Yoon Suk-yeol, who was until March last year the liberal administration's prosecutor general, is leading a race for the next presidency on the platform of the conservative opposition People Power Party. (The Korea Herald)
Is Yoon Suk-yeol the South Korean Trump?
That is what his opponents and critics seem to think for the many parallels the conservative candidate from the People Power Party has with former US President Donald Trump.
Both have made remarks that would be offensive to other countries, praised heavily controversial political figures, gone after foreigners and shown a poor understanding of feminism. On top of using anti-China rhetoric, the two also like to speak to their base on social media and announce policies that read like slogans. For example, Yoon’s “Abolish the Gender Equality Ministry” could be compared to Trump’s “Build the Wall.”
With just a week left before the election, the long list of similarities between the two outsiders who came to represent their respective countries’ mainstream conservative parties seems to be only growing.
Many voters in Korea seem to believe the March 9 presidential election is about the liberals and whether they should be allowed to stay in power after major missteps like their housing policies. But experts who talked to The Korea Herald said it may be about K-Trumpism, or the rise of the alt-right movement in Korea, as seen in the United States, United Kingdom and some other democracies around the world.
To begin with, keeping track of Yoon’s records can be a challenge because he flip-fops and tends to use vague wording to muddy the waters, similar to Trump’s speaking style.
When the candidate, who was until March South Korea’s prosecutor general, visited Busan in October, he appeared to praise Chun Doo-hwan, a former president and ex-military dictator who crushed pro-democracy protesters and never apologized until his death at age 90 last year.
Yoon said there were many people who say Chun “did well in politics” except for the “military coups” and what he did on May 18, referring to his suppression of a 1980 pro-democracy uprising and his seizing power through a coup. Yoon later apologized for the remarks.
In December, he said that “most South Koreans, especially young people, dislike China.” Then in a Facebook post in January, the candidate said he would solve the issue of foreigners “putting spoons on dinner tables prepared by Korean citizens.” The implication he made was that foreign nationals are abusing South Korea’s health insurance system. He went on to single out Chinese nationals as a burden on the country’s health insurance system. The National Health Insurance Service data shows that foreigners contributed a surplus of 571.5 billion won ($475.2 million) in 2020.
Then during the third televised presidential debate on Feb. 21, Yoon was asked to apologize by his rival Lee Jae-myung of the incumbent Democratic Party of Korea for saying “systematic gender discrimination no longer exists” in an interview.
When pressed further after not giving a clear answer, Yoon responded, “I don’t want to spend my time answering that.”
Professor of International Relations Ramon Pacheco Pardo at King’s College London said both Yoon and Trump are similar in two ways: That they are willing to make statements some consider taboo and that they are both outsiders, not career politicians. They were also put where they are by their own parties.
“Yoon, compared to other conservative politicians, he’s clearly willing to push the red line. For example, what he said about Chun Doo-hwan, considering how hated Chun is by South Koreans and mainstream conservatives -- I think other politicians wouldn’t say it,” Pardo said.
“When he talks about there being no more structural gender discrimination, he’s trying to say ‘Look, this is something many Koreans agree with, but they are not willing to say because it’s not the right thing to say in public,’” he added.
Presidential candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party attends a rally on Tuesday in Sinchon, Seoul. (The National Assembly's photo press corps)
Kwon Soo-hyun, head of the Korea Women’s Political Solidarity, a group dedicated to women’s political empowerment, said, “Trump pushed anti-immigrant rhetoric and tapped into the anxiety of white middle-class men and women to widen his base and get elected -- what Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jun-seok are doing now.” Lee is the chairman of Yoon’s party.
Professor Shin Kyung-ah at the Department of Sociology at Hallym University warned that using such emotive language against a group of people, when coming from a politician, is problematic “because it does not end with just one group.”
“For someone who could be the leader of a country to publicly reject or emotionally dislike a certain group of people is extremely dangerous and can lead to the politics of hate,” she said.
Angry young men and anti-feminism
With unrefined words, Yoon is appealing to angry young men who are hostile towards feminism, just like Trump with the angry white men. Both had publicly displayed what many experts said a flawed view of feminism.
In August, Yoon said, “Some say feminism has been politicized to make it emotionally hard for men and women to date,” while talking about how to tackle the issue of low birth rates during a lecture last year. In 2018, Trump said he is not a feminist because he is for “everyone.”
Yoon has also promised to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which has been popular with his anti-feminist base.
“Feminism is an ideology that seeks equality of women and men in a democratic society, and also fights for the rights of minorities. It’s a problem because he is using it as a political tool without knowing much about what feminism is,” said Shin.
South Korea has shown a great deal of “positive change” to the world, including its handling of the pandemic, economic growth, and its successful soft power push to spread Korean music, films and TV dramas. But what many perceived as “extremely poor gender equality” is one of the biggest obstacles that holds the country back, the scholar pointed out.
“At this election, we need more talk about gender equality. But instead, they are being suppressed and ignored,” she said.
Recent polls have shown that many want the Gender Equality Ministry -- the Ministry of Women and Family when directly translated from Korean -- abolished or restructured at least. But Shin said the ministry’s reputation took a further hit after becoming a target by the right-wing media in recent years. One study from 2019 showed that the ministry had been portrayed as “incompetent” or “divisive” in some stories from conservative media outlets in particular.
Yoon is creating divisions in society, but it is difficult to know whether this is a deliberate strategy of emulation. Or it may reflect the fact that, like Trump, Yoon does not have much experience in politics and is prone to gaffes, according to Kevin Gray, a professor of International Relations at the University of Sussex.
“Trump was successful in appealing to deep-seated anxieties in the US amongst certain regions and social strata about the effects of economic globalization and changing racial demographics. Though Yoon has sought to do the same with the gender issue, it remains to be seen whether this is a viable electoral strategy,” Gray said.
“It is not an issue that has much basis in reality, considering that South Korea has the worst gender inequality among the OECD countries by far.”
Yoon and Trump also have another thing in common: A younger mastermind behind them who speak the language of online communities. For Trump, it was Stephen Miller and for Yoon, it is Lee Jun-seok. As Miller faced criticism for his links to white nationalism, Lee has spearheaded the growing anti-feminist movement among young men. When companies in South Korea were forced to apologize last year over a hand gesture used in advertising materials that anti-feminists online decried as “misandry,” Lee took to Facebook to add weight to the accusations.
Presidential candidate Yoon greets his supporters in Seocho District, Seoul on Tuesday. (The National Assembly's photo press corps)
South Korean politics at a crossroads
Kim Nae-hoon, author of “Radical 20s: K-Populism and the Political,” said South Korean politics is where the US was during the presidential election between Trump and Hillary Clinton in 2016. Similar to how detrimental Trump’s presidency was to the democracy of the US, Yoon’s presidency could have a similar impact due to his base, he warned.
“Yoon himself is problematic, but it’s his ardent supporters like New Men’s Solidarity who will be emboldened when he wins, which is the biggest concern.”
“In the same way that the alt-right in the US became more influential and bigger to the point that is irreversible, we could also see the values of liberalism erased overnight.”
New Men’s Solidarity is an anti-feminist group that has spearheaded the movement against the gender equality ministry. The group caused controversy when a video went viral of its members mocking a female celebrity for speaking against dating violence as part of a campaign with the Gender Equality Ministry.
Yoon’s presidency could also invite more extremism in South Korean politics, Kim explained.
“Politicians might draw the lesson that courting these (extreme) groups will help them win more votes.”
To Yoon’s credit, he has appealed to voters disappointed in the incumbent liberal Moon Jae-in administration over real issues including its housing policy, lack of social mobility and social injustice.
But regardless of politics, Moon’s public image as someone “serious” was an advantage for the country and its rise in soft power, Pardo said.
“Moon is not creating massive scandals. He’s not going around insulting minorities, women or other countries or even the opposition party. That’s a positive for South Korea.”
Whether through K-pop or attending a G7 summit, there is much more scrutiny on South Korea now than there was five or ten years ago, he noted.
“Anything that is good or bad, what Yoon or Lee will do and say will have much more impact and reporting.”
Right-wing populism has been on the rise across the world. Among them are France’s far-right presidential candidate Eric Zemmour, who has recently gotten encouragement from Trump, Spain’s far-right Vox party which has surged in recent polls and Chile’s ultra conservative candidate Jose Antonio Kast, who lost in the second round of the country’s presidential election in December.
Gray sees Yoon as part of this global trend.
“Yoon’s approach to politics has strong parallels to Trump, Johnson, Bolsonaro and others. It represents a failure to provide any genuine policy solutions to the social dislocation caused by neoliberalism and seeks instead to stoke divisions and animosity.”
By Yim Hyun-su (firstname.lastname@example.org