President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol is known as a political novice. Indeed, Yoon was elected president without any prior political career. Although he was prosecutor general, Yoon was not a professional politician, but a public prosecutor under the supervision of the minister of justice.
However, such a background can be an advantage for him. Unlike professional politicians who have to consider many factors, Yoon can make a fresh start by boldly changing things. For example, declining to enter Cheong Wa Dae, a symbol of a forbidden palace, and turning it into a cultural complex that consists of a history education museum, a memorial hall for our ex-presidents, and performing arts performances can be a good start. It will give him the fresh image of a new leader who defies authoritarianism. It is something that no other Korean president has ever done.
Foreign experts predict that the most difficult challenge for President-elect Yoon will be South Korea’s foreign policy, which should be radically different from the previous left-wing administration. Yoon has already made it clear that his administration will strengthen ties between South Korea and the US and mend its badly damaged relationship with Japan. However, it will not be easy. Once a relationship is damaged, it cannot be easily restored -- which is the case with both America and Japan. In order to pursue his new policy successfully, Yoon needs to be different from his predecessors, who used anti-American or anti-Japanese sentiments for political gain.
Another problem is that his new policy will face strong objections from the opposition party and those who did not vote for him. Moreover, Yoon will have to skillfully deal with China and North Korea, as they will not be happy about South Korea’s closer relationship with the US and Japan. It will not be easy for him to handle such issues smoothly, and he will encounter one obstacle after another.
National security policy will be another challenge for the Yoon administration. As South Korea’s national security is heavily dependent on its alliance with the US, the Yoon administration should think of it as the top priority. The joint military drills of the Korean and US armies, which were put off indefinitely by the Moon administration under the excuse of not provoking North Korea, should be restored now. Inevitably, South Korea will face relentless threats and provocations from the enraged North. However, it is something we can endure and live with for the sake of national security.
In order to deal with such challenges effectively, the Yoon administration should establish South Korea’s identity clearly. South Korea is not a socialist country, but a country of liberal democracy, human rights and the market economy. We should always keep in mind that South Korea, together with other advanced countries, belongs to the free world, not to authoritarian socialist countries. Therefore, we should act accordingly. We should not abase ourselves or kowtow to socialist countries for monetary reasons.
South Korea is no longer a weak, developing country. As a top 10 global economy that was invited to the G-7 meeting in 2021, South Korea is now undisputedly a global leader. Therefore, we should behave like one, instead of caving in whenever there is a crisis in the world. We should listen to the wisdom of Scott Snyder, director of the program on US-Korea policy at the Council on Foreign Relations, when he advises us thus: “As an international leader, South Korea is expected to hold the line rather than ducking for cover in the face of concerted international action.”
Snyder continues: “Most importantly, South Korean public expectations for the government’s response increasingly anticipate that South Korea will be in the vanguard with the other global leaders to uphold international norms such as the inviolability of territorial borders.” Indeed, whenever human rights, a country’s sovereignty, or world peace are at stake, we should join other advanced countries to uphold international norms.
Furthermore, we should widen the horizon of our mindset. For example, we tend to think that Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine has nothing to do with South Korea. However, we should know that it might become a precedent for other countries, including North Korea, who also want to erase an existing national border by force.
In addition, the Yoon administration should replenish the ruling party, so it can be reborn as a party of true conservatism embracing republicanism, tradition and social conventions. Of course, the Democratic Party of Korea, too, should be reborn as a party of liberalism, not socialism. The antonym of conservatism is “liberalism,” not “socialism,” after all.
The Yoon administration will also face internal challenges, such as creating jobs for the young, boosting an economy badly shaken by COVID-19, and the indiscrete populism of the previous government. Going back to normal will be another challenge for the Yoon administration.
We strongly hope that the Yoon administration can bring radical social change, so South Korea can become a globally respected country, just like Samsung in the industrial world.
Kim Seong-kon is a professor emeritus of English at Seoul National University and a visiting scholar at Dartmouth College. The views expressed here are his own. -- Ed.