Yoon Suk Yeol: What to Expect from South Korea’s Next President
In a hotly contested race, Yoon Suk Yeol of the People Power Party emerged victorious in the South Korean presidential election on March 9. The victory resurrects conservative political forces in Korea that have been struggling to achieve political realignment since the impeachment of Park Geun-hye in 2017. The president elect will take office on May 10, 2022.
Yoon won by a margin of 0.8 with 48.6 percent of the vote. Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party trailed closely behind with 47.8 percent. The vote gap between the two candidates stood at 274,151 when 99 percent of the votes were counted, marking the closest presidential election in South Korean history.
Q1: Who is Yoon Suk Yeol?
A1: Yoon is the former prosecutor general of South Korea who initially came under the spotlight for his tenacious investigations of corruption during the Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak presidencies. This earned him a reputation as a hardliner on anti-corruption. Despite being appointed by current president Moon Jae-in, Yoon gained popularity among conservatives before his official run for president through his indictment of Moon’s justice minister Cho Kuk.
Yoon has never held elected political office before. He will be staffed by a strong team of domestic and foreign policy professionals, some of whom will return from having served previous conservative administrations.
Q2: What are Yoon’s goals at home?
A2: Yoon’s domestic platform consists of ambitious economic growth plans with an emphasis on relaxing corporate regulations while supporting investment in the private sector.
- Yoon will address the housing problem in Korea by pledging to create 1.3 million homes in Seoul and surrounding metropolitan areas and an additional 1.2 million homes around the country with a proposed budget of 12.1 trillion won.
- His housing plan will target first-home buyers in their 20s and 30s with 300,000 units below market price. These homes can then be sold back to the government after five years with a potential investment return margin of up to 70 percent.
- Yoon will also likely ease loan restrictions for housing and relax regulations for the rental market run by the private sector.
- Yoon will incentivize private sector job creation rather than government handouts.
- He is likely to loosen corporate regulations on the private sector and expand labor market flexibility.
- He will incentivize investment capital to promote start-ups, small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), and fourth industrial revolution ventures.
Q3: What will shape Yoon’s foreign policy doctrine?
- Yoon will surround himself with seasoned and known quantities on foreign policy given his lack of experience in this area.
- His foreign policy will be grounded in support for the liberal international order, cooperation with democracies, and resisting autocratic and illiberal practices.
- Yoon will continue to implement the agenda of the Biden-Moon May 2021 summit with cooperation across multiple sectors such as semiconductors, electric vehicle batteries, artificial intelligence, biotech, and aerospace industries.
- Yoon will more actively support President Biden’s Indo-Pacific Strategy in efforts to pivot to a more comprehensive alliance with the United States and subsequently join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.
- He will likely call for an uptick in frequency of joint military exercises with the United States, which were much less frequent in the last several years as President Moon focused on dialogue with Pyongyang.
- He may push for an additional Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) missile deployment to cover Seoul from North Korean missile threats.
- He will likely continue his predecessor’s plan to join the Comprehensive and Progressive Agreement for Trans-Pacific Partnership (CPTPP) and the Digital Economy Partnership Agreement (DEPA).
- Yoon supports the activities and purpose of the Quad and will seek eventual South Korean membership, first by starting with cooperation in the working groups.
- Expect to see more South Korean cooperation on multilateral initiatives among the democracies on development assistance, global health, clean 5G networks, and resilient supply chains.
- Yoon has stated that the second leader he will meet after Biden is Prime Minister Kishida of Japan.
- Expect to see greater efforts to recover bilateral relations with Tokyo and improve trilateral coordination among the three allies in DPRK contingency planning, intelligence-sharing, and defense and deterrence capabilities.
- The new administration will attempt to reduce dependence on China and promote supply chain resilience.
- It is likely to take a less deferential policy stance toward Beijing than the previous administration in part due to a recognition of Chinese bullying tactics and a lack of confidence that China can deliver North Korea.
- These policies would resonate with a South Korean public that remains highly negative about China.
- Yoon will take a more hawkish stance compared to that of his predecessor but will seek to maintain inter-Korean dialogue and continue the promotion of humanitarian aid to North Korea.
- Yoon will not press for an end-of-war declaration before denuclearization advances and will respond more decisively to North Korean provocations.
- He will expand defense and deterrence capabilities in conjunction with the U.S. alliance, including offensive strike capabilities and enhanced missile defense.
Victor Cha is senior vice president and Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS) in Washington, D.C. Dana Kim is a Korea policy scholar with the CSIS Korea Chair.
Critical Questions is produced by the Center for Strategic and International Studies (CSIS), a private, tax-exempt institution focusing on international public policy issues. Its research is nonpartisan and nonproprietary. CSIS does not take specific policy positions. Accordingly, all views, positions, and conclusions expressed in this publication should be understood to be solely those of the author(s).
© 2022 by the Center for Strategic and International Studies. All rights reserved.