19.05.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Yoon Suk-yeol Takes Office


On May 10, 2022, the inauguration ceremony for the new president of the Republic of Korea, Yoon Suk-yeol, took place in front of the National Assembly building in Seoul.  The slogan of the ceremony was “Again Republic of Korea: A New Country for the People.”

Some 40,000 people watched the event, including 24,000 members of the public. Traditionally, the new president’s inauguration was attended by his predecessors, not only the outgoing Moon Jae-in and his wife Kim Jong-sook, but also Park Geun-hye, who, it may be recalled, was pardoned in December 2021. Whether Park would attend the event was a burning question, but Yoon visited her residence in Daegu in April to invite her to the event. Former President Lee Myung-bak, who is serving a 17-year prison sentence for embezzlement and bribery, was represented by his wife Kim Yoon-ok. Kwon Yang-sook, the widow of former president Roh Moo-hyun, who committed suicide in 2009, was not present at the ceremony for health reasons.

The line-up of foreign guests is much more interesting. According to Yoon’s presidential office, some 300 high-ranking foreign dignitaries, including 143 foreign ambassadors to Korea, attended his inauguration ceremony. Let’s highlight the most important ones. The US was represented by “the Second Gentleman” (i.e. US Vice-President Kamala Harris’ husband) Douglas Emhoff. This level is markedly lower than the previous ones. In 2003, the presidential delegation was led by Secretary of State Colin Powell at Roh Moo-hyun’s inauguration, in 2008 by Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice at Lee Myung-bak’s inauguration and in 2013 by White House National Security Advisor Tom Donilon at Park Geun-hye’s inauguration.  In 2017, the US did not send a separate delegation from Washington for Moon Jae-in’s inauguration, as the ceremony took place the day after he won an early election as a result of Park’s impeachment. According to South Korean media, the “second gentleman” was probably chosen to head the delegation “given the schedules of other senior officials (who turned out to be too busy),” but when President Joe Biden visits Seoul on May 20-22, Secretary of State Anthony Blinken and National Security Advisor Jake Sullivan are also expected to be with him.

As for Japan, there was talk of a visit by Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, but in the end a decision was made that, despite Yoon’s desire to normalize relations between the two countries, they were not yet strong enough for a visit by the first person, and the Land of the Rising Sun was represented by Foreign Minister Yoshimasa Hayashi as well as former Prime Minister Yukio Hatoyama.

China was represented by Vice President Wang Qishan, considered to be one of President Xi Jinping’s closest aides and known for conducting large-scale anti-corruption campaigns. In fact, he was the highest-ranking official of the powers surrounding the ROK. It should be noted that Beijing has previously sent deputy prime minister-level officials to South Korea’s presidential inaugurations. In 2013, it was State Councilor for Education, Culture and Science Liu Yandong, and in 2008, State Councilor for Foreign Affairs Tang Jiaxuan. That is why some media reports described Wang’s visit as unprecedented and seen as an attempt to contain the US.

Other high-profile guests included Halimah Yacob, President of Singapore; George J. Furey, Speaker of the Senate of Canada; Faustin-Archange Touadéra, President of the Central African Republic; and Megawati Sukarnoputri, former President of Indonesia. Lower-ranking foreign guests included George J. Furey, Speaker of the Senate of Canada; Sodiq Safoyev, First Deputy Chairman of the Senate of Uzbekistan’s Parliament; Amanda Milling, British Minister of State for Asia and the Middle East, Khaldoon Khalifa Al Mubarak, a representative of the Emirati government; and Yasir bin Othman Al-Rumayyan, Saudi Aramco chairman and Saudi Public Investment Fund manager.

The Russian government did not send a delegation, with Ambassador Andrey Kulik attendeding instead.

Yoon Suk-yeol’s inaugural speech was different from the typical style of a new president speaking along the lines of “how great that we are here; now listen to what a bright future I will bring to you.” Yoon began by humbly accepting the people’s trust and generational acceptance of building a liberal democracy and ensuring a thriving personal economy. And then the president went straight into what difficult times we are living in: complex and multi-faceted crises (from pandemics and wars to failures in global supply chains affecting the economy or the energy crisis) that “are casting a long and dark shadow.” Unemployment and inequality are on the rise, “which has led many of our fellow citizens to lose their sense of community and belonging. The political process which has the responsibility to address and resolve these issues has failed due to a crisis in democracy and one of the main reasons for such failure is the troubling spread of anti-intellectualism.”

What is this new term as interpreted by Yoon? When people disagree, they can reach a compromise if their discussions are based on scientific facts and truth. “This is rationalism and intellectualism that is the foundation of democracy.” However, “when we choose to see only what we want to see and hear only what we want to hear; when the masses bludgeon and silence those who do not agree with them and do this through brute force – this is how anti-intellectualism gravely weakens our democracy and puts us in peril,” as it becomes even more difficult to solve pressing problems. The problem of anti-intellectualism can be overcome by a belief in common values, the main one of which, according to Yoon, is freedom. To hear this from a former prosecutor is unusual, but close friends of Yoon, such as Chang Je-won, had said even before Yoon left for the conservatives that the new president’s personal views were close to libertarian.

As local observers noted, Yoon used the word “freedom” 31 times during the short speech. It was followed by “people” (15 times), “citizens” (15 times), “global” (13) and “peace” (12 times). But, as his political opponents immediately pointed out, Yoon never once spoke of “unity,” reconciliation or cohesion.

However, from the author’s point of view, it would be hypocritical for a winner with a margin of less than one per cent to talk about national unity, and when Yoon was asked about it the next day, he honestly said that he “skipped the word, as there’s no need to mention it. Instead, I suggested the values we need to unify”. It is rather interesting that words such as “justice” or “lawfulness,” which were actively used in his election campaign, were not mentioned either.

Even Yoon’s detractors believe that he blames anti-intellectualism on democratic forces, although it was not forces but methods that were mentioned. And they piously ignored the passage “freedom is not something only for the winner to enjoy.” Apparently the Democrats have recognized themselves in the mirror (excessive groupthink and selective justice have been the hallmark of the Moon’s regime since the Candlelight Revolution), but classical conservatives are suffering from the same disease.

Yoon intends to solve the country’s domestic policy problems through rapid growth that “will improve social mobility, thereby helping us [get] rid of the fundamental obstacles that are aggravating social divide and conflicts.” This growth is expected to be achieved through science, technology and innovation, which will “protect our democracy, expand freedom and our inalienable rights to let our people enjoy a sustainable life of dignity.” And since such progress cannot be achieved alone, “we must work together with other like-minded nations that respect freedom and encourage creativity,” Yoon pointed out.

Thus, for Yoon, domestic and foreign policy are intertwined, as liberal democracy creates a lasting peace that allows freedom to flourish and is more than just the prevention of war.  “When we assume a greater international role, we can also find the right solution for many of our domestic challenges” and for South Korea, as the world’s tenth largest economy, “it is incumbent … to take on a greater role befitting our stature as a global leader.” Therefore, “we must actively protect and promote universal values and international norms” and “take on an even greater role in expanding freedom and human rights not just for ourselves but also for others,” Yoon believes.

Such a preamble would seem to imply the toughest possible stance towards the DPRK as a notorious violator of human rights, but this was not the case. Yes, Pyongyang’s nuclear missile ambitions pose a “threat not only to our security and that of Northeast Asia,” but “the door to dialogue will remain open so that we can peacefully resolve this threat.” And “if North Korea genuinely embarks on a process to complete denuclearization, we are prepared to work with the international community to present an audacious plan that will vastly strengthen North Korea’s economy and improve the quality of life for its people,” Yoon notes.

However, the North Korean piece was the text where Yoon presented some specifics, otherwise his speech was devoid of clear plans. Yoon may have been reluctant to make promises that may not be kept for objective reasons (suffice it to recall what Moon promised in a similar situation and what was eventually done), but even the conservative Korea JoongAng Daily on the one hand noted that “Yoon Suk-yeol did not make as many promises as his predecessors did. Instead, he suggested where the country should be headed from,” on the other pointed out that Yoon emphasized the importance of science, technology and innovation, but unfortunately “he skipped any details on how”.

The result is a president with a very interesting personal and political outlook:

  • a former law enforcer for whom the key word is not “security” but “freedom,” and, as Korea JoongAng Daily notes, early in his political career Yoon said democracy without freedom is not democracy.
  • A rationalist and technocrat, for whom anti-intellectualism appears to be the main vice of society and the root of many problems, while science, technology and innovation are at the heart of the breakthrough.
  • An admirer of the American credo of “freedom and human rights for oneself and for others,” who believes that South Korea, as a responsible power, should fight for these values together with “like-minded countries.”
  • Less pro-American and hawkish than one might think – the foreign policy course was described as protecting freedom, but the word “USA” was not uttered. Of all the neighboring countries, only the North was named by name.
  • A man who is about to change a lot in society and political culture. The passage that all members of society should have fair access to basic economic resources, education and culture instead of being shackled to a “winner takes all” system – while at the same time respecting fair rules – is very important to the author.

All in all, it will clearly be interesting to follow the activities of the new leader of South Korea.

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”.

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