun-hye while his popular support was kneecapped by the first Candlelight Protests of 2008. After his approval rating cratered to the low 20% range just six months into his administration, Lee responded by bringing targeted prosecutions against former president Roh Moo-hyun 노무현 전 대통령 and other liberal politicians, and beginning a domestic psyop program through the National Intelligence Service 국가정보원, South Korea’s spy agency, that cultivated the online alt-right that acted as brownshirts for the administration.
As a career prosecutor deeply familiar with the interaction between prosecution and politics, Yoon will always be tempted to leverage targeted investigations in a similar manner.
(See previous coverage, “Looking Ahead to the Yoon Presidency.”)
It gives little joy to say the Yoon administration has borne out this expectation. Yoon’s People Power Party 국민의힘 did notch a strong victory in the Local Elections 지방선거 held in June, barely a month into the Yoon government’s tenure. (See previous coverage, “Local Elections Takeaways.”) But things have gone steadily downhill for Yoon since. Utterly lacking in charisma and communication skills, the president, whose nickname during the campaign was “a Gaffe a Day 1일 1망언”, saw his approval crater into the high 20s just a month and a half later. He wasted valuable political capital in the early days of his presidency by moving the presidential office out of the Blue House 청와대, spending months embroiled in an entirely self-inflicted controversy. (See previous coverage, “Yoon Evicts Defense Ministry.”)
Yoon has been a weak president, unable to pass any law through the National Assembly 국회, where the opposition Democratic Party 민주당 holds a strong majority. Under South Korea’s constitution, the executive branch may directly propose a bill to the legislature. Since the Yoon administration began in May, the legislature has not passed a single bill proposed by the executive - a level of resistance unprecedented in South Korea’s democratic era. Yoon has struggled to impose discipline over his own party, as he spent the first several months of his presidency pushing out Lee Jun-seok 이준석, the young upstart who claimed the party chairmanship by appealing to young Korean men’s toxic misogyny. (See previous coverage, “Lee Jun-seok in the Wilderness.”)
Meanwhile, unforced errors by conservatives have inflicted unnecessary pain on an already challenging economy. Yoon was elected in large part because of Seoul homeowners’ grievances over real estate taxes under the Moon administration. (See previous coverage, “The Real Estate Election, Again.”) But with rising benchmark interest rates, soaring inflation and a global slowdown in demand, South Korea’s real estate market is cooling at a rate unseen since the 2008 global financial crisis. This has been exacerbated by the Legoland Bond Crisis - a gratuitous blow to South Korea’s teetering capital market, struck by conservative governor of Gangwon-do Province Kim Jin-tae 김진태 in an attempt to attack his liberal predecessor. (See previous coverage, “Politics of the Legoland Bond Crisis.”)
A domestically weak president often seeks to make his mark in diplomacy, where he has relatively free rein. Yet Yoon has failed to capitalize on South Korea’s strategic location (in more ways than one) at the crossroads of the United States, China, Japan and Russia. The Yoon administration had made grand pronouncements, declaring South Korea a “Global Pivotal State 글로벌 중추국가” offering an “Audacious Initiative 담대한 구상” for North Korean denuclearization. Those slogans, however, have been largely substance-free.
Yoon did have some foreign policy achievements, such as continuing South Korea’s march toward becoming a major arms manufacturer and exporter for the free world. (See previous coverage, “The New Arsenal of Democracy.”) But whatever progress Yoon may have made in foreign policy has been overshadowed by his enduring inability to handle such basic tasks of diplomacy as making small talk with world leaders (see previous coverage, “Yoon’s NATO Embarrassment”), sending a welcoming delegation to visiting dignitaries (see previous coverage, “Pelosi Snubbed After Taiwan Visit”), showing up on time for Queen Elizabeth II’s funeral (see previous coverage, “Diplomatic Disaster Part III”) or being aware of a hot mic while making vulgar comments about the US Congress and President Joe Biden. (See previous coverage, “Hot Mic Tops the Disastrous Tour.”)
With nowhere left to turn, Yoon Suk-yeol, a former Supreme Prosecutor 검찰총장, has fallen back on what he knows best: attacking his adversaries with targeted prosecutions. Since taking office in May, Yoon’s police and prosecutors have summoned for investigations, based on no more than tendentious red-baiting, into no fewer than 23 former cabinet ministers or vice ministers who served in the preceding Moon Jae-in 문재인 administration. (See previous coverage, “Cornered Yoon Turns to McCarthyism.”)
Yoon’s attacks do not stop at former Moon government officials, however. Critical press outlets have been subjected to criminal investigations and tax audits. (See previous coverage, “Yoon Attacks MBC Again.”) Striking labor unions? Of course. (See previous coverage, “Yoon Sees Opportunity in Truckers’ Strike.”) Even a high school student taking part in a cartoon-drawing competition has fallen victim to Yoon’s attacks. (See previous coverage, “Yoon Attacks Cartoon-Drawing Competition.”)
Meanwhile, Yoon’s police and prosecutors have dragged their feet on investigating or prosecuting the well-established white collar crimes of First Lady Kim Geon-hee 김건희 영부인 and her mother, who were involved in stock pump-and-dump schemes and fraudulently claimed government subsidies. (See previous coverage, “First Lady’s Many Troubles.”) In doing so, the Yoon administration continues to prove Wilhoit’s Law: “Conservatism consists of exactly one proposition, to wit: There must be in-groups whom the law protects but does not bind, alongside out-groups whom the law binds but does not protect.”
Absent in all of this has been any serious attempt by the Yoon administration to govern. Seoul has always flooded in the monsoon season, but this year, several died in a flash flood as Yoon reacted with indifference and insensitivity. (See previous coverage, “Deadly Flash Flood Met with Indifference.”) Halloween always has been a big crowd-gatherer in the Itaewon neighborhood, but this year, a lack of basic crowd control resulted in the crushing deaths of 158 young people. (See previous coverage, “Seeking Answers in the Itaewon Disaster.”) After winning the world’s admiration with its COVID-19 response, South Korea now is among the world’s leaders in new cases and deaths. (See previous coverage, “Sleepwalking into a COVID Disaster.”)
The next year will not be any easier for Yoon. His party will remain in the minority in the legislature until and unless the PPP can make inroads in the Assembly Election 총선, to be held in April 2024. Korea’s economy will continue to struggle, with some analysts expecting a contraction. Seoul’s real estate market is inching toward a cliff, with increasingly anemic sales of luxury condos. (See previous coverage, “Dunchon-dong Subscription Augurs Trouble.”) In 2023, expect more of the same: governmental dysfunction and targeted prosecutions drowning out any discussion of substance, with ordinary people left to fend for themselves through difficult times.