“Unexpected strengths of Korea’s “Sumurai President” Yoon”

Korea IT Times

“Unexpected strengths of Korea’s “Sumurai President” Yoon”

May 30, 2022

The recent visit of US president Biden was an opportunity for the newly-minted president Yoon Suk-yeol to demonstrate his commitment to the Korea-US alliance which had been a major theme in his campaign. However, the many discussions about technology, supply chains, and Korean investment in the United States suggested that Yoon and his team have something larger in mind than simply having more rotations to South Korea of American nuclear assets and increased deployments of THAAD. President Biden’s visit to a Samsung plant (first by a sitting president) made it clear that Seoul has tangible assets that Washington can no longer afford ignore which impact every aspect of security.

Yoon is a remarkable political figure and should not be underestimated. He is completely inexperienced in international relations, has a limited network among the English-speaking elites from Seoul National University, and he rose to power within the insular and self-protective prosecutor’s office that is never visited by foreign dignitaries.

But even if Yoon must rely on his Foreign Minister Park Jin (and his network in D.C. from Park’s time at Harvard), he brings to the game something that no other politician in Korea, and perhaps not in Japan, North Korea or China either, has: he is a strategic thinker on a par with Cao Cao and Tokugawa Ieyasu. That is to say, he is a man able to quickly assess the situation, to respond with a blow that his opponent had never imagined possible, and with the self-confidence to make up the rules of engagement himself.

Prosecutors can have great power and can make fortunes for friends and family, but they are not supposed to become presidents-and have never done so before now. But in this case, Yoon led the impeachment against former President Park Geun-hye and was able to set up a process that took her down in spite of her considerable political assets. He was successful because he figured out how to exploit fractures among conservative politicians, and not because he had a large political following of his own.

That move set him up to be a loyal servant in the Moon administration, which he could very well have become; but Yoon had other things in mind. Most likely he was already trying to snatch the presidency for himself from that time. But no one heard a word from him about this plan. 

As soon as President Moon appointed Yoon as prosecutor general in 2019, he went after Cho Kuk, the Minister of Justice (and his own boss!) with guns blazing. The result? Cho was forced to resign over various corruption charges, Moon was humiliated, and the progressives effectively split between those who felt obliged to support Cho no matter what and those who recognized Cho’s corruption.

Yoon was able to execute perfectly a double flip and to take down his boss, weaken the president who had appointed him as prosecutor general, and gain a following among the conservatives who previously detested him.

The insider path of the SNU graduate turned prosecutor that Yoon followed is normally a good path for enriching oneself, but in every previous case the prosecutor’s office has produced bureaucrats who are wary of taking serious risks and who play it safe.

Yoon, by contrast, broke all the rules, and he managed to come out sunny side up. When he was done, the political battle ground at Yeouido was littered with the bodies of dull and foolish politicians. Yoon stood triumphant.

In the process of setting himself as candidate for president, Yoon engaged in extremely creative strategy that brought together a “team of rivals:” conservatives longing for revenge on Moon, Democrats who were willing to leave their brain-dead party in search of new glory, and third party figures like Ahn Cheol-soo (Bareunmirae Party) An Chul-soo and Won Hee-ryong (former governor of Jeju and member of the grand National Party) who wanted to take the center stage.

That is to say that Yoon made the PPP (People’s Power Party) into his own creation, and laid down the rules for its members. He did not spend much time kissing the rings of political kings. If anything, he made it clear just how capable he was of destroying anyone who got in his way.

Yoon was hated by the supporters of Park Geun-hye, that was more than enough reason to assume he would never become the conservative candidate for president. After all, the defenders of Park, protesting in Gwanghwamun Square every weekend against the injustices she had suffered, were the strongest element of the conservative political landscape.

And yet Yoon pulled it off. He even met with Park Geun-hye in April, after his election, to say he was sorry for all those “misunderstandings.” That meeting would never have happened if Park did not believe she had something substantial to gain from it.

I do not know whether Yoon is a nice guy, or even whether he will a good president. What I can say with confidence is that I do not see any other politicians in East Asia operating with that level of sophistication.

The standard elite politician would never be able to pull off a series of battles, and temporary truces with the major politicians without the benefit of deep insider status in the National Assembly—and even then it would be near impossible.

Most prosecutors would feel so insufficient because they had never been on a committee in the national assembly, did not speak English fluently, and lacked the connections to corporations necessary to get them over the hump.

But Yoon, a Daimyo figure much like Tokugawa Ieyasu, was not interested in developing his own networks, but rather in taking over, or setting against each other, the networks of others.

Daimyo Diplomacy

This leads us to the question of what diplomacy and security under Yoon might be like. It is entirely possible that he was flop around like a fish out of water. And yet that has not happened yet.

But we should not rule out the possibility that he will do swimmingly well because he is able to make use of his social status while at the same time keeping the big picture in mind and avoiding a Yoon-centered cult of personality. If anything, Yoon’s greatest strength is his complete lack of interest in his image and his unrelenting focus on power relations.

That could mean that he will bring a breath of fresh air to Korea’s stymied efforts to play a central role in Asian regional politics.

The idea that somehow South Korea will play the pivotal role in Asian integration because of its unique connections with other nations of Asia (as a country with no imperialist tradition) is a topic that has been tossed around since the administration of Kim Dae-jung, but it has not taken off. Over and over again, the best and the brightest of Korea’s political system proved to be more interested in an appointment at the Harvard Kennedy School, or in getting their kids into Harvard, than they were in South Korea’s strategic positioning in Asia.

Yoon might be an entirely different species of fish.

One thing is certain, Yoon is not showing his cards to anyone. But we can speculate as to what he might do, or maybe even cross the line (naughty naughty!) and suggest what he should do, these thoughts come to mind.

To start with, the strong commitment to building up a closer relationship with the United States should not be mistaken for blind reliance or ideological rigidity. Yoon has zero interest in ideology. It could very well be that he wants to assert the close relationship with the United States as a bargaining chip in future exchanges with Japan, China and other nations.

There are already conservatives, and even some not so conservative thinkers, who see in Yoon the potential for regaining geopolitical autonomy for South Korea that was grievously lost after the Park impeachment.

Korea suffered for five years under the rule of an incompetent and unimaginative president Moon Jae-in who was lambasted by the press as being pro-North Korea and pro-China while in reality he did whatever Washington demanded, and raised the defense budget by readily endorsing the unprecedented purchases of American weapons systems—many of questionable utility.

Moon made himself a puppet of multinational corporations like Pfizer and Blackrock. At the same time, he (the pro-China politician!) managed to repeatedly offend China through his incompetence and his pro-Washington stance. He also deeply insulted Kim Jung-un (and ended essentially all exchanges with North Korea) when he insisted on a pointless narcissistic visit to Pyongyang that was sold to the DPRK as a historic breakthrough (and for which Kim Jung-un made unprecedented compromises) but turned into a PR stunt for himself that offered no future plan whatsoever. Moon ended his term as a lackey of the US who was despised in Washington and as a man who was supposedly friendly with Beijing and Pyongyang who was perceived by insiders in those two capitals as a double-crosser. It was a remarkable achievement.

There are two opportunities for Yoon following the Biden summit.

The first is that the Yoon administration can define exactly what the ROK-US “Global Comprehensive Strategic Alliance” will mean. Perhaps most politicians in the National Assembly see it in terms of more joint exercises, more trade agreements, and more weapons systems. But the purpose of a strategic alliance between South Korea and the United States spanning the globe could be taken in any number of directions.

Granted that the Biden administration, and the US Congress, are distracted by Ukraine and the World Health Organization’s summit, it could well be Yoon, and not Biden, who defines the meaning of this vision. In fact, such a strategic alliance does not have to be inherently anti-Chinese, although the mainstream in Korea may assume that it is.

The second opportunity is making South Korea into a “pivot” in East Asia—a term used in a vague manner so far.  Yoon has the political creativity to exploit such an opportunity.

First among strategies for getting South Korea in the driver’s seat is to join the Quad, the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, in some form or another.

The Quad is starting to gel as an international institution and could be quite central in Asia. The Quad currently consists of the United States, Japan, Australia and India and is, in my opinion, a hodgepodge of powerful nations that is the result of overly fuzzy strategic thinking on the part of Washington.

The common interpretation by Korean politicians is that the Quad is the foundation of something like an anti-China NATO in Asia that will be led by the United States and Australia. If you are a national assembly member who reads the Korean newspaper in the morning after staying out late with CEOs to raise funds, then that is what the Quad sounds like.

But Yoon is precisely the out-of-the-box thinker who may grasp the dynamic and fluid nature of the Quad to South Korea’s advantage. For example, India has become the major player in the Quad, and has found its sweet spot in that new geopolitical space, NOT because it follows orders from Washington, but rather because India is also a member of BRICS (Brazil, Russia, India, China and South Africa) a rising strategic group that challenges both the G-7 and NATO directly. Thus India has made itself into a literal pivot with regards to the future of security in Asia. The current Ukraine crisis, although a terrible headache for everyone, has also increased India’s influence around the world.

If South Korea were in the Quad, it most certainly could give India a run for the money in terms of its strategic networks around the world, if it took advantage of its capacity in technology, culture and finance. There is no reason to assume at this point that the Quad will simply follow what the Biden administration says as long as that administration is swamped with Russia and domestic conflicts.

Moreover, although it was assumed that Australia after Prime Minister Kevin Rudd was firmly in the anti-China camp, that was a superficial reading of the trends from the start.

When Prime Minister Scott Morrison was defeated by Labor Party’s Anthony Albanese on May 21, just days before the Quad meeting in Tokyo, the simplistic narrative pushed by the Korean media was turned upside down. Not only is Albanese the first prime minister of Australia who is not Anglo Saxon, he appointed as foreign minister Penny Wong, a powerful woman of Hakka Chinese extraction. Most certainly the Quad, in the course of a few days, is looking less and less like an anti-Chinese military coalition.

So if India can use its membership in BRICS to up the ante in the Quad, and make itself the central player, what might South Korea bring to the geopolitical chessboard?

South Korea has extensive networks in Central Asia, Africa, South America and elsewhere that have greater impact than those that India offers and those assets could be used by a smart president to make South Korea the central player in the Quad, and in East Asia.

India does not have the technology, the financial sophistication, or the cultural power in much of the world to pull that off. Any businessman knows that unless you bring money to the table, nothing is going to happen with India. Korea is much more willing to invest in its overseas networks.

In the case of Central Asia, for every country that is drawn to India there is another that is wary, or weary, of Indian meddling and Hindu nationalism.

South Korea has one special relationship that is as valuable as India’s membership in BRICS that could make the difference: Seoul is the headquarters of the Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat, the only organization run jointly by the governments of South Korea, China and Japan. Although TCS (Trilateral Cooperation Secretariat) was neglected under the Abe administration, it has grown stronger recently, and has a history of eleven years (just a four years younger than the Quad).

If South Korea effectively makes use of its role in the Quad, in TCS, and in other multilateral organizations, it could greatly increase its influence in the region and the world. The stress on US-ROK relations, ironically, could well result in Korea playing by contrast a greater multilateral role precisely because the United States is increasingly unable to do so.

Can Yoon pull it off?

Yoon may not be a fluent speaker of English, and he may not have the personal networks in Washington, Tokyo, NATO and elsewhere that would smooth the way for South Korea, but the strategic thinking he has displayed so far suggests that he has a much greater chance of using Korea’s assets effectively than many near-native speakers of English in the Foreign Ministry of the National Assembly.

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