[Column] The real reasons for Yoon’s far-right lurch

Posted on : 2023-07-04 17:24 KST Modified on : 2023-07-04 17:24 KST
Not only the opposition but even some members of the ruling camp have expressed concern about such a thoroughly ultra-right policy direction, however weakly
President Yoon Suk-yeol stands and greets the crowd at an event commemorating the 69th founding anniversary of the Korea Freedom Federation held at the Jangchung Gymnasium on June 28. (courtesy of the presidential office)
President Yoon Suk-yeol stands and greets the crowd at an event commemorating the 69th founding anniversary of the Korea Freedom Federation held at the Jangchung Gymnasium on June 28. (courtesy of the presidential office)
By Kwon Tae-ho, editorial board director

Near the end of the Lee Myung-bak administration, the president’s special advisor for foreign cooperation, Lee Dong-gwan, made the remark that “a day will come when MB will be missed.” The Lee administration was in hot water for secretly inspecting civilians and had garnered much resentment from the public by that time, so the comment came across as a last-ditch obsessive declaration.

But then, a few years later, I recalled the statement during the non-communicative Park Geun-hye administration. But I never predicted then that a day would come when I would miss the Park administration. Recently, more and more people are voicing the opinion that even the Park administration wasn’t as belligerent as this.

On Wednesday, President Yoon Suk-yeol attended a Korea Freedom Federation event, where he dubbed the Moon Jae-in administration an “anti-state force” for trying to bring about an official end to the Korean War. The following day, Yoon nominated Sungshin Women’s University professor Kim Young-ho, a vocal advocate of “toppling the Kim Jong-un regime,” as unification minister, while naming 62-year-old Kim Chae-hwan, a YouTuber who had blasted Moon for “basically using soldiers as subjects of COVID-19 medical experiments by forcing them to take their masks off,” as the head of the National Human Resources Development Institute, a vice minister-level role.

Even before this, Yoon had appointed various far-right figures to positions ill-suited for them, tapping Kim Kwang-dong to chair the Truth and Reconciliation Commission, Park In-hwan to chair the police system development committee, and Lee Choong-sang for the role of standing commissioner at the National Human Rights Commission. Not only the opposition but even some members of the ruling camp have expressed concern about such a thoroughly ultra-right policy direction, however weakly.

What caused Yoon to be driven to such a degree by his ideology? Did he watch too many far-right YouTube videos while being philosophically bankrupt? Did he simply show his true colors as a member of the far right?

According to a survey Gallup Korea conducted during the fourth week of June, Yoon’s approval rating stands at 36%. Presidents always say they don’t let themselves be swayed too much by the polls, but they do in fact waver depending on them, sometimes excessively, adjusting the tone of their statements by taking public sentiment into account and even modifying policies at times. At his current approval rating, Yoon should be making efforts to expand his base to include moderates. But instead, he seems to be counting only his blessings while neglecting to take stock of the challenges before him. Why?

Quite a number of figures in the ruling camp say Yoon is consumed by a calling of his own. When he declared his debut in politics, Yoon had cried that eliminating prosecutors’ investigative authority would allow corruption to run rampant. Since the public made him president, the logic goes, Yoon now has to fulfill his obligation to eradicate “corruption cartels.”

In a sense, he has brought his identity as a prosecutor straight into his post as president. Even though the world cannot be divided into a binary of prosecutors and criminals, Yoon’s color television only transmits black-and-white pictures. Although he doesn’t understand politics, Yoon won’t make an effort to learn about it. Politics is a product of compromise and adjustment, but perceiving the word “political” as a trick, Yoon merely preoccupies himself with investigations.

The second reason is that nobody can rein in Yoon. As his nickname, “59 minutes,” indicates, there has been incessant chatter about how Yoon lets nobody but himself speak during meetings. Add to that his tendency to discombobulate others with his coarse and aggressive language, a habit he picked up during his prosecutor days, nobody can dare argue against him unless they have established a solid relationship of trust with him over a long period of time. That’s why, even when Yoon rages in one direction, his aides chant about “learning a lot from the president,” causing harm to the president. The presidential office and the Cabinet are guilty of dereliction of duty, the president trapped in an organization that lends itself to misplaced self-conviction.

Thirdly, South Korean society revolves around its ruling elite. There is a lot of talk about how the so-called “Taegeukgi troops” are not just made up of right-wingers but include not a small number of retirees who were once professors and went to Seoul National University. This is in fact true. The stronghold for far-right YouTube channels consists of retirees ages 60 and older, and a non-insignificant number of them belong to the pundit class and the wealthy. These are the very people who can dare speak to Yoon. Yoon is among them.

Fourth, the existence of the prosecution service. Even taking into account how early into Yoon’s term it is, it is unusual for the opposition to be so powerless against a president with an approval rating in the 30% range. It wasn’t like Yoon had forces supporting him deep within his party like Park. But Yoon has something no other president in the history of South Korea had: the prosecution service. Because no one can be sure when the blade targeting the opposition might take aim at them, people restrain themselves and hesitate again and again. The role the military and the KCIA played during military dictatorships is being played by inspection agencies like the prosecution and the Board of Audit and Inspection.

Lastly, the fact that the middle ground between the left and right is disappearing due to ideological polarization is pertinent. It seems like the Yoon administration has judged that its characteristic uber-offensive strategy is working based on the fact that Yoon’s approval rating hasn’t dropped further despite union-busting, which has continued ever since the government took a hard line on the truckers’ general strike last year, issues surrounding diplomacy with Japan, and controversy surrounding radioactive water.

A good number of “reasonable moderates” who supported Yoon during the presidential election seem to have left Yoon’s side. What’s left are far-right forces and anti-Democratic Party forces. Those who don’t approve of Yoon’s directionality but still dislike the Democratic Party are being held hostage by Yoon.

This is the backdrop for the Yoon camp’s notion that making appropriate far-right moves won’t put the ruling camp at a disadvantage ahead of the general election. The real far-right move is yet to come.

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

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