In South Korea’s presidential election held yesterday, conservative opposition candidate Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party (PPP) won by the smallest margin in Korea’s history. The candidate for the governing progressive Democratic Party, Lee Jae-myung, conceded defeat after losing by less than one percent. Aged 61, Yoon has no past experience in politics before he joined the PPP last year.
Waiting in Yoon’s in-tray is the worst wave of Covid-19 infections that South Korea has yet faced, widening economics disparity between generations and surging home prices, all of which incumbent Moon Jae-in largely failed to tackle.
And while relations with China unsurprisingly emerged as one of the election’s main campaign issues, misogyny was also found to be “at the heart of the presidential election”.
In a bid to win over young men who felt discriminated against, Yoon pledged to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. He called the ministry a form of reverse discrimination and further suggested introducing tougher penalties for false claims of sexual assault. The Democratic Party did little to oppose the proposals. It has seen multiple sexual harassment scandals which saw the mayor of Busan imprisoned for sexual assault. And while it may seem counterintuitive, the root cause of a rise in sexual violence is the economy. Young men in Korea face immense social and cultural pressure to compete both in universities and the workplace and women have become an unfortunate scapegoat. As one issue where their frustration is aired, the conscription of men to serve in the Korean army who would otherwise be gaining work experience has been seen by many as giving unfair advantage to their female peers.
Yoon also argued the case for leaning further towards the US. He criticised Moon’s government engagement policy towards China and is expected to mend ties with Tokyo and strengthen the US-South Korea alliance. He also advocated a hawkish policy on China and the need to deploy additional units of the US THAAD anti-missile system against North Korea, which is likely to provoke China.
The election results will no doubt mark a bitter day for China-South Korea relations, but more so for South Koreans themselves. This election was deemed “unusually bitter”, marred by scandals and with both candidates using negative campaigning tactics that got to the heart of some of the most deep-seated cultural prejudices in their society. You know the election is not going well when constituents describe their motivation at the ballot box as “the need to choose the less bad”.