March 11, 2022 13:18
Since adopting direct presidential elections in 1987, South Korea had more or less seen the government shift back and forth from conservative to liberal every 10 years, so few expected the presidency to revert to the conservatives so soon after Park Geun-hye disgraced them. When president-elect Yoon Suk-yeol quit his job as prosecutor-general in March last year and left his lifetime career behind to pursue his political ambitions, not many thought he would succeed. There have been too many like him, who created a buzz early on but fizzled as the election approached and reality took over. In that sense, Yoon's election win is unprecedented in South Korean politics.
He achieved it largely because many people wanted to see the back of a disastrous government which they had elected without great enthusiasm after Park's ouster five years ago. This is their victory. Now they want Yoon to correct the errors of the Moon Jae-in administration.
The outgoing administration has made a mess of government, from Moon's hasty nuclear phase-out to his failed experiment in "income-led growth" and punitive taxes to tame real estate prices. These must be corrected based on market principles. Most importantly, the country must be saved from the swamp of populist policies.
Over the last five years, the Moon administration caused South Korea's sovereign debt to swell by a staggering W415 trillion (US$1=W1,227). To put that into perspective, the country's sovereign debt from 1948 until Moon took office only totaled W600 trillion. That shows just how reckless Moon has been. What's even more lamentable is that the W415 trillion in borrowed money practically disappeared without a trace.
Once blinded by populism, politicians end up competing with each other to shower more money on voters. This is exactly what happened in this election campaign as candidates pledged hundreds of trillions of money in government spending. Unless this stops, the country could end up walking down the same path as Argentina, Greece and Venezuela. Yoon must be willing to take the flak and have the courage to retract pledges that cannot be realized. Although assistance for businesses affected by the coronavirus pandemic is needed, such help must be realistic.
South Korea's diplomacy and national security also suffered over the last five years. Seoul's alliance with the U.S. has deteriorated badly, which is probably why U.S. President Joe Biden telephoned Yoon as soon as he won the election and asked him to meet soon. South Korea's relations with Japan have also sunk to a new low, while ties with China have left Seoul in a position of extreme vulnerability. This must all change.
The Moon administration damaged South Korea's diplomacy and national security because of the president's crush on North Korean leader Kim Jong-un. Moon would be intent on recognizing North Korea as a nuclear power and easing sanctions as he dreamed of new photo-ops with his friend. This culminated in the absurd spectacle of the military declaring that it will protect the borders through "dialogue." Moon's government has been reluctant even to describe North Korea's missile launches as "provocations," so sensitive is it to any whisper of displeasure from the dictator in Pyongyang. What it has reaped is an increased nuclear threat from the North. Pyongyang did not hesitate to launch another missile as South Koreans elected a new leader, because Kim probably wanted to scare the new president. Such provocations will probably intensify, and North Korea is now expected to launch an intercontinental ballistic missile or even conduct another nuclear test. That might be one of the first challenges the president-elect faces.
Yoon also needs to unite a deeply divided public. He scraped in by just a 0.73 percentage margin or 247,000 votes over his rival, the thinnest of any presidential election. Many people view the vote count as a sign of a deep ideological rift in society. Moon has often divided the public when it came to implementing his populist policies. The new administration must ensure that these rifts heal. Yoon would have a difficult time implementing his policies without the help of the National Assembly, where the Minjoo Partiy still has a super-majority for two more years, so cooperation is of the essence. The only support Yoon will have is from the public that voted for him to achieve a change of leadership. The people want Yoon to lead the country differently. He must take full responsibility for his actions and make sure his words match his deeds. Nobody needs another president who pretends to be an idealist while politicking all the time to protect his own. Favoritism must end.
Yoon's leadership skills will be tested first in the appointments of key officials. People want him to choose officials based only on their merits. That will ensure the least amount of resistance from the opposition. The public, too, will be the judge when the majority opposition seeks to stymie appointments of talented officials simply to give the new president a hard time.
Yoon has pledged to move the top office from Cheong Wa Dae to the government complex in Gwanghwamun, central Seoul and speak to the media often. But Moon made the same pledge five years ago and never got around to it. Voters will watch closely if Yoon lives up to those pledges.
Yoon said he never dreamed of becoming a politician. Every time he faced a wall, he said, he "thought about why the public called on me." Let us the hope continues to ask himself that question over the next five years.
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