A new era in South Korean politics?
President Yoon Suk-Yeol's speeches highlight the direction of a new conservative administration
Barely one term after the fall of Park Geun-Hye from power, South Korea’s conservatives regained the presidency with the threadbare victory of the PPP’s Yoon Suk-yeol over the governing DP’s Lee Jae-Myung.
The new president faces a slew of domestic and international challenges, but his inauguration address and address to the National Assembly gave an insight into the priorities and perspectives of the new government of South Korea. Firstly, Yoon’s inaugural address emphasised freedom not only domestically but also internationally - clearly signalling South Korea’s alignment with the West on geopolitical issues in face of the gravest post-Cold War challenges. Moreover, his first address to the legislature as President emphasised the need for bipartisanship in face of these challenges.
Perhaps South Korean politics has entered a new era. Last year saw the passing of two presidents associated with the authoritarian era - Chun Doo-Hwan and Roh Tae-Woo. Together with the “Three Kims” - Kim Dae-Jung, Kim Yong-Sam and Kim Jong-Pil - they made up the people who shaped South Korea’s political evolution over the past five decades along with Park Chung-Hee and his daughter. While many Korean conservatives tend to revere Park and founding president Syngman Rhee (Lee Seung-Man), Chun and Roh have far fewer defenders. In short, a chapter in South Korean political history looks definitively closed. Yoon’s address to the National Assembly and visit to Gwangju may be a sign of this.
The post-liberation history of South Korea has seen six constitutions enacted. Although the presidencies of Syngman Rhee, Park Chung-Hee and Chun Doo-Hwan were considered authoritarian regimes, none of them outlawed opposition to create a one-party state. Parliamentary elections under their rule produced a substantial opposition presence. Park indeed won three presidential elections, the first two against Yun Posun (who had president of the Second Republic) and the third against Kim Dae-Jung. In 1972, Park created a more overtly authoritarian system to perpetuate himself in power, commonly known as the Yushin system.
When Park was assassinated in 1979, Prime Minister Choi Kyu-Ha assumed the presidency. The “Three Kims” - Kim Dae-Jung and Kim Yong-Sam were the two main opposition leaders, while Kim Jong-Pil had been Prime Minister under Park - were the likely contenders in any election that would have followed. However, Chun Doo-Hwan effectively gained control of government in a military coup, followed by the events of Gwangju in 1980.
Once in power, Chun carried out a purge of the old guard under Park as well as opposition leaders to consolidate his power. However, he would be the first President of South Korea who didn’t attempt to perpetuate his own power. In 1987, the democratic era would begin when Chun’s handpicked successor, Roh Tae-Woo, agreed to democratic reforms and free elections following protests. Roh defeated the three Kims who split the opposition vote and carried their respective home regions.
Both Kim Yong-Sam and Kim Dae-Jung were elected to the presidency. Kim Yong-Sam and Kim Jong-Pil merged their parties with the ruling party in 1990, creating the basis of today’s conservatives (in South Korea, parties tend to change names on a regular basis). Under Kim Yong-Sam’s presidency, an effort was made to combat corruption and address past events. Both Chun and Roh were convicted, imprisoned and then pardoned in a spirit of national reconciliation.
New Era, Old Values
If South Korea enters a new political era, moving beyond and learning from the experiences of past eras, many things won’t change in any case. Like Japan, South Korea is a conservative society to the point that even the “liberals” in the just defeated Democratic Party, often portrayed as “centrist” or “centre-left”, are in fact quite socially conservative by Western standards. The country has a high level of religious diversity, and religion can and does play an important political role. Both Confucianism and Christianity help shape many norms in culture and society.
At the same time, South Korea is one of the world’s most successful projectors of soft power through popular culture, industry, technology and religion. Yoon’s foreign policy direction is expected to continue the consolidation of this.
It’s early days, but a firm alignment of South Korea with the West and a fresh start under the presidency of Yoon Suk-yul will reap benefits for the Asia-Pacific region.