Behind the scenes

A ‘gutter fight’: South Korea’s election plumbs new depths 

South Korea’s presidential election didn’t involve sober debate, but campaigns dominated by personalities and mud-slinging

South Korea’s presidential election was widely seen on social media as “a gutter fight between ‘a thug’ and ‘a fool’”, said Andrew Salmon in the Asia Times (Hong Kong). It wasn’t an unfair description. South Korea faces no shortage of fundamental challenges: a cost of living crisis, a “fast-silvering” population, an unhinged neighbour to the north. But it didn’t get a sober discussion of the issues. Instead, it got a campaign dominated by personalities, and by mud-slinging. In one corner was Lee Jae-myung of the governing left-of-centre Democratic Party of Korea – the “thug”. His campaign began with an apology for a leaked phone recording of a profanity-laden family row; he faced questions over a suspect land development deal and alleged mafia ties. In the other corner was the “fool”, Yoon Suk-yeol of the conservative People Power Party. A former prosecutor new to politics, Yoon often appeared unbriefed. His apparent belief in “odd practices such as anal acupuncture and shamanism” attracted much derision. But when voters went to the polls last week, it was Yoon who triumphed, beating Lee by a margin of 0.73% – the tightest ever in a Korean election.

Yoon, 61, made his name as a prosecutor, said The Korea Herald (Seoul). He oversaw aggressive investigations of power players from both main parties: he had the former conservative president Park Geun-hye impeached and jailed. As the People Power Party’s candidate, he wooed voters with the promise of a presidency defined by anti-corruption, meritocracy and the rule of law. Yoon also relentlessly courted Korea’s “Idaenam”: young conservative men with negative views of feminism, said Ahn Young-chun in Hankyoreh (Seoul). He pledged to close the ministry for gender equality, denied the existence of structural inequality in the face of overwhelming evidence, and blamed feminism for low birth rates. 

Yoon’s narrow win shows just how angry and polarised South Korea has become, said Steven Borowiec in Nikkei Asia (Tokyo) – over culture war issues, but also over economics. House prices and living expenses are rocketing. Even the country’s effective management of Covid has been put in doubt by a surge in cases. Yoon won’t find governing easy: his opponents have a supermajority in the legislative assembly after winning a landslide in 2020’s parliamentary elections. That’s why he should strike a conciliatory tone, said Kim Sang-woo in The Korea Times (Seoul). This election was widely viewed as Korea’s “most distasteful” ever. Now, it’s up to Yoon to heal the wounds.

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