Challenges ahead for ROK's new leader

By Mitchell Blatt
0 Comment(s)Print E-mail, March 21, 2022
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President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a press conference at the National Assembly Library in Seoul, South Korea, March 10, 2022. [Photo/Xinhua]

The Republic of Korea elected a new president by the narrowest margins. Former prosecutor Yoon Suk-yeol won the election by less than 1 point with 48% of the vote. 

The ROK president-elect will take office in April and will have the power to change the course of South Korean foreign policy. Therefore, what will Yoon's foreign policy mean for the region and the world?

First, Yoon represents a sharp shift in South Korea's policy towards the Democratic People's Republic of Korea (DPRK), China, and Japan. While the current Moon Jae-in administration has talked with DPRK leader Kim Jong-un and is proposing a declaration of peace, Yoon strongly opposed such a peace declaration. At a press conference after Yoon's election victory, he vowed to build a strong defense but also indicated that he would leave the door open for dialogue with the DPRK.

He also proposed beefing up South Korean defense capabilities, expanding THAAD, and developing preemptive strike capabilities. He also wants South Korea to become closer to Japan and the U.S. and consider joining the U.S.-led Quadrilateral Security Dialogue (the "Quad").

"It is no mystery which candidate the Biden administration would prefer to deal with. Yoon's stated policies align perfectly with Washington's," wrote Greg Elich, an associate at the Korea Policy Institute in the Korean Quarterly. 

Yoon's policies as a whole were regarded by Seong Han-yong, a senior editorial writer at the Korean newspaper Hankyoreh, as representing "the glorious return of big business and the security establishment."

In terms of domestic policy, however, Yoon will be relatively constrained. The Democratic Party and its liberal allies still control over 60% of the seats, effectively giving them the power to block almost any law Yoon proposes. 

Furthermore, the raging coronavirus pandemic and sky-high housing prices, problems that helped convince voters to turn away from the Democratic Party's candidate, are now issues that Yoon will confront.

The coronavirus is out of control in South Korea. On March 17, the country logged a record 620,000 new cases, three times higher than what it was facing just two weeks ago. The current administration has been dropping social distancing requirements on the pretense that Omicron will peak soon. Still, the government officials who made that prediction thought new cases would only reach 250,000 a day. Yoon, anyway, agrees with Moon about ending social distancing. However, he criticized Moon for being too strict.

Rising housing prices have been a crisis in South Korea for years. From 2010 to 2021, the price of an apartment in Seoul increased by about 60%. It rose by 10% just last year. Previous President Moon tried to implement taxes and various policies to slow inflation, but those policies had no impact in the short term.

The enormous problems of inflation, coronavirus, and lack of progress on talks with DPRK helped Yoon Suk-yeol win the presidency in South Korea, but Yoon will find that it's not so easy to solve any of those problems when he takes office.

Mitchell Blatt is a columnist with For more information please visit:

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