By Claire LEE

South Korea’s incoming president Yoon Suk-yeol is a political novice who shot to public attention as a prosecutor for his uncompromising investigations into some of the country’s most high-profile corruption scandals.

He looks set to take the world’s 10th-largest economy in a different foreign policy direction — vowing to abandon years of delicate diplomacy and get tough on North Korea.

After winning a close election by the narrowest margin ever, he has already backed off his most controversial pledges on the campaign trail — including abolishing the Ministry of Gender Equality.

But his lack of legislative experience could prove costly as he faces a Democratic Party-controlled National Assembly that will likely scrutinise his policies.

Born in Seoul in 1960, Yoon studied law and went on to play a key role in convicting former president Park Geun-hye for abuse of power.

As the country’s top prosecutor in 2019, he also indicted a top aide of outgoing President Moon Jae-in over fraud and bribery in a case that tarnished the administration’s upstanding image.

This brought Yoon to the attention of the conservative opposition People Power party, which began courting him. He eventually won the party’s primary and became its presidential candidate.

Yoon became the conservatives’ “icon” because he was “seen as the best person to beat the Democratic Party candidate, despite his lack of political leadership experience,” Gi-Wook Shin, a sociology professor at Stanford, told AFP.

“That does not bode well for Korean democracy as we may expect further polarisation,” he added.

– Adversarial politics –

South Korean politics is famously adversarial, analysts say, where presidents serve just a single term of five years.

Every living former leader has been jailed for corruption after leaving office.

Despite his role in Park’s ousting, Yoon fired up support among disgruntled conservative voters by offering a chance at “revenge” against Moon — going so far as to threaten to investigate Moon for unspecified “irregularities”.

Even Yoon’s wife claimed his critics would be prosecuted if her husband won because that is “the nature of power”, according to taped comments released after a court battle.

This suggests “he and his spouse are more than willing to engage in retaliatory legal investigations into political opponents”, Keung Yoon Bae, a Korean studies professor at Georgia Institute of Technology, told AFP.

The outgoing administration’s last order of business was to pass a reform bill stripping prosecutors of some of their power, in a move widely seen as a bid by officials to avoid being targeted after leaving office.

Local media have reported that Yoon is particularly inspired by British wartime prime minister Winston Churchill.

Despite his limited experience in politics, Yoon still managed to “consolidate support of a huge chunk of the country’s elite”, Vladimir Tikhonov, professor of Korean studies at the University of Oslo, told AFP.

– Pre-emptive strike? –

On nuclear-armed North Korea, Yoon has threatened a pre-emptive strike if needed, a claim analysts say is wildly unrealistic.

Just last month, North Korean leader Kim Jong Un said he would take measures to develop “the nuclear forces of our state at the fastest possible speed”, in what analysts said was a response to Yoon’s hawkish stance.

Yoon also once said he wants to buy an additional THAAD US missile system to counter the North, despite risks that it could prompt new economic retaliation from China, South Korea’s biggest trade partner.

His “lack of political skill will spill over to the foreign policy realm”, Minseon Ku, a political science scholar at the Ohio State University, told AFP.

So far, Yoon’s camp “looked as though they were simply copying and pasting foreign policy phrases from the US Republican presidents’ speeches,” she added.

He also made a string of gaffes on the campaign trail, from praising one of the country’s former dictators to belittling manual labour and Africans.

“The next presidency is coming at a time of transition for the world,” especially following the Russian invasion of Ukraine, Karl Friedhoff of the Chicago Council on Global Affairs told AFP.

“That will mean making tough challenges about trade-offs that South Korea hasn’t had to make in the past. Is Yoon up to that task?”


© Agence France-Presse