Japan-US-Korea alliance: Beijing fears a new security architecture in East Asia

Yoon Suk-yeol (윤석열) of the conservative People’s Power Party (PPP) (국민의힘) defeated Democratic Party candidate Lee Jae-myung by a narrow margin of 0.8% share of the vote to become the 13th elected president of South Korea. What are the challenges it faces and can the policies it proposes respond to them?

The man

Yoon is often called the “Korean Trump” not only because of his political views, but also because of his meteoric rise in the political arena, reminiscent of former US President Donald Trump.

He previously served as South Korea’s Attorney General and came to prominence during the test of former President Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak who had been accused of corruption, the former having been impeached for it.

Even though he served under liberal President Moon Jae-in, Yoon became a conservative favorite for launching an investigation into Moon’s close aide and choice for Justice Minister Cho Kuk, accused of corruption and because of his scathing criticism policies of the first. He has been a steel figure in the anti-corruption campaign ever since.

A novice in politics, he declared his candidacy for the presidential elections of 2022 at the end of June 2021 and by July joined the PPP. Earlier this month, Yoon defeated Liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung with only 263,000 votes; the smallest margin since the Democratic transition in 1987.

serious challenges

Several serious challenges await Yoon both at home and abroad.

National challenges

Yoon is elected in the middle of a sharp rise in South Korea’s coronavirus cases with a record 400,000 cases in a single day. Containing the pandemic would be a colossal task.

A major challenge it faces is the political divisions in the country. Besides the regular demographic factors of age and regionalism, this election has seen an interesting trend of gender and ideological divisions. Yoon’s Bitter Remarks vs gender equality and men being “disadvantaged” due to calls for feminism, with 58.7% of men in their 20s and 52.8% in their 30s, the dominant age group in the workforce, vote for him.

An ideological controversy also erupted months before South Korea went to the polls. In the eye of the storm was one of the most popular beverage brands, Starbucks. In January 2022, Shinsegae Vice President Chung Yong-jin (the parent company of E-mart which owns 67.5% of Starbucks outlets in South Korea) job an anti-communist social media post criticizing Chinese President Xi Jinping’s silence on his official’s remarks that South Korea is a “minor country”. He tagged it with the hashtag “멸공” or “destroy communism”. Shortly after, he posted another photo of North Korean Supreme Leader Kim Jong-un with the same hashtag. It was Chung’s fifth anti-communist social media post in a month. The move angered Democratic Party presidential candidate Lee Jae-myung as he declared never drink Starbucks coffee again. His supporters rallied, and on January 10, the value of Shinsegae shares decreases down 6.8% and closed at ₩23,000. Chung apologized for his behavior and promised not to post any more anti-communist content. While communism as an ideology banned under the National Security Act, progressivism has been a major force. Yoon’s slim margin of victory shows that this strength would pose a recurring challenge.

Another challenge is the huge housing crisis in South Korea. The ratio of mortgage debt to disposable income has risen sharply. It was 138.5% in 2008 and rose to more than 200% in 2020. Households now owe twice as much as they can afford.

Unemployment and the economic downturn are also major problems. In 2021, the unemployment rate in South Korea reached the The highest in more than two decades. The unemployment rate fell from 4.5% in December 2020 to 5.4% in January 2021. There is also widespread disenchantment among young people, who call themselves the “Sampo Generation” (삼포세대) i.e. those who have to give up courtship, marriage and children due to financial inaccessibility, due to growing income inequality.

Challenges Abroad

The biggest challenge facing South Korea overseas is repairing relations with Japan that have worsen over the years; solve the strategic dilemma on the balance of relations with the United States on the one hand and China on the other, and to address how far Seoul would be ready to go on the question of the sovereign status of Taiwan, where they have so far now shown ambiguity.

However, the biggest challenge is just across the border. North Korea aggressive missile launches and the threats of to resume its nuclear program, which has been under a self-imposed moratorium since 2017, threatens to destabilize not only the regional order in Northeast Asia, but also peace and stability around the world. The biggest threat is from South Korea.

Policies proposed by Yoon

While his opponent Lee Jae-myung has called for greater government involvement to address these challenges, Yoon believes in free-market solutions and government rollback.

On the issue of housing, Yoon promises build 1.3 million homes in Seoul and surrounding metropolitan areas and another 1.2 million homes using a budget of ₩12.1 trillion. Young first-time home buyers in their 20s and 30s are at the top of his plan and would be offered 300,000 units below market price. These houses could then be sold back to the government after 5 years with a potential return on investment margin of up to 70%.

Yoon is also likely to ease lending restrictions on housing and on the rental market led by private investors.

Unlike Moon, Yoon will abandon the public sector job creation plan and focus on the private sector.

He also called for easing of restrictions set up on large conglomerates of family businesses or Chaebols (재볼). Describing Moon’s 52-hour workweek policy as a “failure”, Yoon called for greater work flexibility where workers can choose between permanent and part-time jobs. His earlier statement that workers should work for 120 hours per week aroused strong criticism.

He promised to motivate investment capital to promote private enterprises such as small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), fuel fourth industrial revolution enterprises such as artificial intelligence, and promote startups.

Yoon’s political positions are known to have been problematic in some aspects. Not only was his declaration of working 120 hours a week highly controversial, but his open appreciation for former dictator Chun Doo Hwan, who was responsible for the brutal 1980 Gwangju Massacre, drew a lot of criticism. Later he apologized for his words, but soon monitoring with a social media post of a dog being fed an apple. This was seen as a mockery of his apology as “apple” and “apology” are homonyms in Korean, written as “사과”.

Yoon is also considered a anti-feminist. In January, he called for “abolish the Ministry of Women and Family” because he believes that feminism has “negative” effects on birth rates and healthy relationships and that women face “no systematic discrimination”, despite numerous reports claiming otherwise. His statement received broad support from Idaenam (이대남) or men in their twenties who are known to hold negative views on feminism, which many women’s organizations found this deeply disturbing. His wife is also known to have been extremely critical of the MeToo campaign.

At foreign police, toeing the conservative line, Yoon is ready to lean more towards the United States. While Seoul’s foreign policy has always had a soft bend toward Washington, progressives like Moon are known for trying to balance relations and find an independent path.

Yoon pledged to continue the May 2021 agenda Biden Moon Summit emphasizing cooperation between several sectors such as semiconductors, aerospace industries, etc.

It would not only join the Indo-Pacific economic framework, but also support Washington’s policies in the region aimed at containing China’s growing influence. Yoon has supported the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue or Quad (comprising India, the United States, Japan and Australia). He is likely to engage with Moon’s plans to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Trans-Pacific Partnership Agreement (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA).

Yoon is likely to to return to the deployment of Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), the ballistic missile defense system proposed by the United States. The deployment embittered relations with China which considered it a threat to its own sovereignty and was canceled by President Moon when he came to power in 2017.

He declared that Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida would be the second leader after US President Joe Biden whom he would meet after becoming president, indicating a thaw in relations with Tokyo.

Yoon was highly critical of Moon Jae-in’s reconciliatory approach to Pyongyang and called for harsher penalties on North Korea, which he describes as the “main enemy”.

Will they help?

None of Yoon’s proposed policies address the structural problems of the South Korean economy. Its housing and market reforms provide respite limited to only a few economic classes and are exclusive in nature. He has no clear plan to address environmental concerns and health infrastructure that has been severely weakened under the weight of the recent surge in coronavirus cases.

Moreover, his controversial statements on Chun Doo Hwan, workers and women challenge the democratic ideals dear to South Korea and are likely to create opposition against his rule.

His foreign policy proposal also threatens to create instability. While it will lead to a thaw in relations with Japan and could bring Seoul closer to Taiwan, it should worsen relations with China, which could lead to a enormous economic cost. Yoon’s tough stance toward North Korea and plans to strengthen military cooperation with Washington in the region will have a negative impact on inter-Korean relations. While Pyongyang’s attitude to Moon’s reconciliation approach is heartbreaking, negotiations are the only way out. Imposing harsher sanctions would not only add to the drudgery of ordinary people while the political elite in the North would not be affected, but would further encourage Pyongyang to react in an extreme way.

For now, Yoon’s policies present no long-term solution to the challenges he faces. It must be more inclusive in domestic policy-making and take a more rational and moderate course in foreign policy.