The dilemma of South Korea’s conservative president - GulfToday

The dilemma of South Korea’s conservative president


Yoon Suk-yeol

The election of a newcomer and conservative, Yoon Suk-yeol, of People’s Power Party, as president of South Korea, in a bitterly fought battle and with the narrowest of margin of one per cent over Democratic Party’s Lee Jae-myung should make Korea watchers around the world to sit up and take note. Yoon is a public prosecutor who dealt with cases of corruption in the previous regime.

While corruption remains a burning issue in the politics of South Korea, the other issues include stagnant economic growth and youth unemployment. But there is one issue, which is more social and cultural, which became a key point of contest in this election. Gender inequality has been quite pronounced in South Korea, but it never topped the political agenda. In this presidential election it had. After the outbreak of the ‘MeToo’ movement in the country in 2018, and the mayor of Busan, the largest city after Seoul, was sent to prison on charges of sexual harassment, young men came out in large numbers alleging harassment or reverse discrimination arising from the ‘MeToo’ protests. Yoon has leaned towards the angry young men, and one of his major electoral promises has been that he would abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. His victory, however narrow, is going to push South Korean society towards a traditional social order.

After his election, Yoon promised that “he would pay attention to people’s livelihoods, provide warm welfare services to the needy, and make utmost efforts so that our country serves as a proud, responsible member of the international community and the free world.” It is interesting that he wants to keep South Korea in the camp of the free world and yet take on the issue of gender inequality in Korean society and economy.

If Yoon has a nuanced position of gender inequality, it has not yet been spelled out. Unlike his predecessors, who had worked towards reconcilement with North Korea, he is expected to adopt a tough line, clearly drawing a demarcating line between the communism of the north and democracy of the south in the Korean peninsula. The Americans are likely to cheer this position of the new president.

It is unlikely that Yoon’s position on women and sexual harassment will define his presidency or the politics of South Korea as such, but it will sure remain a burning social issue. If it is addressed and resolved, the gender discrimination issue might impact Korean society, politics, and economics.

Economists have made it clear that women’s participation is an essential component of economic growth, and in many reports the contribution of women to economic growth has even been quantified. So, if there is a pandemic of sexual discrimination and harassment in South Korean society, it could affect the country’s success story as an engine of economic growth. And it might also become necessary that women’s work should be duly recognised and rewarded, and women should be in positions of leadership in all walks of life, would become a prerequisite of economic growth.

It is true that political leaders are not equipped to solve societal problems, and gender inequality as well as sexual discrimination is beyond the political compass of Yoon. But it would be necessary for him to bring in the necessary legislation to check issues related to gender inequality. As a political conservative, he may want to deny as angry young men of South Korea are claiming that there is gender inequality in the first place. But he may be flying in the face of evidence if he denies what is staring the country in the face.

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