On November 11, 2020, according to a poll taken by the agency Hangil Research, Attorney General Yoon Seok-yeol ranked first on the list of potential presidential candidates for the first time, overtaking Democratic Party leader Lee Nak-yon and Gyeonggi-do (Gyeonggi Province) governor Lee Jae-myung. Yoon Seok-yeol was supported by 24.7% of those polled. Lee Nak-yon garnered 22.2%, and Lee Jae-myung got 18.4%.
On November 30, 2020, Yoon Seok-yeol won 19.8%, and was ranked second in a poll that included potential presidential candidates, and in early December, amid escalating tension with the justice minister, he moved up again, this time taking first place with 24.5%.
The Korea Times wrote about this: “Politicians, pundits and the public are wondering why the top prosecutor’s popularity has suddenly soared. The reason seems to be clear and simple ― more and more people are fed up with partisan struggles and political bickering. They are certainly looking for new figures who can end divisive politics and bring hope and unity to the nation”.
At the same time, neither the ruling Democratic Party of Korea nor the main opposition People Power Party is delighted with the growing political influence wielded by Yoon Seok-yeol, since he was at loggerheads with past administrations, and still is with the current leadership.
And it is really true that the popularity enjoyed by Yoon Seok-yeol has to do with the demand for a third force. There are two official party lines in South Korea – the conventional democrats and conservatives. In actuality, South Korean political parties are not grouped around ideologies, but around leaders, and each major political party is actually a set of factions that are at war with each other, and are even ready to throw their own people under the bus if that gives them a better chance of gaining power. That is why, on the one hand, this kind of a system does not allow for outsiders, but on the other there is always strong public demand to put a person in power who is from outside the political mainstream.
The first attempt to find this third force was the founder of Hyundai, Jung Joo-young, whose program was very left-wing for the head of a large corporate conglomerate. However, he scored less than 20%, then was accused of economic fraud, and only exempted from a real prison sentence because he was so advanced in years. So the outsider was shown his place.
The next contender to be a “third force” was perceived to be Lee Myung-bak, who positioned himself primarily as an economist and not as a representative of the conservative party; there was also a classic conservative leader, Lee Hoi-chang, who ran independently and found himself seemingly placed between him and a representative from Roh Moo-hyun’s entourage – who is also a classic conservative (and by the end of his reign President Roh managed to discredit himself to a great extent). As a result, Lee won with almost the largest lead in Korean history, since even Moon Jae-in’s victory during the “candle revolution” went off with a smaller lead between the voting ranks. However, when the 2008 financial crisis hit Lee Myung-bak where it hurts, he quickly shifted into the style of classical South Korean conservatism, adopting the logic inherent in factional struggle as his own.
However, an even more prominent figure that represents a “third force” is Ahn Cheol-soo, who is not a professional politician but a Korean version of Kasperskiy. He positioned himself as a “third force,” and was supported not only by some on the left, but also by those on the right who were not satisfied with the leadership of Park Geun-hye, and even right up to Kim Young-sam and his faction. However, feeling that he did not have enough strength himself, shortly before the elections Ahn “renounced” his candidacy in favor of Moon, and in exchange for the post of the party’s co-chairman. Then he and Moon had a falling out, and Ahn founded his own, officially more centrist People’s Party, which included representatives of the old guard like Kim Dae-jung along with him. Consequently, they were the ones who “squeezed him out” of being the leader of the party that received the majority of votes not only in Seoul, which Ahn anticipated, but in their native province of Jeollanam-do. However, in the 2020 elections all the centrist groups were decisively blown away, and now have less than the left-wing Justice Party. A lot of this had to do with Ahn’s personality, which lacked political leadership traits.
There have also been other precedents when provisionally independent candidates achieved dizzying heights of popularity, only to give it all up at the last minute. Former Prime Minister Ko Gon was the number one presidential candidate during Roh Moo-hyun’s administration, but witnessed how his approval rating slowly declined, and in 2007 he withdrew his bid. Former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon returned to Korea as a leading presidential candidate in early 2017 – when then-leader Park Geun-hye was forced to step down – but gave up his presidential ambitions just 21 days later.
And so Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl now appears on the political scene. He first came to the public’s attention in 2013, during the investigation of the “trolls in uniform” case. While investigating whether the South Korean intelligence services interfered in the presidential elections, Yoon quickly made enemies both there and in the Blue House, but gained the reputation of an honest prosecutor who was not afraid to indict people, even those in power. Yoon was equally active in fighting corruption, and was eventually pushed aside to the city of Daegu. When Moon Jae-in became the president, he appointed Yoon as prosecutor general, confident that a man with his background would help him deal with his political opponents, using traditional anti-corruption rhetoric to wage the fight. But after a while it turned out that Yoon Seok-youl was apparently an honest prosecutor, intent on imprisoning corrupt officials without giving them any breaks due to their party affiliations or the political environment. And the more entrenched in power Moon’s entourage became, the more Yoon represented a problem for them. For example, he launched an investigation into alleged bribery, election fraud, and influence peddling that involved former Justice Minister Cho Kuk – and others associated with President Moon – as well as an election fraud case in the city of Ulsan.
To restrict the limits of Yoon’s authority, Moon initiated reforms for the prosecutor general’s office, which – as it turned out – does not function appropriately, and has too much power concentrated in its hands. In addition, Moon was going to transfer all the cases that touch upon corruption among VIPs, and their abuse of power, to a separate authority that would report directly to the president, and would therefore be much more capable of coping with the job of conducting a commissioned investigation. Naturally, Yoon strongly opposed these innovations, and from that time onward a tough standoff began between the prosecutor general and the minister of justice, both of whom – within the framework of the South Korean political system – supervise the country’s entire extent of judicial and investigative authorities.
Owing to this, Yoon is now perceived as an honest person fighting against corruption engaged in swordplay with Moon’s entourage. The escalation of the conflict between the Justice Department and the Prosecutor General’s office over reforming the prosecutor’s office, and the flimsy accusations that formed the basis for firing the prosecutor general, have also contributed to Yoon’s popularity.
The conservative newspaper The Chosun Ilbo writes that insiders in the Democratic Party complain that repeated attacks on Yoon have backfired, and made him look like a warrior of justice who refuses to bow to authority. One high-profile deputy allegedly stated: “It will be very bad news for the party if Yoon ultimately harnesses public anger against the ruling camp.”
“Yoon’s growing popularity is a clear reminder that people are yearning for a new leader, and new policies.” But as this third force, Yoon has more than his fair share of problems. First, he never actually entered politics. People are still waiting for official action to be taken in this direction, and his last answer to the question about his political career was, “I will think about how I can serve the nation and the public after my term is over”. There are almost two years until the elections in 2022.
Second, Yoon has not yet formed an alliance with conservatives, which means that he can be attacked from both the right and left sides. There are those in this camp who believe that “the enemy of my enemy is my friend,” but there are also those for whom Yoon is the person whose investigations led to the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.
For example, the leader of the conservative parliamentary faction Joo Ho-young said that the prosecutor general should make the announcement that he will not be involved in politics. Besides that, Joo Ho-young stated that polls taken for potential presidential candidates should remove him from the list, since a) Yoon has not declared his ambitions, and b) the prosecutor general must remain neutral. According to Joo, “The rise in popularity for Yoon, who is not involved in politics, should be seen as a protest against the despotism of this administration, and the attitude toward the minister of justice. Public opinion polls change constantly, and we do not want to go into those too much.”
Another party representative said that Yoon’s popularity “simply shows that our party has not yet nominated any promising presidential candidates, and there is no guarantee that Yoon will join us.”
This means that Yoon is a figure symbolizing opposition to Moon Jae-in’s administration, and his growing popularity is not welcomed by conservatives since he a) is likely to surpass any potential presidential candidate they nominate, and b) has investigated former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.
Third, it is not very clear how – and from whom – Yoon will assemble a team, or what the limitations on his scope of expertise might be. It is likely that he could be followed by a team of people from the prosecutor’s office – and possibly other law enforcement agencies – who are passionate about the opportunity to do something on the front lines of combating corruption. But where he will find experts in economics or foreign policy is by no means a clear-cut issue, and Moon Jae-in’s successor will have to deal with a host of complex economic problems.
Finally, unfortunately, the question remains concerning whether the next dragon conqueror will in fact turn into another dragon. Taking Yoon’s biography into consideration, one can hope that the answer is no, but the objective laws of South Korean political life suggest that a presidential candidate needs to assemble a team and attract people, and then place them in key places so that the course taken is not sabotaged. Typically, these kinds of people always ask for something in return, or otherwise exploit the head of state’s dependence on them.
Moon Jae-in’s inner circle also consisted, or still consists, of people who officially used to be student activists and those railing against the dictatorship, but then gradually transformed into party bigwigs in Roh Moo-hyun’s entourage – and then leveraged their past using the slogan “Our candidate is the most honest because he has not stolen anything yet.” But now an increasing number of people are expressing disappointment in Moon Jae-in’s administration, whose slogans about creating a just, equitable, and fair society turned out to ring hollow.
Regardless of how Yoon’s story ends, the phenomenon itself clearly reflects deep public distrust toward the country’s political establishment.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, a leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.