From (anti-)feminisim to missiles: what mattered in the South Korean elections
Updated: Apr 20
In this Voices piece, our four student contributors have analyzed the recent South Korean presidential elections. Two students discuss the domestic context that influenced outcome of the elections, focusing on housing policy and gender. The others discuss what the new conservative administration may have in store for relations with China, North Korea, and Japan.
1. Conservative Change to a Progressive Status Quo
By Aidan Cross, 1st year BSc International Relations and Chinese
South Korea’s 2022 Presidential Election witnessed a clash between two equally unfavourable candidates, both of which had campaigned on platforms that failed to appeal to a majority of the population. With former Prosecutor-General Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party winning the election with only 48.56% of the vote compared to his opponent, political veteran Lee Jae-myung of the liberal Democratic Party of Korea, receiving 47.83%, it is clear that the political situation in South Korea remains rather divided in deciding how best to deal with the many issues facing the country today.
To best understand this predicament, it is important to consider several of the key challenges concerning South Koreans today - household debt, youth unemployment and rising house prices, all of which played an integral role in deciding the outcome of this election. South Korea’s household debt ranks the highest in Asia, with a 108% ratio of household debt to GDP, and has been further exacerbated by increasing socio-economic inequality in the country. The top 20% of earners combined possess a net worth 166 times more than the bottom 20%, and attempts to address this by the former Moon Jae-in administration through measures, such as regulations aimed at curbing house prices, have instead worsened the situation. Young people have subsequently taken the brunt of these crises, with youth unemployment continuing to be above 7% as it has been since the turn of the century, and reaching 9% this year. Many had subsequently looked to the election and the platforms presented by the two main candidates in hope for a change of course for South Korea’s current situation.
Both candidates had proposed policies that stood in stark contrast to one another during the election campaign, with Yoon pushing for a conservative free-market approach while Lee took a much more government-involved strategy. For example, regarding housing prices, Yoon promoted a ‘market-led’ solution with a focus on deregulation of the real estate markets, removing restrictions that had been implemented by Moon. Lee, on the other hand, instead emphasised the need for better public housing and further management of the market. As previously stated, neither platform has proven decisive in being able to command a majority of support from the people, and their faith in the system will now be tested following Yoon’s election.
The previous administration under Moon, elected in 2017, had consistently emphasised their commitment to addressing the concerns of the population - yet a combination of ill-thought out policies and a still-raging pandemic left many in a no better situation. Now with a change of ‘perspective’, some are hoping that life will improve, while many others are concerned about the severe conservative rhetoric promoted by Yoon - such as his populist anti-feminism stance alongside an aggressive narrative towards China, the country’s largest trading partner.
What is certain, however, is that the next five years will prove decisive in deciding the future of South Korea, and whether we will see a successful Yoon administration, or another ‘changing of the guard’ until the ‘right’ president is elected to remedy the concerns of the country.
2. How was gender dispute used in the elections?
By Milla Gajdos, 2nd year BSc International Relations and Chinese
South Korea has the highest gender pay gap amongst OECD countries and a critically low number of female representation on corporate boards as well as in the National Assembly. According to influential women public figures, those promoting feminist messages now must face threatening calls as well as physical attacks. Against this backdrop tens of thousands of young women took to the streets of Seoul in 2018 under the global “Me Too” movement, following several cases of sexual harassment and spy camera crimes. This led to the resignation of several high-profile politicians, business leaders and entertainers, drawing attention to the issue of gender-based discrimination and inequality.
On March 9, Yoon defeated the liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung by a historical margin of 263,000 votes, leaving lots of young women devastated. The conservative candidate ran on an anti-feminist platform, blaming feminism for low birth-rates, calling for the abolishment of the Ministry of Gender Equality and increasing punishments for false accusations of sexual violence. However, the conservative candidate was not the only one using anti-feminism as a way to gain supporters. The liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung only changed his appeal to young women when it became apparent that Yoon had a stronghold over young men’s votes.
So how did gender become weaponized and acquire such a central role in theLee Jae-myung only changed his appeal to young women when it became apparent that Yoon had a stronghold over young men’s votes in the presidential campaign? Skyrocketing living costs, stagnant economic growth and enduring youth unemployment fuels young men’s perception of being victims of gender based discrimination: 79% of young men feel “seriously discriminated against” because of their gender. Furthermore, there is an increasing tendency to depict feminists as misandrists, which increases the misunderstanding between and further radicalisation of young men and women. Against this backdrop, a significant number of young men see the progress of feminism as a threat, fueling a serious gender conflict. In the run up to the election, this divide has become clearer than ever, with the majority of women voting liberal, while young men voting conservative.
The alarming level of focus on the gender divide in the presidential campaign should serve as a wake-up call for South Korean society, as well as a push for real change. In order to de-escalate the gender conflict and deconstruct misunderstandings of feminism, there is a growing need for an open dialogue between young women and men. Another lesson after the elections is that a great number of young women feel increasingly underrepresented: 42% of women in their 20s prefer no party at all. This leaves a significant vacuum to be filled up by progressive politicians, who could work on finding a solution to the conflict instead of capitalising on the further radicalisation of young men and women.
3. What continuities and changes can we expect on policy towards North Korea and China?
By Sebastian Kim, 2nd year BSc Politics and International Relations
North Korea Policy
In line with previous Democratic Party presidents, Moon’s approach towards North Korea has been centred on the inter-Korean dialogue and efforts for peaceful reconciliation. During his 5-year tenure in government, Moon has held a record high number of four Inter-Korean summits.
While keeping channels for conversation open, Yoon places heavy emphasis on military power to counter North Korean security threats and will take more active stances to condemn North Korean human rights abuses. Yoon has strongly argued for launching a preemptive strike if there is a sign of a North Korean offensive launch. This is an unprecedented level of compliance to military power and acknowledgement of potential armed conflicts, which has historically been a taboo that unnecessarily induces domestic instability.
This aggressive attitude towards North Korea seems to be a strategic effort from Yoon to echo increasingly antagonistic attitudes of the South Korean audience to North Korea in response to increasing levels of military threats from North Korea. The perceived necessity of reunification with North Korea has decreased from 59.7% in 2018 to 44.6% in 2021, a record-low number in the survey’s history. Also, North Korea is the second least reliable state for South Koreans, marginally more reliable than Japan.
Based on Yoon’s pledges of taking a hard-line approach towards North Korea, it is likely that there would be less dialogues for peaceful reconciliation but continued escalation of military tension in the peninsula. However, this should not be exaggerated as a potential for an armed conflict since Yoon’s rationale behind military development is not to start a war but to send a credible threat to deter further North Korean aggression. Hence, it is likely that the inter-Korean relations will resemble the Cold War with extremely high levels of hostility, which makes Yoon’s goal of reunification superficial.
As a response to the rise of China, Moon has delicately balanced his diplomatic relationships with both the US and China, making sure that neither of them feels overpowered by the other. In order to neutralise the historical reliance on the US, Moon has focused heavily on achieving better relations with China, stating that “I hope China Dream to be the dream of not only China but of Asia, and the entire humanity”.
In contrast, Yoon has explicitly stated that he will prioritise the US over China. Rather than unconditionally helping China as a periphery neighbour, Yoon places a condition of mutual respect as a logic behind Sino-Korean relations. He stated that he will install more anti-ballistic missile systems such as THAAD to defend against North Korean missile threats, which has sparked a major diplomatic and economic boycott of South Korea from China between 2016 and 2020.
This shift in attitudes towards China echoes rising anti-Chinese sentiments in South Korea. China is the third least liked country and these anti-Chinese sentiments are most pronounced among younger age groups. This link between the domestic audience and foreign policy is reflected in Yoon’s pledges to address Chinese cultural imperialism, the Northeast Project that distorts East Asian history in favour of China. There has been a recent nationalist movement, mostly online, in which China claims Korean culture, including hanbok and kimchi, as part of Chinese culture, which has angered the Korean populace. This conflict over history and culture is one of the causes of rising anti-Chinese sentiments, which Yoon seeks to address to reaffirm South Korea as neither inferior nor subordinate.
This suggests that Sino-Korean relations are likely to deteriorate from attempts to have more initiatives in China policy, which is heavily supported by rising domestic antagonism towards China. China is likely to perceive Yoon’s attempts to condemn Chinese cultural imperialism as illegitimate and its apparent bias towards the US as attempts to constrain the rise of China. This also has implications to Chinese foreign policy since it makes its expansion of influence in East Asia harder to achieve.
4. Will the new South Korean President bring a new page of Korea-Japan relations?
By Bosco Hung, 1st year Politics and International Relations
South Korea and Japan have been important allies of the United States in Northeast Asia, especially for counteracting the influence of China and North Korea. Nonetheless, over the past few years, these two countries’ relations deteriorated and their interactions stagnated, while the current Korean administration was also accused of pursuing pro-China policies by the domestic conservative opposition.
During the 2022 South Korean presidential election campaign, the winner Yoon Suk-yeol has emphasised that he would strive to achieve the normalisation of Japan-South Korea relations. Thus, Yoon’s policy directions imply closer future security relations between South Korea and the US as well as Japan. However, it is doubtful whether there will be a significant improvement in Japan-South Korea relations and a strengthening of security ties.
Wartime disputes between Japan and South Korea have been going on for more than 70 years due to the great divergence between these two countries’ views. These disputes were particularly significant under the incumbent President Moon Jae-in’s leadership. Moon has openly demanded Japan to apologise for the comfort women issues, while South Korean courts have ordered Japanese firms to compensate Korean laborers for the wartime abuses. Together with the outbreak of the Japan-South Korea economic war in 2019, the hostility between these two countries have intensified.
On one hand, in the Diplomatic Bluebook of Japan in 2018, South Korea was no longer described as ‘Japan's most important neighbour that shares strategic interests with Japan’. Meanwhile South Korea downgraded Japan’s status from partner to neighbour. Since Moon’s leadership has deepened historical disputes and caused the downgrading of official diplomatic relations, he has created seemingly irreversible fractures in future Korea-Japan relations. Even if Yoon wants to fix the two countries’ relations, it is difficult to imagine substantive improvements.
Indeed, Yoon has indicated that he would like to build up closer strategic ties with the US and Japan, such as through more communication channels to bring the two countries together. Yet, deeply entrenched anti-Japanese sentiments could mean that compromising over wartime disputes could trigger domestic opposition that hinder Yoon’s political standing. Therefore, it is unlikely that Yoon will back down to resolve historical issues.
Moreover, as a political novice, Yoon’s diplomatic capability has been questioned. The lack of diplomatic experience can disrupt Yoon from finding the common ground between the two countries and reaching a consensus on historical issues. The deep-rooted disputes and tension will remain and hinder the two countries from restoring mutual trust. This thus cast a shadow over their diplomatic relations, as well as the cohesion in the US-Japan-South Korea security triangle, which renders the prospects of the trilateral cooperation in safeguarding Northeast Asian stability gloomy.