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The Prosecutor’s Presidency

Yoon Suk-yeol wants a monopoly on justice in South Korea

Eight years ago, South Korea’s President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol was in political exile. In 2013, as a prosecutor investigating allegations that the country’s spy agency had run a covert astroturfing operation to sway public opinion in president Park Geun-hye’s favor during her candidacy, Yoon had pushed a little too hard for the administration’s liking. At a parliamentary hearing that fall, he publicly rebuked the government for trying to meddle in the case. He went down rather heroically. “I am not loyal to any one person,” he defiantly pronounced—a slogan that has since become the hallmark of his political brand. As a punishment for his insubordination, Yoon was sent to a far-flung regional outpost of the prosecution service.

In the years that followed, this creed carried Yoon to the top. Under her liberal successor—outgoing President Moon Jae-in—Park Geun-hye was jailed for corruption, felled by a team of special prosecutors that included Yoon. After taking office in 2017, Moon gave Yoon a hero’s welcome with a promotion to head of the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office, allowing him to build his legacy with other high-profile cases, such as the investigation of former conservative president Lee Myung-bak, who was also jailed for corruption. Two years later, Moon appointed him to the top seat of Prosecutor General. But after publicly clashing with the administration, which sought to reform South Korea’s all-powerful prosecution service, Yoon resigned as Prosecutor General in March. He announced his presidential bid with the conservative People Power Party (PPP) last June.

Yoon’s second revolt against an incumbent president has been decidedly more successful. Following a hurried political metamorphosis that unfolded over the course of the last eight months, he eked out a narrow victory in the South Korean presidential election on March 9, beating his Democratic opponent and former provincial governor Lee Jae-myung by 0.73 percentage points—or 247,077 votes. 

This year’s contest was dubbed the “unlikability election” on account of Lee’s abrasive public image and Yoon’s endless gaffes. Nonetheless, it underlined two prominent currents in South Korean politics. Drawing on rising discontent about “reverse gender discrimination,” Yoon ran a campaign demonizing the gender equality movement, winning a comfortable majority of votes from men in their twenties and thirties. Perhaps most important was the issue of real estate. In what is widely regarded as the Moon administration’s biggest policy blunder, increased property taxes enacted in 2020 aimed at discouraging real estate speculation backfired and led to a steep rise in housing prices; this alienated both middle-class South Koreans, who watched their dreams of home ownership evaporate, and wealthy property-owners facing larger tax burdens. In the capital of Seoul in particular, where Yoon won by 310,766 votes—a number greater than the total vote differential—his victory was delivered by fourteen districts that had flipped conservative after paying the highest real estate taxes under Moon’s policies. 

At times it has seemed that Yoon’s greatest source of appeal was that he wasn’t Moon or a Democrat.

The “unlikability” of this election might also be understood in these terms: as a broader referendum on the perceived shortcomings and hypocrisies of the Democratic Party. In recent years, many scandals have shaken the Democrats’ moral authority, tendering an endless supply of ammunition for conservatives. Moon’s second justice minister Cho Kuk had been tasked with overseeing his prosecutorial reform agenda; he resigned in October 2019, when it was revealed that his wife forged academic credentials to help their daughter get into medical school. The highly publicized investigation, led by none other than Yoon Suk-yeol, bore all the signs of a coup by a prosecutor who saw in Cho an existential threat. All the same, it dealt a body blow to the Democrats’ credibility. (It should be noted that Yoon’s own wife Kim Kun-hee recently admitted to lying on her resume to secure university teaching positions.) That same year, a prominent Democratic governor, Ahn Hee-jung, was sent to prison for sexually assaulting his secretary—undermining the feminist banner of the Moon Jae-in government. In 2021, several officials at the government-run Land and Housing Corporation were caught profiting from privileged information about government housing development programs, which fanned the flames of public anger at runaway housing prices.

At times, it has seemed that Yoon’s greatest source of appeal was that he wasn’t Moon or a Democrat. In one poll of a thousand voters conducted a day after the election, 39 percent of respondents said they voted for Yoon to flip the presidency back to the conservatives. 

As a prosecutor, Yoon styled himself as an unbending crusader in the fight against corruption whose only sin was being too principled to play favorites. His political identity, however, is somewhat harder to pin down. He is not a PPP stalwart, having described his alliance with the party as an “unavoidable” marriage of convenience, given his falling out with the Democrats. He’s said little that’s concrete—and frequently contradicted himself—about policy goals. Eight months of sloganeering constitute the entirety of his political track record. Yet Yoon has deftly played to South Korea’s conservative base: the socioeconomic elite; unreconstructed right-wing ideologues nostalgic for the era of dictatorships, when the suppression of civil rights was understood as the price of economic growth; and a younger and less baldly ideological demographic, who feel threatened by the rising tide of social justice. 

The anti-democratic and anti-labor rhetoric Yoon served up on the campaign trail is as crude as it is familiar, echoing the ageless pieties of past right-wing dictatorships. He has accused the media of being corrupted by liberal bias; paid homage to past authoritarian regimes, remarking that Chun Doo-hwan–a former army general who staged a coup and orchestrated the massacre of pro-democracy protesters in Gwangju in 1980—was a pretty capable politician, minus these two events; pledged to learn from the “social and economic revolution” under Chun’s predecessor Park Chung-hee, another autocrat who led South Korea’s blistering period of industrialization in the 1960s and 1970s by suppressing labor rights; claimed that people should be allowed to work 120 hours a week or work for less than minimum wage; blamed unions for the shortage of jobs and a new industrial safety law passed under Moon for demoralizing corporations. 

Yoon has embraced the grievance politics gaining traction among young South Korean men.

At the same time, Yoon has exhibited a rank ignorance of the actual realities of the South Korean economy, which he seems to imagine as a laborless machine running on the magic that is technology. “Corporations today earn money with technology,” he helpfully explained at a meeting with college students late last year, adding that manual labor is something that one expects from places like India or Africa. It’s not clear what Yoon means by “technology” here. Perhaps a longtime flagship export like Samsung semiconductors, made by workers who have developed rare cancers from toxic cleanroom chemicals? Or perhaps a poster child of the “platform economy,” e-commerce company Coupang, which boasts of offering superfast delivery while relying on an underclass of warehouse and delivery workers? 

Meanwhile, in the face of real economic problems—rising inequality, stagnant wages, and dismal youth employment prospects—Yoon has pulled a familiar maneuver, embracing the grievance politics gaining traction among young South Korean men. In the past, male resentment toward South Korea’s accelerating gender equality movement has been a kind of black magic hovering at the edge of politics. From time to time, liberals and conservatives alike have soft-shoed in the minefield of issues like the male-only military draft, which is seen as a prime example of “reverse sexism” that disadvantages men in the job market. In placing it squarely at the center of his agenda, Yoon has unleashed ugly feelings once limited to online cesspools into the world of tangible politics. He has blamed the country’s low birthrate on feminism and signaled harsher punishment for women who make false claims of sexual assault. True to his campaign promises, Yoon recently reiterated his pledge to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, claiming that structural inequality against women no longer exists. Rejecting what one spokesperson recently dismissed as “fashion appointments” (read: the supposed hiring of women for appearances) in favor of merit-based selections, Yoon will reportedly scrap the informal 30 percent female quota for Cabinet positions set by Moon.

In the absence of any electoral experience, Yoon’s background as a prosecutor stands out. If his feuds with the Moon administration suggested that he was an impartial government servant, they also proved the extent of his undying fealty to the prosecutorial institution. On the face of it, this seems like an admirable trait in a steward of the law, and Yoon has claimed it as one of his virtues, frequently citing “fairness,” “the rule of the law,” or “the constitutional spirit” as his driving principles. But in South Korea, where prosecutors are very much political creatures, his institutional allegiance takes on a more troubling hue. 

The crux of Moon’s prosecutorial reforms was to disentangle the prosecution service’s monopoly on the power to investigate and indict crimes. Unlike the United States—where the grand jury system acts as a check on prosecutorial abuse, and investigative duties are often shared with law enforcement agencies like the FBI—South Korean prosecutors enjoy sole discretionary power over these two functions. There is a long history of “political prosecutors” who have used this vast and centralized authority to cover up corruption within their own ranks or to do the bidding of political allies. As such, the need for reform has long been obvious. 

Yoon has staunchly resisted this idea. His political career arguably began in the summer of 2019, with his investigation into justice minister and prosecutorial reformist Cho Kuk that ended with the imprisonment of Cho’s wife Chung Kyung-shim. Yoon’s supporters would argue that the prosecutor was simply doing his job of rooting out corruption. Yet the wider circumstances of the investigation suggest that there might have been less pure motivations in play. For one thing, Yoon ran an unusually swift and intrusive investigation. Then-justice minister Park Sang-ki later said it seemed like an obvious attempt to take out Cho before his formal appointment as justice minister. And while prosecutors for the much bigger Park Geun-hye bribery investigation executed only forty-six warrants over a period of seventy days, the team investigating Cho conducted around seventy raids over the course of a month—which prompted even Hong Joon-pyo, a former prosecutor and Yoon’s former rival for the PPP presidential nomination, to describe the probe as “excessive.” 

In the end, Moon’s prosecutorial reforms will remain half-finished. He helped set up the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials (CIO), an independent investigative agency spun off to decentralize prosecutorial power, and enacted other minor retoolings of prosecutors’ investigative remit. In the political scuffling that followed Cho’s investigation, Yoon struck a pose of righteous conviction. “The South Korean people have seen how the Democratic Party has tried to neutralize investigative rights in order to prevent the eradication of corruption,” he said. “They have made me stand here today.” 

Yoon will have to contend with the misgivings that, in spite of his lurid rhetoric, he is fundamentally visionless.

Yoon’s willingness to conflate the prosecutorial institution with the idea of justice itself might be the most insidious thing about him. Underneath his lofty language of judicial independence is a rather disturbing view of how judicial power should be distributed and exercised in a democracy. Promising to “guarantee greater prosecutorial independence,” Yoon has pledged to reduce justice ministry oversight of the prosecution service and give the latter budgetary autonomy. In essence, these changes would further diminish what little public accountability the prosecution service has to begin with. It is now widely expected that Yoon will appoint members of his own faction to key posts in the prosecution service. This, coupled with Yoon’s earlier insinuations that he might launch a corruption probe into the Moon administration, has led civic watchdogs to raise concerns that South Korea might once again be subjected to an unaccountable “political prosecutor.”

There is little hope that a Yoon Suk-yeol presidency will live up to the calls for unity that have greeted his victory. Still, the Democrats retain the National Assembly, which is a source of cold comfort. Having won the election by a razor-thin margin, the public mandate behind Yoon is already fragile and conditional. In a survey of 1,018 South Koreans conducted shortly after the election, just 52.7 percent of respondents believed that he will perform capably in office—the lowest proportion in recent memory. As the dust of the election cycle settles, Yoon will have to contend with the misgivings that, in spite of his lurid rhetoric, he is fundamentally visionless—a “reflective surface” (a common accusation in South Korean politics) that casts no light of his own. During his campaign, Yoon reportedly responded to these accusations by riffing back: “every politician and public official is a reflector” and “only the people emit their own light.”

This is a nice sentiment, but the analogy takes on a very different meaning if one recalls the Candlelight Demonstrations of 2016-17, in which two million South Koreans took to the streets to unseat the corrupt president Park Geun-hye and send her to jail. One of the country’s most exhilarating and iconic expressions of democratic will, it is a warning to the new president, who is now directly answerable to a citizenry as unflinching and resilient as he is.