korea Yoon Suk Yeol
South Korea's president elect Yoon Suk Yeol speaks during a news conference Image Credit: AP

South Korea voted on March 9, to pick a successor to President Moon Jae-in. In the backdrop of military rule that afflicted the country from 1950s to the decade of 1980s, the South Korean president is elected for a single non-renewable five-year term.

After running a neck and neck race, the opposition People’s Power Party (PPP) Yoon Suk-yeol narrowly defeated the ruling Democratic Party‘s (DP) Lee Jae-Myung in one of the most tightly fought presidential races in the country’s history. Lee Jae-myung, the ruling party DP candidate is a former provincial governor who lost the race for party’s nomination to President Moon five years back. Two other minor party candidates drew little support from the people.

The winner, Yoon Suk-yeol who takes office in May, is a former prosecutor and a newcomer to politics but had made his name in prosecuting some high-profile cases. Yoon played a leading role in convicting former president Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and removed from office for abuse of power in 2017.

Both campaigns were mired in controversies. President elect Yoon’s past prosecutorial role, his wife’s political indiscretions also became subjects of political debate during the electoral campaign.

Korean voters are aware of the past indiscretions of their senior political figures which have led to convictions and suicides at the top levels.

Poverty rate and its equality ratio

South Korea’s poverty rate and its equality ratio is among the worst in the developed world. The youth now faces one of the steepest challenges since the South Korean independence. A survey carried out last year found that one in five South Koreans between ages of 15 to 19 are jobless —- far higher than the national average of 13.1 per cent. To meet the economic challenges, Yoon promotes economic liberalism and opposes state intervention.

Frustrated over soaring housing costs, absence of job opportunities and widening income gap young voters, who are normally considered progressives, are the ones who most likely tipped the balance in favour of President elect Yoon. Their focus lay in economic despair and generally glum mood over conditions. Many young voters believe that their standards of living will be lower than their parents. In addition to several other domestic issues Yoon will have to have to deal with soaring housing prices, income disparity and high youth unemployment.

South Korea is the world’s 10th biggest economy and home to one of the largest US military deployments overseas. Neighbouring North Korea, China and across the sea with Japan, the country remains in the state of political controversy with either of them. And, not to mention a policy tightrope it is expected to pursue in the China-US friction. Its presidential elections are of consequence and are of interest to the regional interlocutors and the US particularly.

Yoon pitched his conservative agenda of stronger alliance with the US and tougher line against North Korea. It is a tightrope as the US is South Korea’s security partner while China is its biggest trading partner.

Inter-Korea relations

Inter-Korea relations nonetheless, remain central to South Korean politics. Both conservatives and liberals in Korean politics support political and economic engagement with the North but they differ on the sequence and mode of such relationship. The conservatives among the presidents work on the basis of reciprocity when dealing with North Korea. The liberals tend to wait for change in North Korean behaviour for the longer-term rewards in the future.

The outgoing administration in Korea would consider any interruption in current President Moon’s inter-Korea initiatives as an unfinished business that included support for formal end to the state of war between the North and the South, resumption of tourism and pursuit of mediator’s role for South Korea between the US and North Korea.

Yoon will need to deal with little movement in inter-Korea relations, which were vigorously pursued by the current president Moon Jae-in. He has no previous experience in dealing with foreign affairs where he will need an effective team to manage the complex world of international politics.

President elect Yoon wants to establish a trilateral diplomatic office involving the two Koreas and the US to deal with the inter-Korea relations. He opposes the end of war declaration before North Korea denuclearises. His conditions are tougher due to which North Korea was earlier seen to abandon all pretences of diplomacy.

His vision seeks South Korea to demonstrate greater international leadership role through closer alignment with the US, restore stable relations with Japan, and improvement of ties with China.

South Korea’s next president will have to effectively grapple with fractious domestic politics, provide leadership to a major global economy and military power, and manage both North Korea’s growing military capabilities and the intensifying US-China rivalry.

Sajjad Ashraf served as an adjunct professor at the Lee Kuan Yew School of Public Policy, National University of Singapore from 2009 to 2017. He was a member of Pakistan Foreign Service from 1973 to 2008 and served as an ambassador to several countries.