Exit Polls in Seoul | E. Tammy Kim

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President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol celebrates with supporters in Seoul, South Korea, on March 10, 2022.

It is tempting to compare Yoon Suk-yeol, the career prosecutor who was elected president of South Korea last week, to former US President Donald Trump. There is his lack of political experience, his switching from one party to another, his questionable acquisition of family wealth, his misogyny, his distaste for the poor and his attraction to the rich, even his hairstyle.

Yoon differs from Trump in one respect: He won the popular vote, albeit by only 247,000 votes in a country of 52 million. The South Korean system goes post first, so the margin doesn’t matter. Yoon’s conservative People’s Power Party won 48.56 percent, while the other major candidate, Lee Jae-myung of outgoing President Moon Jae-in’s liberal Minjoo Democratic Party, won 47.83 percent. Shim Sang-jung, the formidable female leader of the progressive Justice Party, received just 2.4 percent. (Moon did not run for re-election, as Korean presidents can only serve a five-year term.)

Both Yoon and Lee came from outside the mainstream of their matches. Yoon was a prosecutor who “cleaned up corruption,” trying former presidents and the head of Samsung under the Moon administration, before switching parties and deciding to run for president. Lee was a human rights lawyer with a rags-to-riches history before becoming Mayor of Seongnam City and Governor of Gyeonggi Province; he also unsuccessfully ran against Moon in 2017 for the Minjoo Party’s presidential nomination. In recent months, Yoon and Lee got the same good or worse polls. They were so well matched in their unpopularity that one erroneous speech or outrageous fact in the news would destabilize the race by a percentage point in either direction. Yoon threatened a preemptive strike against North Korea. Lee admitted plagiarism in his graduate thesis. Yoon’s wife lied on her resume and sought advice from a shaman. Lee’s wife used public funds on personal errands when her husband was governor. Yoon accused Lee of taking bribes from property developers. Lee accused Yoon of making politically motivated decisions as a prosecutor.

It was sometimes difficult to determine what each candidate stood for or to guess what really mattered to South Korean voters. The things that we Americans assume are important to South Koreans — North Korea policy, relations with China and Japan, and the response to the pandemic — were barely discussed on the campaign trail. When they surfaced, Yoon did not elaborate, but portrayed himself as a stereotypical conservative: welcoming to Japan and the United States, hostile to China and North Korea, and unenthusiastic about health and social services. He would be the strong man Moon refused to be.

This much was clear: the contest reflected a panic over inequality and lack of class mobility. In landless South Korea, people measure their future with the price of high-rise real estate in Seoul, the capital city and home to a fifth of the population. But an apartment in Seoul is now unattainable for ordinary workers, let alone those just starting out. (Meanwhile, the wealthy watch their assets appreciate and complain about marginal tax rates.) When Moon took office in 2017, after months of mass protests, they led to the removal of his predecessor, Park Geun-hye, the daughter of military dictator Park. Chung-hee promised an inclusive and compassionate policy. Moon vowed to rein in condo prices and real estate speculation, raise the minimum wage and reduce the power of chaebol megaconglomerates once and for all. He managed to increase the hourly wage by more than 40 percent and regulate development, but the cost of apartments continued to rise. The perception remained that the economy was fundamentally flawed and that Moon was to blame, a misguided but perhaps unavoidable sentiment in a small, centralized nation.

Anxiety about housing and work got stuck in cultural ruts. Young men embraced a narrative that women, especially those who identify as feminists, are the cause of their downward mobility. The opposition Conservative Party seized on this disaffection crap and polished it into an agenda, despite the pressures of the facts: South Korea has the worst gender pay gap of any OECD country and consistently ranks last. on The Economist‘s Equal Treatment at Work Index; there are high rates of femicide and domestic violence. Yoon pandered to young male voters by declaring that sexism was an imagination and promised to eliminate the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. On the campaign trail, she dressed in uniform and visited South Korean soldiers along the Demilitarized Zone, as if to reinforce her own masculine good faith. The tactics paid off: Nearly 60 percent of men in their 20s voted for Yoon. A corresponding proportion of women in their twenties voted for Lee, but the margins were less pronounced in other age groups. Not long ago, this kind of division was unimaginable: in South Korea, as is common elsewhere, young people generally vote liberal; old people, conservative.

Lee Jae-myung did not promote himself as a chauvinist, but he also did not offer an alternative platform. For the past fifteen years, Korean progressives – the women’s movement, queer activists, disability rights advocates, and ethnic minority groups – have focused on passing a national anti-discrimination law. But the evangelical Christian lobby, which is as large and politically connected as it is in the US, has obstructed their efforts. Lee could have increased his base by joining Shim of the Justice Party in backing the anti-discrimination campaign. Instead, after consulting with church groups, he renounced such legislation. A month before the election, Lee hired Park Ji-hyun, a prominent feminist activist, to advise him on his campaign. But her intercession was not enough.

I lived in South Korea between November and February, and found the mood among liberals and the left to be desperate. Trade unionists were fed up with Moon, whom they felt had ignored the poor and working class. Peace activists were angry with him for agreeing to US demands to install a missile defense system in South Korea and pay more to house US troops without improving relations with North Korea. Many of these people had given up hope on the Minjoo Party, but still planned to vote for Lee. Voting for Yoon, whose procedural record contained an echo of the country’s dictatorships, was unthinkable.

My feminist friends also told me that they didn’t like her choices. Some would vote for Shim or cast an empty vote. Some would reluctantly vote for Lee as a blow against Yoon. Just after the election, a twenty-year-old voter named Kim Yu-seon told a hankyoreh newspaper reporter that Yoon and his People Power Party “reminded me of how former US President Trump used populist promises and statements to win the support of white men.” In the hours after Yoon’s victory, Shim’s Justice Party received nearly a million dollars in donations. Shim interpreted these sums as gestures of contrition from progressives who felt compelled to vote for Lee. “There are countless people who wanted to vote for ‘Shim Sang-jeong,'” he said in his concession speech, “but they swallowed back their tears and changed their choice because the election was so close.”

During the Trump years, many South Koreans prided themselves on standing aloof from the global authoritarian tide. They watched intently as the January 6 insurrection unfolded in Washington DC, with the US leaving thousands of people to die from covid-19. Now, they wonder what happened at home. In exit polls, one in four people who voted for Moon Jae-in in 2017 said they were going with Yoon, a phenomenon similar to the several million Obama voters who later supported Trump. Since 2016, observers have tried to explain the conversion of these Americans in material terms: that the Democratic Party had neglected to address the kitchen-table economy, while the Republicans sincerely catered to the wealthy with tax cuts and corporate subsidies, and cynically to workers. poor with culture wars and starter rhetoric. The Minjoo Party must now find out if any similar explanation applies to South Korea as well.

The People’s Power Party has no doubts about its base. In populous Seoul, which a candidate must take to win in general, the richer the neighborhood, the greater his support for Yoon. His promises of tax cuts and rampant real estate development successfully charmed the chaebol class—those who live in luxury condominiums. And his masculinist platform has calmed many other Koreans who aspire, however unrealistically, to become his neighbors. Since last week, Yoon has formed a transition team that roughly corresponds to the many ministries in the executive branch. But there is no one dedicated to gender equality or inter-Korean peace. Yoon also scrapped President Moon’s custom of reserving 30 percent of cabinet posts for women. “In the past, structural discrimination based on gender was real,” explained the president-elect. “From now on, everything is individual.”

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