Regime Change in South Korea: Speculations for the Region
Prof Rajaram Panda

South Korea saw a regime change with the election of the leader of the People Power party Yoon Suk-yeol in the presidential election held on 9 March. Seen as a political novice, the conservative-leaning Yoon rose to the highest office in less than a year after entering politics by defeating his rival Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party and became the 20th President of Korea by a razor-thin margin. Yoon secured 48.56 per cent of the votes against Lee’s 47.83 per cent. Final voter turnout was 77.1% – similar to the previous election in 2017. Yoon is set to take office on 10 May.
As an avowed anti-feminist, Yoon is likely to pursue a more hawkish policy on the nuclear-armed North Korea. In simple terms, it means his predecessor Moon Jae-in’s policy of engagement, dialogue and summit diplomacy with the North is likely to be reversed. One can expect that for the next five years, the Blue House shall be the centre of activities in dealing with both domestic and external challenges.[1]

Domestic Priorities

On the domestic front, Yoon is likely to focus on controlling the escalating housing prices and corruption scandals. On the foreign policy front, one can expect a more muscular stance under Yoon in clear departure from the dovish approach pursued by Moon. His immediate priority is likely to adopt a tougher stance against North Korea after North’s Kim Jong-un conducted a series of missile tests in the past two months, posing security threats to South Korea and neighbouring Japan. Being an ally of the US, Yoon is likely to put more stress on the alliance relationship making it more robust. Soon after his election victory, Yoon spoke with US President Joe Biden promising “close coordination” in dealing with North Korea. He however has promised to keep doors to dialogue always open.

Moon’s administration was seen weak when it came to domestic issues. His tenure was mired with academic fraud scandals involving his close aide Cho Kuk, economic despair and deepening polarisation. Such reputation of Moon’s Democratic Party did not go well with Yoon’s rival Lee Jae-myung. As result, people opted for regime change with the hope that Yoon can deliver on his promise, reposing their faith that Yoon would cleanse the system. He was seen as the “voice of reform”, though his political inexperience threatened to dent his chances for some time, till the balance tilted in his favour.

Yoon’s election to the presidency does not mean that he shall have a smooth political environment to execute his well-intentioned policy of reforms. His People Power Party falls short of numbers in the 295-member National Assembly with only 106 seats as against 172 by the Democratic Party. His immediate political challenge would be to appoint the Prime Minister. Yoon needs to ensure that a majority of the members must attend the parliament, which means at least 148 members must attend and among them, 74 must agree to the candidate proposed to be the Prime Minister. Even if Yoon secures the support of the minor People’s Party, the combined number still falls short of the desired threshold. If a candidate becomes Prime Minister backed by the Democratic Party, the issue of coordination and policy execution could emerge a big challenge for Yoon. Yoon therefore ought to secure constant cooperation from the opposition Democratic Party, a challenge for most of his tenure of five years, as legislating laws would require support of the Democratic Party on a continuous basis.

On the way to the elections, People‘s Party leader Ahn Cheol-soo decided to drop out of the race, promising support to Yoon. Ahn’s party is expected to play a significant role in the new government. It remains to be seen however if Ahn would join to form a joint government. Talks are afoot if Ahn would be Yoon’s choice of the new Prime Minister.

The people would expect Yoon to address the issue of widening gender gap in the society. During the campaign trail, Yoon showed his anti-feminist stance all but known with a view to secure votes from the undecided male electorate in their 20s and 30s, the age group seen as sensitive to gender-related issues. He pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality, arguing that there was no structural gender discrimination in Korea. This displeased the women and likely to deepen further the ongoing conflict related to the gender divide in society. Refuting the allegation levelled by critics for his outspoken views on the gender issues, Yoon does not see this as a structural problem, saying that there are laws and system in place to deal with unfair practices.

Yoon has vowed to build the nation based on justice and common sense and open an era of national unity. Another priority is to strengthen democracy and fight corruption as past leaders had been involved in serious scandals. To integrate the nation, he vowed to end partisan politics and put national interests first.

Stance on Foreign Policy

It is on the foreign policy front, Yoon shall be keenly watched as he has pledged to take a harder line toward “main enemy” North Korea, in a departure from the engagement- focussed inter-Korean policy of his predecessor Moon Jae-in administration. [2]

Yoon is expected to strengthen cooperation between the three countries - South Korea, the US and Japan – tied with security treaty obligations. During Moon’s tenure, Japan-South Korea relations had nosedived and Yoon is keen to correct this. Yoon’s stance on North Korea too shall see a major shift as he feels Moon’s administration made inter-Korean relations abnormal and undermined public pride in a submissive manner to North Korea. Given Pyongyang’s close ties with China that could be a dangerous strategy as Beijing’s geostrategic considerations to back North Korea is more than this.

Though Beijing gave cautious welcome to South Korean president-elect and Chinese President Xi Jinping and Yoon pledged to further elevate bilateral ties between the two countries, the truism is that their diplomatic relationship may be tested over Yoon’s pro-Washington stance. Despite such lofted promise, the fact remains that China is unlikely ever to abandon North Korea. Balancing ties between Beijing and Washington would be Yoon’s severest test.

In the past two months, North Korea conducted a series of missile launches and seems preparing to launch a satellite amid concern of tension with the appointment of conservative and hawkish Yoon. After North Korea tested ICBM systems, the US warned of ‘serious escalation’ in tensions and announced fresh sanctions.

The two ICBM launches of 26 February and 4 March did not demonstrate the range as Pyongyang probably wanted to evaluate the new system before conducting a future test at full range, potentially disguised as a space launch.[3] North Korea did not conduct an ICBM launch since 2017, during the height of tensions between Kim and former US President Donald Trump. In the closing days of Trump’s presidency, North Korea had attempted to launch a satellite. Such disguised launches of long-range missile technology are banned by the UNSC resolutions. No wonder, a satellite launch would dramatically raise tensions in the Korean Peninsula, especially after Yoon’s appointment as the President of Korea. Kim Jong-un is also likely to test how Yoon is going to respond to his acts.

Though Yoon in his first press conference warned to deal ‘sternly’ with North Korean provocations, he also remarked he is open to dialogue. Starting a dialogue process is like building castle in the air as this will not happen anytime soon. In 2021, Kim Jong-un had made a wish-list of acquiring strategic weapons and the series of missile tests are a part of that strategy. Since January 2022, North Korea has launched 13 missiles during nine rounds of launches. What Kim aims to do is to launch an ICBM large enough to carry multiple warheads, dubbed as a “monster missile”, that it would be harder for the US missile defences to intercept.

The missile launches of 26 February and 4 March were the Hwasong-17, involving the first stage of the two-stage rocket. According to Japanese and South Korean militaries, the missiles flew for about 300 kilometres, reaching a maximum altitude of 550-600 kilometres, though the Hwasong-17 is estimated to have a maximum range of about 13,000 kilometres. If North Korea develops an ICBM capable of delivering multiple warheads, the US, South Korea and Japan would have reasons to worry. Such a system, known as a multiple independently targetable re-entry vehicle, or MIRV, would be much harder for US missile defences to intercept. Against such rapid stride in which North Korea is perfecting its deliverable weapon system, it would be interesting to watch what strategy Yoon crafts for Korea’s diplomacy towards its northern neighbour.
Yoon’s confrontational stance towards the North could include strengthening the military’s three-axis air defence system – consisting of the Kill Chain pre-emptive strike system, the Korean Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and the Korea Massive Punishment and Retaliation (KMPR) plan – to counter potential nuclear threats posed by the North.[4]

South Korea would find itself faced with critical diplomatic choices as the US and China are engaged in strategic competition. The issue is further complicated after Russia’s invasion of Ukraine forcing Yoon to make critical strategic choices. Yoon has said that his foreign and security policies would be different from what Moon pursued. He has announced that he would move away from China and get further closer to the US. Interestingly, analysts and security experts have articulated the idea of expanding the quadrilateral grouping between India, Japan, US and Australia (Quad) and also mentioned South Korea and Vietnam as possible future candidates. Though this idea has not moved to the discussion stage by the Quad members, Yoon has already expressed his desire to seek formal membership of the group. This in itself reflects how Yoon views China as the creation of this grouping had the hidden agenda of how to cope with China’s assertiveness and aggressive foreign policy postures. As it transpires, Yoon’s election win and with no record in foreign policy but tough talks is bad news for North Korea and China but great news for Japan and the US. [5]

Ties with Japan

Given the frosty ties with Japan over territorial and comfort women issues that also involved the court and Japanese companies doing business in Korea, Yoon has promised to build a future-oriented relationship with Japan. Yoon wants to work through a system that shall bring benefit to both Japan and South Korea. The shadow of history worsened bilateral ties during the Moon administration. When South Korea’s Supreme Court in a verdict ordered Japanese firms in 2018 to pay wartime labour compensation, bilateral ties worsened. The ruling angered Japan. Japan claimed that all the wartime issues were settled under a bilateral treaty signed in 1965. In retaliation, Japan strengthened controls on exports to South Korea in 2019, leading Korean peoples to boycott Japanese goods. Yoon would seek cooperation of Japan to investigate the truth and resolve this bitter phase in the relationship to mutual satisfaction. [6]

Ties with the US

After being elected, Yoon got a congratulatory call from Biden, expressing his keenness to meet soon. That can materialise soon as Biden is likely to visit Japan in late May for a Quad summit and Biden could have a stopover in Seoul. Both Biden and Yoon have expressed their desire to further expand the Seoul-Washington alliance. With his desire to join the Quad already known, Yoon will endorse Biden’s Indo-Pacific strategy and hope to join the Indo-Pacific Economic Framework.[7]

On Nuclear Issue

There is a considerable debate that is going on in South Korea (also in Japan) for quite some time with proponents and opponents making their arguments as persuasively as possible on the country’s nuclear policy. The threats from North Korea and the deteriorating security environment have further contributed to this debate. Japan’s Fukushima nuclear disaster of March 2011 spurred debate in many countries on what their policies on nuclear issue should be. The Moon administration’s policy was to phase out nuclear in the country’s energy mix. Yoon wants to reverse Moon’s anti-nuclear policies.[8] Yoon wants to develop Korea into a global leader in nuclear technology. Yoon is likely to resume construction of Shin Hanul reactors 2 and 3 in Uljin, North Gyeongsang Province, which have remain stalled for a long time on the issue of civil damage suit between plant builder Doosan Heavy Industries and the state-run Korea Hydro and Nuclear Power (KHNP).

Yoon admits that reliance on renewable may be a step in the right direction in the long term but not unless backed by a viable alternative energy source. Besides meeting with the domestic needs, Yoon aims to export 10 nuclear reactors, thereby creating 100,000 high-end jobs by 2030.

Yoon’s India Policy

Yoon has not yet articulated what his policies on India would be. But one can expect that bilateral relationships shall continue as usual with both sides aiming for scaling up further. Moreover, Yoon’s desire to a part of the Quad group shall help in developing greater political synergy between the leadership in both countries as both sides aim to achieve common goals. India, however, is unlikely to get enmeshed with the inter-Korean issues despite that it maintains diplomatic relations with both. However, as a rising but not a threatening power, it is desirable that India sheds its reluctance and takes some mediating role in the inter-Korean issues as its commands respect from both sides. Like in the Russia-Ukraine crisis, India would support for dialogue and discussion to resolve bilateral issues between both North and South Korea.

Endnotes :

[1]Shin Ji-hye, “What lies ahead of president-elect Yoon?, Korea Herald, 10 March 2022, http://news.koreaherald.com/view.php?
[2]Shin Ji-hye, “What lies ahead of president-elect Yoon?, Korea Herald, 10 March 2022, http://news.koreaherald.com/view.php?
[3]William Gallo, “North Korea Tested ICBM System, US Says, Warning of ‘Serious Escalation’”, 10 March 2022, https://www.globalsecurity.org/wmd/library/news/dprk/2022/dprk-220310-voa01.htm?_m=3n%2e002a%2e3274%2eon0ao069c5%2e319p
[4]Jung Da-min, “Yoon to redirect Korea’s diplomacy with US, China, Japan”, Korea Times, 10 March 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2022/03/803_325300.html
[5]James Fretwell, “What Yoon’s win means for security and foreign relations on the Korean Peninsula”, 10 March 2022, https://www.nknews.org/pro/what-yoons-win-means-for-security-and-foreign-relations-on-the-korean-peninsula/
[6]https://english.kyodonews.net/news/2022/03/3af347bb3857-urgent-s-koreas-yoon-vows-to-build-future-oriented-relations-with-japan.html
[7] “Yoon may meet Biden shortly after taking office in May”, 10 March 2022, https://en.yna.co.kr/view/AEN20220310004600325?section=nk/nk
[8]Lee Kyung-min, “Yoon to scrap Moon's anti-nuclear policies”, Korea Times, 10 March 2022, https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/tech/2022/03/419_325289.html

(The paper is the author’s individual scholastic articulation. The author certifies that the article/paper is original in content, unpublished and it has not been submitted for publication/web upload elsewhere, and that the facts and figures quoted are duly referenced, as needed, and are believed to be correct). (The paper does not necessarily represent the organisational stance... More >>

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