Yoon Seok-yeol: who he actually is and what awaits him in the April election

Yoon Seok-yeol: who he actually is and what awaits him in the April election

It took nine years for Yoon Seok-yeol to pass the bar exam.

In the 1980s, during which Yoon pursued a career in law, it was far from easy to become a lawyer—the system was very different from those in Western countries. The national bar exam was actually more of a recruitment test for judges and prosecutors, and it had a yearly quota of around 300.

The modern history of Korea is full of tales of rags-to-riches, and passing the bar exam was one of the surest ways to make it come true. Some spent too many years attempting and failing under pressure, only to be remembered by fellow and junior students후배 as who is off his head after too many failures.

Even though he was from a well-off family, Yoon would have done a lot to fight off anxieties for the nine years. That could have been his inner strength to keep his head up even when he directly confronted his superiors’ opposition, including his president’s.

Even as he was elected as the President, Yoon as a politician had been a mystery. No one else in the republic’s history shot up to the top in such a short period, so we don’t have much to assess. His perseverance in the bar exam was one of the few things that crossed my mind. Could he be the one who can bring about the reforms the country desperately needs?

The past twelve months have revealed much more about who he actually is as a politician. And it’s not good.

Most protruding is his tribal mindset. He spent half his life as a prosecutor, so no surprise that his administration is brimming with lawyers—especially former prosecutors. What makes his way of governing tribal is that he often resorts to closeness even when it goes against principle.

His refusal to sack the interior minister after the Itaewon stampede led to the first-ever impeachment of a minister in history. Lee Sang-min, the minister, had every reason to be dismissed, but apparently, having graduated from the same high school and university was a shield too great.

The sudden resignation of Kim Seong-han, the National Security Advisor at the moment, right in the run-up to the ROK-US summit in April is another example. Kim is known to be very close to Yoon, so many, including me, were dumbfounded by the news.

It was later said that the trigger was a feud over the ROK-Japan summit between him and Kim Tae-hyo, his direct subordinate at the National Security Council but much closer confidant to Yoon. (Kim Seong-han allegedly opposed Kim Tae-hyo’s radical approach to improving ROK-Japan relations.)

What was Kim Tae-hyo’s secret? Believe it or not, he and Yoon lived in the same apartment complex in Gangnam (before Yoon moved to Yongsan after his inauguration). His diplomatic worldview is known to lack nuances—I was told he is good at explaining the subtle world of international relations in simple dichotomies; I suspect this might be the source of Yoon’s blunder on UAE-Iran relations.

April election

How the People Power Party elected its leader in March tells us Yoon intends to run the next general election in his own—tribal—way. The conservative ruling party has a tradition of open election of its leader, but it broke up with the tradition this time under Yoon to get his frontman elected, who has a near-zero presence among the key voters in the greater Seoul area.

How the election turns out in April will dictate the rest of Yoon’s term. In the South Korean system, a president enjoys Caesarean power over governing the state, which has more authority and fewer checks and balances than that of the US. Yet a president alone can’t accomplish much: they need their party’s support.

Which comes from, to be blunt, the likelihood of getting elected when they use their president’s support—usually in the form of candidates’ photo they took with the president—in their campaign. Before all the scandals and the disgrace that followed, Park Geun-hye was able to garner a good deal of votes for her party’s candidates simply by waving hands in constituency events, which earned her the nickname of “Queen of Elections.” During her reign of the conservative party, almost all candidates used photos of themselves with Park side by side on the cover of their election flyers—some even seemed to be photoshopped.

Would the PPP candidates running for the seats in Yeouido next year do the same?

While he enjoyed a steady growth in his approval rate recently, Yoon, in general, is unpopular. Yoon doesn’t want to be seen as anxious by it—when his approval rate plummeted a few months after his inauguration, he remarked that he didn’t want to be fettered by the approval rate. Probably he is more than capable of not being dragged down by it, considering he managed to continuously march for nine years in his younger days.

What he didn’t understand, however, was that in democracy, approval rate is the only source of their power and authority even if you’re the President of the Republic—especially when an election is coming.

If the PPP loses in this election, Yoon will spend the next three years as a lame duck. Even if the PPP manages to regain power in the next presidential election, Yoon wouldn’t be able to enjoy retirement. (In Yoon’s case, his wife Kim Kun-hee is a much more vulnerable target.)

Possible scenarios

The triste reality of Korean politics today is that none of the two major parties seem capable of reinventing themselves; their best shot relies on each other, hoping the other do worse than them. The best scenario for Yoon is that Lee Jae-myung somehow keeps on leading Minjoo throughout the whole election campaign: his numerous scandals, which are slowly unfolding, will guarantee Minjoo’s defeat.

This is unlikely, of course. The curious crypto-investment saga of Kim Nam-kuk, who often falls under the “Lee’s cronies” category, has made Lee’s leadership before the election much more doubtful. Soon there will be discussions of (yet another) emergency committee for the election.

The worst-case scenario for Yoon is that a good strategician takes the helm of the emergency committee. The only one I can think of for now is Kim Chong-in. While he is currently dabbling with the idea of the “third party” with Keum Tae-seop, I’m quite sure he will gladly and readily take the helm when offered.

What if Yoon manages to reinvent the PPP? I am pretty skeptical, considering Yoon’s affiliation with the likes of Jang Je-won, but still, this is a possibility. I heard a story of a “revolutionary” candidate nomination plan a few days ago, but I’m still doubtful. The past twelve months have proved that Yoon’s guys are incompetent in general to formulate an agenda that could entice undecided voters. Whether Yoon can overcome his tribal mindset and use his perseverance in the right way will decide his fate as a politician.