About a month has passed since the March 9 presidential election in South Korea, in which a former prosecutor-general who joined the main opposition party at the last minute won with a razor-thin margin.
Right-wing President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol picked a former prime minister under a past leftist government to lead his first Cabinet. Han Duck-soo was chosen for his rich experience as an economic administrator and in hopes of an easier endorsement by the National Assembly, now dominated by the incumbent ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which will turn into the opposition upon Yoon’s inauguration on May 10.
Party-to-party succession of government is not new to South Korea, where a 10-year cycle of transition — after two presidents — had begun with the democratic reforms of 1987. While ideological polarization is deepening here, political instability is feared over short-term change of power in Asia’s leading democracy.
When Park Geun-hye was impeached and removed in 2017 after extended candlelight demonstrations, the leftists envisioned running the nation “for 10 years, 20 years or longer.” That dream stemmed from their belief that the core of society has shifted from the right enjoying vested interests to the younger working class on the left was shattered in the latest presidential poll which gave Yoon 0.73 percent more votes than the ruling party candidate Lee Jae-myung.
Keeping the political fever high across the country, local elections are approaching in less than two months on June 1. On the ballot are candidates who wish to become provincial governors, mayors and members of local councils. The heads of the 17 regional educational offices responsible for overseeing primary and secondary schools across the country will also be elected by popular vote on the same date. The position of education chief is supposed to be non-political, but candidates have shown where they stand between the right and left.
Korea’s blue collar workers, white collar workers, housewives and students aged 18 or older who have just made an important choice in the presidential election will have to ask who among the numerous candidates in the upcoming local elections are ideologically acceptable. Actually, voters know little about the candidates, other than a few lines of the candidates’ career accomplishments on election posters.
Political scientists who study electoral behavior are recommended to come here if they are interested in learning about how people exercise their basic democratic right to vote in a free but divergent environment like South Korea. Here, as politics and the economy developed rapidly, ideological orientation has become the major criterion with which to support or reject candidates in elections at different levels.
With power swinging between the two poles over the past decades, the impact of a right-left split is becoming ever more serious in the lives of political and bureaucratic communities. In accordance with the results of elections, people of the governing elite — especially in the area of law enforcement — are divided into groups supportive and unsupportive of new powerholders. The former enjoy promotions and favorable assignments during the new powerholders’ reign in return for their support.
The Moon Jae-in administration has been particularly enthusiastic about reinforcing leftist elements in the court, prosecution offices and watchdog bodies such as the Board of Audit and Inspection and the National Election Commission. This enthusiasm disregards these organizations’ constitutional requirement of political neutrality.
In the name of “clearing the past evils,” which turned out to be outright political retaliation, many senior officials of previous conservative administrations were incarcerated on inflated charges. Uncooperative prosecutors were sent to insignificant posts and eventually to premature retirement. Even social organizations had their representatives replaced with leftist activists.
President-elect Yoon had a truly dramatic twist of fate. He earned Moon’s trust when he indicted two former presidents and their top aides, and was soon installed as the prosecutor-general. But when he began a merciless probe into the misdeeds of Moon’s inner circle, such as Cho Kuk and others, Yoon was kicked out. However, he earned public recognition as a man of justice good enough to be nominated for the presidency.
Kim Myung-soo, a former district court chief who had led a private group of liberal judges, is now the Chief Justice. The nation’s judiciary has seen leadership positions given to members of Kim’s Uri Law Research Club. The prosecution at different levels currently shows serious internal conflicts between pro-Moon and anti-Moon prosecutors.
These absurdities constitute “new evils” in the eyes of those who voted for Yoon. They now expect that the new president will right the wrong decisively to make good his campaign promises to restore Korea as a society ruled by justice and common sense. Yoon is aware of the strong demand for a process of retribution, but he must also know of the circumstances that restrict his freedom of action for whatever good cause he has.
The opposition-to-be Democratic Party is all out to prevent political retaliation after a change of power. Their primary goal is to protect the outgoing president and the ruling party presidential candidate. During the campaign, Lee Jae-myung faced several criminal accusations from his opponents, including involvement in the large-scale housing development scandal in Daejang-dong.
The Democratic Party’s strongest shield of course is the 172 seats it has in the National Assembly, which is enough to interdict Yoon’s immediate COVID-19 relief programs and other reform steps contained in his campaign pledge. Then there is Yoon’s tiny 0.73 percent margin of victory, which seems to be related to the relatively low figures of around 50 percent in post-election opinion polls on public expectations of good presidential performance.
Yoon may possibly take a posture of compromise during the early days of his rule, considering the need to solicit opposition cooperation for the formation of his first Cabinet, including the parliamentary consent of the prime minister and to secure budgetary support for the pandemic-related handouts. But the new president cannot indefinitely delay holding Moon’s people accountable for past improprieties, which could rather toughen the leftist resistance against the new government.
A vital chance awaits Yoon to secure strong propulsion for his political initiatives. Overwhelming support in the June 1 local elections for his People Power Party will help him deal resolutely with Moon’s legacies. He has renounced “political retaliation,” yet he still can do many things in order to demonstrate what a change of power means.
Imperative to the prosecutor-turned-president, however, is cutting a vicious circle of revenge and promoting “cooperative rule,” or bipartisanship. Yoon’s nomination of a “neutral” prime minister must be the first step on a bumpy road to this goal.