On July 29, 2021, former Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-yeol officially announced his intention to run in the 2022 presidential election. Speaking at a press conference, he promised to “restore free democracy and the rule of law,” accusing the current administration of “privatizing power.” In his opinion, “the country must stand up and oppose the rule of a corrupt and incompetent ruling force. I am willing to sacrifice and dedicate everything for the people and the future of the nation.”
Yoon Seok-yeol’s entry into the presidential race has been anticipated since late last year when he began leading in various opinion polls about presidential candidates after his widely publicized feud with the Justice Department over prosecutorial reform.
As the conservative media has repeatedly pointed out, “it is not Yoon, but the Moon Jae-in administration that should be blamed for forcing him into politics. Moon selected Yoon to lead the National Prosecutor’s Office in July 2019 as part of the president’s campaign to root out corruption and other social problems. Later, however, the overly honest prosecutor clashed with the authorities over a series of politically sensitive investigations against key figures in the ruling bloc and over reform of the prosecutor’s office to drastically weaken its investigative powers.
Thus, Yoon began investigating Cho Kuk, President Moon’s confidant and candidate for Justice Minister, for alleged corruption and fraud he and his family were involved in. And while under the influence of mass demonstrations, Cho Kuk was forced to resign, his replacement, Choo Mi-Ae, declared war on the prosecutor’s office, especially when law enforcement tried to investigate officials who were manipulating data to shut down the Volson 1 nuclear power plant as part of Moon’s nuclear phase-out policy. At the end of 2020, it came to an outright attempt to fire him, which Yoon managed to fight off. The court reinstated him, deeming the charges to be discharged.
Nevertheless, in early March 2021, Yoon stepped down as Prosecutor General four months before his term was officially terminated. According to Park Yoon-bae, editor of the Korea Times, the resignation came amid another attempt by the authorities to “stab” Yoon: His chief fighter and author of numerous denunciations, MP Choi Kang-wook submitted to the National Assembly a bill calling for sitting prosecutors and judges to resign at least a year before any elections if they want to become candidates. And since the 2022 election will be held on March 9, Yoon was forced to leave early.
“The spirit of the Constitution and the system of the rule of law is crumbling. And it will hurt people. It’s hard to watch common sense and justice crumble,” he said in his farewell speech at the time. Since then, Yoon Seok-yeol has confidently held the top spot in opinion polls ahead of Gyeonggi provincial governor Lee Jae-myung, a member of the Democratic Party but not a member of Moon Jae-in’s faction. The most recent polling data from various agencies give him 32.3%, vs 22.8 for Lee, or 32.4% vs 28.4%
In May 2021, dozens of academics and lawyers formed an organization to support Yoon Seok-yeol, similar to how other parties or candidates create think tanks or support teams. The organization’s name can be roughly translated as “National Coalition for the Restoration of Justice and Common Sense.” One of its chairmen is the former president of the International Criminal Court and professor emeritus of Seoul National University Sang-Hyun, who was a professor at Yoon’s university.
In addition, the media pointed out that after his resignation, Yoon met at least once a week with professors who were experts in various fields, such as social security, security, and economics. They include Jongryn Mo, professor of international political economy at the Graduate School of International Studies at Yonsei University; Yoon Hee-suk, a former economist and conservative MP; Yoo Hyun-jung, professor of architecture at Hongik University, who focuses on real estate market issues; and others.
Against this backdrop, Kim Jong-un, the former head of the conservatives, said that Yoon had managed to make justice his brand and expressed hope that he would follow in the footsteps of French President Emmanuel Macron.
The Korea Times tried to develop this theme by saying that Yoon, 62, and Macron, 43, are similar in some ways. First, both have no political experience, as Yoon is a prosecutor and Macron is a finance expert. Second, they both left their ruling camps and gained growing support after cutting ties with “their” administrations. Third, they positioned themselves as a third force against the background of incompetence and corruption of both the ruling party and the main opposition. The newspaper noted that for Yoon to become the second Macron, he would need the support of many people because joining the Conservatives entails certain risks. There are enough Park Geun-hye supporters there. The ambitious newcomer will be held back by the mature faction leaders. So Yoon is advised to create a nationwide network of citizens and recruit capable people from everywhere. But the question is, to what extent will this work? A failure to win the support of the masses could turn Yoon into a second Ban Ki-moon, who was quite popular as a potential presidential candidate. Realizing the scale of the problems, he withdrew his candidacy.
However, from which party will Yoon go to the presidency? So far, Yoon has only hinted at his interest in running in the primary for the conservative People’s Power, saying he shares her thoughts in terms of political philosophy.
On June 2, 2021, Kwon Sung-dong, a conservative spokesman and childhood friend of Yoon, announced that Yoon Seok-yeol had privately expressed his willingness to run for president for the People’s Power. Another conservative deputy, Jung Jin-suk, also announced that he had asked the former prosecutor to become a member of the People Power Party on May 26. Yoon did not give a definite answer, according to Jung, “demonstrating the demeanor of a careful and attentive listener.”
Of course, the authorities are actively interfering with Yoon, and they are doing so on various fronts. On June 10, “legal sources said” that the Office of Investigation of Corruption Among Senior Officials (the very same emergency commission from Moon Jae-in that was created to take away the prosecutors’ ability to bash Moon’s inner circle) had opened an investigation against Yoon Seok Yeol on charges of abuse of power.
Interestingly enough, the charges are chosen to smear Yoon as much as possible, as they try to accuse him in the context of high-profile pyramid scheme cases that have significantly affected society.
It turns out that back on February 8, the Office received a complaint from a civic group that has suspicions that the former chief prosecutor abused his authority to obstruct an investigation into a massive financial fraud case at Optimus Asset Management. The company is accused of raising about 1.2 trillion won ($1.75 billion) through fraudulent products, only to funnel most of the money into risky assets and inflict huge losses on investors.
On March 4, the same group accused him of interfering in the investigation by covering up prosecutors who forced prisoners to give false testimony against former Prime Minister Han Myeong-sook in 2011.
Nevertheless, to date, there has been no overt action by the Office against Yoon. On June 17, its head Kim Jin-wook noted that the Office “has yet to launch a full investigation due to various circumstances.” Since the investigation may have political implications, he “will ensure that the investigation will not have any influence” on the March presidential election. Kim emphasized that his service differs from the prosecutor’s office. There is an additional phase of the case study before a serious investigation begins. The initiation of a case does not necessarily mean that the defendants become suspects. Asked if investigating Yoon might amount to entering a political minefield, given his popularity, Kim said: “It is difficult and undesirable to avoid politically sensitive cases under the pretext of maintaining political neutrality.”
Besides a possible confrontation with the “emergency commission,” Yoon has several other problems. The first is the strange story of the resignation of his press secretary Lee Dong-hoon, which happened just ten days after Yoon’s appointment as attorney general. Technically, Lee resigned for personal reasons, but the situation may have been because Yoon and Lee had published conflicting reports that Yoon would join the conservatives. During an interview with KBS, Lee stated that Yoon would join the conservatives but shortly after that sent a text message refuting his words and conveying that Yoon remained cautious on the matter.
Yoon’s critics, including conservative critics, clung to this point, saying that if his staff has this level of inconsistency and lack of coordination, this confusion will hurt him. Furthermore, Yoon did not take responsibility for the incident.
Another possible challenge is the hypothetical existence of a so-called “secret file.” Some political figures, including Democratic Party Chairman Song Young-gil, claim that this is a virtual suitcase of dirt containing allegations of corruption against Yoon and his family members. If it were made public, it would cause a massive scandal and bury his political reputation. Several political commentators from the opposition said they had studied the “secret dossier” and now think that Yoon might have a problem with the “people’s choice.”
However, the author points out that it would not wait if the ruling party had serious dirt on Yoon. So, for now, conservatives say that the dossier must be disclosed, and Yoon must clarify the allegations it contains.
The entire content of the dirt is not yet known to the author. Still, on June 24, it turned out that the author of the “secret dossier” is the “progressive” YouTube channel Open Mind TV, which has more than 240 thousand subscribers. The channel itself admitted that it wrote only part of the material for the six-page pdf file and made its table of contents. The channel also stated that the document did not intend to slander Yoon but only outlined all the things the channel had been “spewing” on Yoon since last year and that this file for internal use must have accidentally leaked onto the internet.
Although the “secret file” is allegedly being actively circulated in political circles through closed channels, Yoon’s side initially dismissed it as unworthy of an official response. Any reaction will follow when the entire dossier is officially made public. It was noted only that such a dossier could have appeared due to illegal surveillance, and those who did this should take responsibility.
But when Song Young-gil said on June 25 that the “secret dossier” was about to be made public, Yoon responded by saying that anyone has to go through an investigation and trial. He and his family are no exception. Nevertheless, Chunan Ilbo writes on this point that “a negative campaign helps shed light on the moral standards of candidates is a necessary evil in the election process, but such campaigns should not cross the line.” After all, when Yoon Seok-yeol was first confirmed as attorney general in 2019, conservatives raised many suspicions and accusations against him, later wholly rejected.
In parallel, the prosecution is digging into Yoon’s wife and mother-in-law, who are accused of economic crimes-the wife was allegedly involved in manipulating the stock prices of Deutsch Motors and receiving improper sponsorship from corporations for her business. The mother-in-law illegally opened a geriatric hospital and received doctors’ fees from the National Health Insurance Service.
On May 31, the prosecution team demanded that Yoon Seok-yeol’s mother-in-law, surnamed Choi, be sentenced to three years in prison. It is alleged that, according to the Seoul Central District Prosecutor’s Office (which is run by Lee Sung-young, Yoon’s chief detractor among prosecutors), she illegally received about $2 million from the National Health Insurance Service. The case was from 2013-2015, and three of Choi’s business associates had already been convicted for it. Still, last November, a pro-government prosecutor decided she should be indicted, too.
On June 23, Yoon Seok Yeol’s mother-in-law was cleared of several charges of stealing trusted shares of the columbarium business and taking control of the company from its rightful owner. Moreover, this is the second time that the prosecutor’s office has demanded a re-investigation and that the police have dropped the case.
The North Korean media also took a swipe at Yoon Seok-yeol. Tongil Meari/Voice called him a “shooting star” who will shine and then disappear, drawing parallels with former UN Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon. His name was listed as a potential presidential contender in the last elections a few years ago.
Another problem for Yoon is that there may be two “honest enforcers” in the 2021 campaign. Choi Jae-hyung, head of the Audit and Inspection Bureau, recently resigned and announced his participation in the presidential race. Like Yoon, Choi went against Moon on several issues, especially the nuclear phase-out policy, after his agency uncovered falsified data on the performance of the Volson 1 nuclear power plant.
Finally, as https://www. The Korea Times notes, Yoon must not only confirm his leadership qualifications or clear up some suspicions related to his wife but also make a final decision on whether he will run for the 2022 People’s Power election. Suppose Yoon becomes the candidate of the Conservatives or a major right-wing broad association. In that case, he runs the risk of paying for help by negotiating with people of a radically different political persuasion. It is always easier to unite against than for. Still, when such a group comes to power, all contradictions quickly come out. And in the most challenging case, President Yoon may even find himself in the position of Park Geun-hye, who was constantly stabbed in the back by his own party.
If Yoon goes on his own, there is a chance of splitting the opposition electorate, plus it is unclear who will be on his team. He meets with a variety of experts, both deputies and academics. Still, it remains to be seen to what extent he will be able to form a cohesive support group by election time. A good question is also how Yoon will show competence in economic and foreign policy issues.
The author, as you can see, is somewhat sympathetic to Yoon Seok-yeol. But he understands that a mere demand for social justice is not enough to occupy the presidency. And while Yoon’s activism was well within the leftist, anti-corruption trend, the black-and-white logic of South Korea’s factional struggle pulls him toward the conservatives because, despite the demand for a third force in politics, it never emerges. But anyway, although the election of March 9, 2022, is less than nine months away, the presidential race is at a crucial juncture, with the official inclusion of a candidate who represents a “third force” and a thirst for breaking the cycle of habitual politicians mired in corruption and populism.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, 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”.