In the final days of South Korea’s tumultuous presidential election campaign, the leader of the ruling Democratic Party was attacked with a hammer at a political rally in Seoul. He was rushed to hospital and survived, but it marked the bloody climax of a contest that has been mired in mudslinging, scandal and personal attacks intended to appeal to the country’s divided and increasingly polarised electorate. Some analysts called it the “Squid Game election”, after the dystopian Netflix drama, warning that the loser was likely to face investigation and possible arrest.
The winner, by a margin of less than a single percentage point, was the conservative candidate Yoon Suk-yeol. A former top prosecutor with no political or foreign policy experience, he has promised to abolish South Korea’s ministry for gender equality, investigate the outgoing progressive leader, Moon Jae-in, and take a much more combative stance against China and North Korea. Yoon has publicly mulled the possibility of pre-emptive military strikes against Pyongyang and criticised Moon for focusing on negotiations with Kim Jong-un, urging more joint military drills and a closer relationship with the United States.
“Until now, South Korea has followed a policy of strategic ambiguity when it comes to the US and China – balancing between cooperation with the US for security, and with China in terms of the economy,” said Gi-Wook Shin, director of the Shorenstein Asia-Pacific Research Center at Stanford University. “But I don’t think that paradigm is going to work anymore. There will be more of a shift towards siding with the US in containing China, which is supported by growing anti-China sentiment among the public.” At the same time, Shin warned, South Korea could not afford to alienate China, which is the country’s biggest trading partner, “so this will be a major foreign policy challenge”.
Beijing is unlikely to welcome Yoon’s victory. He has called for additional deployments of the US’s Terminal High Altitude Area Defence (THAAD) system in South Korea, which China considers a threat to its own security, and he has indicated an interest in joining the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (Quad) grouping of the US, Australia, Japan and India, which Beijing views as an anti-China alliance. “Certainly, I think that will be on the table,” Shin told me of the Quad.
But significant though these foreign policy shifts would be for the region’s geopolitics, the most immediate impact of Yoon’s presidency may be felt in South Korea’s domestic politics and the country’s intensifying gender conflict. Despite having the largest gender pay gap of any country in the Organisation for Economic Cooperation and Development – with women earning almost a third less than their male counterparts – the new president cultivated support from South Korea’s burgeoning “men’s rights” and “anti-feminist” movement during the campaign.
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“South Korea had one of the first #MeToo movements in Asia, and there has been increased attention on the issue of femicide and violence against women in recent years,” Darcie Draudt, a postdoctoral fellow at George Washington University’s Institute for Korean Studies, told me. “We have also seen what is known as the ‘molka’ phenomenon, where men take photos using secret cameras of women in hotel rooms and public restrooms in various states of undress and post them online without their consent, so these issues are really at the forefront of many women’s minds these days. But instead, Yoon mobilised the ‘men’s rights’ movement and played to their concerns.”
With housing costs soaring – apartment prices in Seoul have almost doubled in the past five years – and youth unemployment reaching 9 per cent in 2021, Draudt said the anti-feminist movement was fuelled by economic grievances and complaints that efforts to improve gender equality were unfairly disadvantaging men. “It all stems from a feeling of being left behind economically,” she explained. “The job market is really hot and competitive, and men have to complete 18 months of military service, which women don’t do, so they complain that they enter the workforce later than their female peers. But it’s a very short-sighted view, because in the long term they are probably going to get ahead.”
Yoon’s pledge during the campaign to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family delivered him a sizeable boost among young male voters, although the move is unlikely to have the effect he has promised. Less than 3 per cent of the ministry’s budget was allocated to promoting women’s equality, with the majority of resources focused on support for families and children. Still, it sends a chilling message to women in South Korea about where the new president’s priorities lie.
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When he takes office in May, the new leader will also have to grapple with a National Assembly that is controlled by the rival Democratic Party. “This will be a massive constraint for Yoon,” said Ramon Pacheco Pardo, a professor at King’s College London and author of Shrimp to Whale: South Korea from the Forgotten War to K-Pop. “For the next two years, at the very least, the liberals have a supermajority, and Yoon, who is a complete outsider with no experience of National Assembly politics at all, will have to find a way to work together with them.”
Gi-Wook Shin told me he was deeply concerned about the country’s political trajectory and the deep divisions now on display. “Looking at the campaign, it was all negative. There was no real policy debate,” he said. “It came down to whether you were on one side or the other, whether you wanted regime change or not. It was really divisive, and I don’t think that bodes well for the future of South Korean democracy.”
In his victory speech on 9 March, Yoon promised to join hands with his rivals and “unite into one for the people and the country”. If he is serious, then he will need to start with the divisions he has helped to sow.