02.08.2023 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Yoon Suk-yeol swings to the right

Yoon Suk-yeol swings to the right

Although the rule of President Yoon Suk-yeol began with declarations of national unity, by late June or early July 2023, there have been a number of actions that hint to a rightward tilt. These actions go beyond the appointment of a new unification minister, which the author has already discussed. Recall that when Kim Yung-ho was selected for the ministerial position, he stated that human rights in North Korea should be a top priority in Seoul’s inter-Korean policy and that pressure must be exerted on the North.

On June 28, 2023, South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol stated that “anti-state forces with a distorted view of history and an irresponsible view of the state begged for the lifting of UN Security Council sanctions on the communist group of North Korea, which is advancing its nuclear armament.”

According to the South Korean president, “they [the anti-state forces] sang for an end-of-war declaration dissolving the UN Command,” by which he clearly meant the US-led command overseeing the cease-fire and the Moon government’s desire to adopt a declaration signifying a formal end to the 1950–53 Korean War, which ended with an armistice rather than a peace treaty. “The national security of the free Republic of Korea was fatally shaken,” Yoon noted. He went on to point out that during his rule, he had “strengthened the South Korea-US alliance to deter North Korea’s nuclear threat and provocations, and elevated the South Korea-US alliance to one that is nuclear-based,” and “strengthened security cooperation between South Korea, the US and Japan, and swiftly restored and normalized South Korea-Japan relations to that end… Our diplomacy, which looked only to North Korea and was looked down on by China, has risen to a global pivotal diplomacy that closely cooperates with all nations respecting international rules across five oceans and six continents.”

Yoon has been a harsh critic of the former government’s North Korea policies, which centered on promoting peace on the Korean Peninsula, including by brokering three historic meetings between then US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un.

Yoon then noted that “we are faced with many challenges and crises, with false instigation, fabrication and fake news threatening a free Republic of Korea,” and stressed the need “for a correct view of history, a responsible view of the state and a clear view of national security.

The South Korean President stressed the need for a correct view of history, a responsible view of the state and a clear view of national security. In this context, his administration is building solidarity with countries that share universal values of liberal democracy, and, as he said, it is not about conservative or progressive values but about the defense of national identity. Yoon called for defending the country and future generations with love for the nation and dedication to the constitutional spirit of liberal democracy.

Yoon made the remarks at an event marking the 69th anniversary of the founding of the Korea Freedom Federation, a major conservative civic group that advocates liberal democracy, national unity and peace on the Korean Peninsula. But the author takes these words to mean more than targeting a specified audience.

In fact, as early as May 11, 2023, during the presidential defense innovation committee’s inaugural meeting, Yoon Suk-yeol accused his predecessor of seriously harming the country’s defense capabilities by campaigning for sanctions relief against North Korea. “Under the former government, the commander-in-chief asked the whole world to lift sanctions, saying North Korea was going to denuclearize, ultimately leading to serious health problems for the military… Seized by political ideology, they turned away from the North Korean nuclear threat.”

The Democrats’ reaction to the “anti-state forces” remark was worth it, however, as Yoon Young-chan, a DP lawmaker and a former senior secretary for communication in Moon Jae-in’s Blue House, condemned the president for “becoming the president in a de facto coup.” Note that such a comment is a direct slander on the legitimacy of Yoon’s election as president, because despite the smallest gap in the nation’s electoral history, there have been no charges of election fraud by Democrats.

After Yoon Young-chan refused to apologize, South Korea’s ruling People Power Party’s leader Kim Gi-hyeon lashed out not only at the lawmaker, but at all Democrats for “losing their minds” for short-term gains. The Democratic Party has now demanded an apology, with its leader Lee Jae-myung attributing the verbal altercation to the “far-right president and government.”

Facing sharp reactions from the Democratic Party of Korea and criticism from many neutral commentators, the presidential office said that the remark was not directed at a specific political force. It also invited opponents to evaluate the statement’s time, place, and occasion.

Even the center-right Korea Times highlighted that far-right YouTubers have previously used similar words, and “even considering the time, place and occasion, it was apparent that the president crossed a line.” A change in power can lead to a change in policy, but no president has called the actions of his predecessors, “anti-state,” especially given the 0.73 percent margin by which Yoon won. Such a behavior could split the country, because viewing the opposition as an anti-state force implies not cooperation, but destruction.

Former President Moon, for his part, stated in a Facebook post on July 3 that many people still have a Cold War mentality: “I think about how different the inter-Korean relations, security situation and even the economy would have been if successive governments had been consistent in their policies for peace.”

On the same day that he presided over a meeting on national finance strategy for the following year with officials of the government and the ruling party, Yoon urged the removal of “meaningless political subsidies” given to civic organizations by the previous administration.

“We must get rid of meaningless political subsidies while preserving economic subsidies and making social subsidies more efficient and rational.”

“If we are really thinking about the nation and the people rather than political ambitions, fiscal austerity and prudence are inevitable at this point in time,” he said. “Our government, unlike the previous government, will adhere to the principle of responsible and sustainable budget management.”

The order came after a recent audit of government subsidies given to some 12,000 NGOs over the past three years revealed a total of 1,865 cases of irregularities worth about 31.4 billion won (US$24 million). Meanwhile, the national debt, which had been held at 600 trillion won for 70 years, rose by 400 trillion won during the Moon administration, raising the total to more than 1,000 trillion won.

Yoon urged the relevant departments to prepare next year’s budget as carefully as possible to avoid unnecessary costs. Unpopular fiscal policies that reduce spending are a necessary step in the interest of the nation and its citizens. The objective for measuring government agencies’ readiness for change will be optimization and cost reduction. Yoon Suk-yeol recalled that some government agencies demand additional budgetary funding even when a loan is sufficient. This is “typical robbery of future generations,” and budget funds should be distributed to places in greatest need. These include, among other things, national defense, lawmaking, assistance to vulnerable elements of society, new engines of growth, and the creation of high-quality jobs.

It is understandable, but unlike conservatives, populist Democrats relied on a range of NGOs capable of organizing the desired “opinion of the people” and showered them with money without much monitoring. “Live and let live.”

Then, on July 2, Yoon Suk-yeol stated that “until now, the Ministry of Unification has acted as if it were a North Korea support department, and it should no longer be that way… Now it is time for the Ministry of Unification to change.” The President stated that “henceforth, the Ministry of Unification must perform its proper duties in accordance with the constitutional principles that unification must be based on a liberal democratic order” and “be one in which all people from the South and the North will live better lives and be treated better as human beings.”

According to a South Korean presidential official, this means that the ministry will now mainly analyze and respond to the latest trends in North Korea, as well as deal with human rights issues. It was so predictable that even the Korean Central News Agency (KCNA) left this statement without an angry comment. What is important to note here is that detractors claim it is not the only hawk in a key position. The police are allegedly run by a man who called Moon a “North Korean spy,” and “these appointments gave hope to far-right YouTubers that they could be vice ministers through extreme remarks,” said political commentator Chin Jung-kwon.

Finally, South Korea plans to review decisions to award a number of citizens with state honors. The Ministry of Patriots and Veterans Affairs announced on July 2 that it would examine the histories of awarded independence fighters and “filter out those with questionable accomplishments, continuing a process that was halted under the previous administration due to fairness issues.”

In a press release, the ministry said: “We will address the social conflict caused by honoring people as patriots despite their pro-North Korean tendencies and set clear standards in this regard.”

Among those whose award is up for review is Sohn Young-woo, the late father of former MP Sohn Hye-won. In 2018, he was honored with a state award for his contribution to South Korean independence as a participant in the civil war on the Korean Peninsula. Previously, his nomination for the prize had been rejected six times owing to his continued membership in the Korean Communist Party after the country’s independence, but he was eventually honored. Now he has a good chance of losing his state award.

The ministry is also looking into the cases of Kim Geun-soo and Jeon Wol-soon, respectively the late parents of Kim Won-woong, the former leader of the Korean independence movement, a state-sponsored association of independence fighters. This is the same Kim Won-woong, who, on the one hand, is known for his boorish anti-Japanism, and, on the other hand, who claimed that “the Soviet army came to Korea as a liberator” and the Americans as “occupiers.”

Kim Geun-soo received the Presidential Award in 1963, the Order of National Foundation in 1977 and the Order of Merit of the National Foundation in 1990. In the same year, his wife was also honored with the Order of Merit of the National Foundation. However, media reports claimed that both may have falsified their records of contributions to Korean independence, citing inconsistencies in their personal information.

According to the authorities, “With each new administration, the criteria for socialist activities have either changed or become blurred… We must determine whether people’s activities contributed to the founding of modern Korea or helped create a communist nation (read: DPRK).”

At the same time, it cannot be argued that “the people are against.” Although the president’s approval rating is still far from 50%, it is improving in light of these events. According to a poll by the pro-democracy agency Realmeter, President Yoon Suk-Yeol’s approval rating rose for three consecutive weeks to 42 percent.

All in all, after his first year in power, President Yoon is methodically zeroing in on his predecessor’s legacy, which means the series about Korean domestic politics will still delight us with unexpected twists and turns.


Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Modern Asia at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook.

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