On Yoon Seok-youl — B.R. Myers
In his latest NK News article Andrei Lankov expresses concern at the prospect of a Yoon Seok-youl presidency. The conservatives will insist on denuclearization, and since this is a non-starter, relations can only get worse, etc. I’m of course familiar with the assumption that if a demand is unacceptable to North Korea, the wise thing for the rest of us to do is to drop it, thereby accepting what we hitherto found unacceptable; the more rational side must always yield. I find this approach both irrational and dangerous, but I’ve argued the point often enough already.
Instead let me point out that Park Geun-hye’s so-called Trustpolitik delinked cooperation from denuclearization, at least initially, and there’s no reason a man well to her left can’t do likewise, whatever noises he makes on the campaign trail beforehand to get the flag-waving vote.
But near the end of his article Lankov goes so far as to say Yoon would “most likely … freeze all interaction with the North for the entire length of his term, extending the Cold War on the Korean Peninsula.” For that prediction to come true, Yoon would have to be the most hardline president since Syngman Rhee. And this with a National Assembly firmly under nationalist-left control.
Lankov goes on:
What if the North Koreans use limited military force against South Korea, replaying the Yeonpyeong Island and Cheonan provocations of 2010?
The dominant attitude of the conservatives can be summed up with an oft-repeated North Korean slogan: “We will revenge tenfold, hundredfold, thousandfold for every attack on our sacred land.” It’s quite possible that even a relatively minor confrontation could lead to escalation.
So we get only North Korean rhetoric in illustration of a South Korean rightist attitude. It’s one even the military dictatorships showed no sign of, despite the North’s insurgencies and assassination attempts, but we could expect it in 2022 … from Yoon Seok-youl? The man who helped put so many conservatives behind bars — with the book thrown especially at defense and national-intelligence types — that he was promoted to chief prosecutor in 2019? The man who turned against the Moon government only when it moved to limit the power of the prosecutors’ office? The man who just last week pledged to help enshrine the spirit of Gwangju 1980 in the constitution?
As for the People Power Party, thirty of its lawmakers voted with the left in 2020 to allow provinces to cooperate directly with North Korea. Its young chairman recently said he wants honor restored to participants in the Yeosu unrest of 1948 – which was in fact a rebellion against the republic itself. (The North’s account of this episode is more accurate than the current orthodoxy down here.) And last spring one of the PPP’s candidates for the nomination advocated legalizing the sale of Kim Il Sung’s partly posthumous “autobiography.” These people are out to turn the inter-Korean clock way back, and vengefully escalate conflicts?
The election may well be won by Lee Jae-myung or, if the Daejangdong scandal ends up engulfing him, a Moon-picked replacement. But should Yoon win, what many here expect to follow, myself included, is a bipartisan push for constitutional revision: in other words, for an assembly-strengthening, trough-widening, semi-presidential system. Although Yoon made dismissive noises about a “naegakche” (the Korean term) a few months ago, he now surrounds himself with known naegakche advocates.
Most of these are the same center-rightists who helped the left impeach Park Geun-hye in 2016, but quite a few are fresh aisle-crossers from the center-left (like Kim Han-gil). All now join in presenting Park’s nemesis as the future of enlightened conservatism. Imagine if the Republican Party had nominated a Watergate prosecutor to run against Carter in 1976 — Archibald Cox say — and you get some idea of how strange Yoon’s candidacy is.
Many a flurry of talk about constitutional revision has fizzled out the day after the election, and this one may fizzle out too. That would still leave a President Yoon in no position to clash with the left-dominated National Assembly — not least because that would also incur the wrath of the labor unions, which shut down Lee Myung Bak’s presidency in spring 2008 and Park’s in fall 2016. The implications for the next administration’s North Korea policy are obvious.
I don’t mean to deny that the inter-Korean relationship could deteriorate under Yoon, but this would likely have more to do with the North’s traditional reluctance to work with a conservative administration than with any “freezing” intention on his part. As I wrote in my earlier post on the United Future Party, as the People Power Party used to call itself, every conservative president since Rhee’s ouster has taken a more conciliatory approach to the North, and responded more passively to its military attacks, than his or her campaign rhetoric led the right-wing electorate to expect. Had it been up to the conservative power elite, something not unlike the Sunshine Policy would have begun under Roh Tae Woo (1988-93).
Most Western consumers of South Korea news want simple, moralizing commentary on the political scene: the “peacemakers vs Cold Warriors” narrative, if they’re on the left themselves, or the “loyal US allies vs communists” one if they’re on the right. But there’ll be more than enough of that sort of thing over the next few months without us Koreanists adding to it.