Why South Korea’s New President Yoon Seok-yeol Is not a ‘K-Trump’ but ‘K-Clinton’

The name, ‘Donald Trump’ is the magic word that divides politics into two sides like Moses’ miracle of the crossing of the Red Sea. The liberal side remembers it as their worst nightmare while the Conservative side worships his name next to only Jesus. Whichever side you belong to, the name has entered Korean politics way across the Pacific and is about to divide Korean politics into two. After the neck-to-neck race on March 9th, the new president is Yoon Seok-yeol from the People Power Party, the conservative party of South Korea.

Since then, many people on the left define him as the ‘Korean Trump.’ A name that many forgot for a while has surfaced in Korea and the people, especially youngsters, have taken to describing the new President-elect as a K-Trump. This has become popular on Twitter and other social network services. Now, this descriptor has spread to many Korean watchers in the West, and many opinions and analyses have been written with K-Trump in their titles but most are not even aware of Yoon’s confession during the run for his presidency. He confessed that he had no choice but to throw in his towel with the conservatives for the Presidency; he has been known as a liberal and was even appointed by the liberal president, Moon Jae-in as the prosecutor-general. His confession on his political stance was also aligned with and confirmed by his wife’s private phone conversation too which was later revealed to the public by her close media person. His wife, Kim Gun-hee said in a conversation, “we (I and my husband, Yoon) were liberals (원래 우리는 좌파였다).”

“Yoon’s Personnel is the Policy”

Therefore, Yoon’s political stance is not close to the traditionally-known conservatives of South Korea; rather, some of his policies and his cabinet members are not conservative at all. The old political idiom ‘personnel is the policy’ is also applicable to Korean politics. Take a look at Yoon’s cabinet and his political circles since the presidential campaign.

One of Yoon’s chief advisors, the head of the new-era preparation committee for the campaign camp was a former liberal congressman Kim Han-gil. When Yoon appointed Kim for the position, many conservatives questioned Yoon for bringing the enemy into the game. Kim Han-gil in turn appointed a well-known liberal young female feminist politician, Shin Ji-ye as his deputy committee leader which caused an even bigger backlash from conservatives including party member Ha Tae-keung. Shin previously ran for the Seoul Mayor position with the slogan of ‘a feminist mayor,’ but lost the election. Kim and Shin inside the conservative party led to a mega tidal wave from party supporters and both had to leave the camp.

Though, Kim did not totally leave Yoon. He is still orbiting around the Yoon and awaits his new position under the Yoon administration. Kim Han-gil was one of seven competitive nominees for the Prime Minister of Korea. The PM position is assigned by the President. Among these PM nominees, three were high officials or ministers of the former liberal administrations, including Kim Han-gil, and one of them had begun political career from the Jeolla region where there is strong support for the liberals, so 4 out of 7 were not known conservatives. Interestingly, Yoon finally appointed one of three previously mentioned: Han Duck-soo for the PM on April 3. Han has to pass the national assembly hearing as the final confirmation from the people. Han was a high official under the previous liberal administrations of Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun so the opposition party, Minjoo (Democratic Party) has to think twice before the tackle at the hearing.

What about Yoon’s inner circle members? Yoon’s chief presidential secretary is former congressman Jang Jae Won. Jang has been known as the so-called ‘betrayer’ of conservatives for many years among party supporters due to his support of the impeachment of the former conservative president Park Geun-hye; his agreement with the impeachment made it difficult to rejoin the conservative party back in 2017. Korean political experts would never identify former congressman Jang as a traditional conservative but rather as neutral or even liberal in some ways.

Yoon’s policy is also not traditional conservative in many ways. Yoon once said in a written interview with Washington Post that he supports feminism. He said, “Feminism is a form of humanism, recognizing that gender discrimination and inequality is a reality and it is a movement to correct that. In that sense, I consider myself a feminist.” Though, he somewhat denied this during the campaign in order to secure the young male voters who are sensitive about feminism.

Bill Clinton’s Preemptive Strike on Pyongyang and Yoon

On the contrary, Yoon’s security stance is clear and close to a ‘no mercy policy’ against Pyongyang. One of his controversial words for many Koreans during the campaign was “Preemptive Strike(선제타격),” which is a military pronoun for South Korea’s 3-stages of response called a ‘Kill Chain system’ in case of a surprise North Korean attack on the South. The general public do not understand the military terminology, ‘preemptive strike’ and they interpreted the word as bellicose action against the North. The Minjoo, liberal party even denounced Yoon as a war addict or a mad man but ‘preemptive strike’ is a widely considered option among democratic nations as a defensive mechanism and it is battle-proven tactical action against adversaries namely, Operation Orchard.

Also, South Korea once considered the preemptive strike on the North back in 1994 under the Bill Clinton (Democrat) administration at that time but cancelled due to disagreement from South Korean President Kim Young-sam. Clinton was from the liberal side, a Democratic Party-grown president but he was strict on security policy like the new president-elect Yoon Seok-yeol in Korea. Yoon’s use of the word, ‘preemptive strike’ has hardened his image as Trump too is known as a security hardliner by many.

Yoon promised to join the Quad (Quadrilateral Security Dialogue) and IPEF (Indo-Pacific Economic Framework) during his campaign back in December of 2021 and he reconfirmed his promise after the election as a president-elect. This shows his strong commitment to regional security and bolstering the Korea-US alliance through global partnership. Unlike Yoon, the previous liberal administration delayed joining the Quad for years and many speculated the delay as a sign of refusal.

Plus, Yoon’s new presidential office will be stationed inside of the Ministry of National Defense for the first time in Korean history. This unprecedented move is another sign of strong national security fidelity and one cannot ignore the physical efficiency of security tasks within the defense buildings in Seoul. 

Bill Clinton was a Democrat president and Yoon Seok-yeol is a Conservative President but Yoon is a man with a liberal heritage. He only got support from the conservatives because of his fight against the liberal administration during his prosecutor-general years. This was also the only reason for him to join the conservatives. Based on this, Yoon is more similar to Bill Clinton than Donald Trump, given his liberal-leaning cabinet members with a strong security policy. Clinton’s joining of the regional partnership, NAFTA, and the end of a big government policy are similar to Yoon’s preference for a slim governmental structure and his plan to recover the regional relationship with Japan through Quad.

Trump’s policy for Pyongyang

If Yoon is Trump just because of his strong security commitment against North Korea, people should revisit Trump’s policy for Pyongyang objectively. Many memoirs including John Bolton’s The room where it happened describe multiple disagreements between hawkish hardliners and Trump about Pyongyang; some refuse to account for Trump as a hardliner against Pyongyang rather a soft negotiator for North Korea. Trump is the only US president who ever met with Kim Jong Un during his presidency. Carter and Clinton met with North Korean leaders after their presidency as special envoys, so describing the Korean president-elect Yoon as a Trump sounds a lot like a baseless propaganda from an opposition that voted for Lee Jae-myung.

Yoon’s current policy based on what is known until now is like a double-edged sword. If it works, his policy can be seen as a sword of optimum which balances the two divided politics. If it doesn’t work then his policy will not satisfy either the conservatives or the liberals.

However, we cannot compare Yoon Seok-yeol and Bill Clinton like twin brothers because of their different nationalities and different eras but it is still far better than comparing Trump and Yoon. We must also keep that in mind that Yoon’s vessel hasn’t left the port yet. The world is yet to see how his ship can circumnavigate the vast sea. Yoon’s inauguration date is May 10, 2022 and about a year afterward, maybe we can better assess the likeness of his policy to that of Bill Clinton’s.