On the one side there is a liberal politician with a history of defending working people, but also of using insults and showing anger. On the other side is a conservative former prosecutor who has been successfully anti-corruption throughout his career, but has also been accused of being a misogynist. Who will become the next President of South Korea? Let’s find out in today’s episode of Thinking in English!!
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To transition (v) – to change from one form or situation to another
Schools have begun to transition towards a new style of teaching
Discontent (n) – a feeling of wanting better treatment or an improved situation
There was widespread discontent of the plan
Misogyny (n) – feeling of hating women, or the belief that men are much better than women
The politician has been accused of being a misogynist
Consolidated (adj) – made stronger and more certain
He was re-elected and his power was consolidated
Traitorous (adj) – not loyal to your own country, social group, beliefs, etc
He was accused of traitorous actions against his country
To abolish (v) – to end an activity officially
I think bullfighting should be abolished
To stagnate (v) – to stay the same and not grow or develop
I hope my podcast never stagnates
Misconduct (n) – unacceptable or bad behaviour by someone in a position of responsibility or authority
The CEO was accused of professional misconduct
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On Wednesday the 9th March (or today if you’re listening to this the day I release the episode), South Korea will elect their next president. After years of authoritarian governments, South Korea finally transitioned into a democracy in the 1980s, and the 2022 election will choose the 20th president of the country.
This year the race for the presidency is particularly close. The two leading candidates – Lee Jae-myung and Yoon Suk-yeol – are very different politically and it is unlikely we will see a clear winner until the early hours of morning. Moreover, South Korea is experiencing discontent: discontent about job opportunities, a growing age divide, misogyny, housing crises, North Korea, and Covid-19.
As one of the most influential countries in East Asia, with a massive role in global economics, culture, and politics, this election could be highly significant. On today’s episode of Thinking in English, let’s look at who is running to be the next president, what are the major issues, and why this election could be important!
South Korea’s Politics
Although South Korea became democratic in the 1980s, the country has struggled with the legacy of the post-war authoritarian government. Actually, it was probably not until 2002 that South Korea could be considered a consolidated democracy. In particular, the country has a reputation for political corruption and imprisoned former presidents.
For example, Chun Doo-hwan was sentenced to life in prison for his role in a massacre; Roh Tae-woo was also jailed; and Roh Moo-hyun was impeached (although not removed from office.) And more recent presidents have suffered similar fates. Lee Myung-bak was sentenced to 15 years in prison in 2018 for embezzling millions of dollars. His successor, Park Geun-hye was already serving a 25 year sentence in prison for corruption.
Considering South Korea is supposed to be a democracy, this is quite concerning. Corruption and public anger are common in all countries (check out my episode on Boris Johnson a few months ago…), but South Korea is struggling with widespread undemocratic attitudes.
Since the late 1980s, South Korean political power has regularly shifted between the two main political groups. I say “groups” because South Korean political parties change their names every few years – but the policies and ideologies have largely stayed the same. South Korea is divided between the “progressives” and “conservatives.”
The current President, Moon Jae-in, is from the “progressive” group but is not allowed to run for presidency again – South Korean presidents are only allowed to serve a single five-year term. The result of this election could depend on how people view Moon’s successes and failures. His big ambition was more peace with North Korea, and along with Donald Trump he organised historic meetings between the two Koreas. However, these meetings did not lead to any real success.
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Who are the Candidates?
Although there are 14 candidates running for election in South Korea, the two main candidates are Lee Jae-myung from the “progressive” Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol for the “conservative” People Power Party. Unusually, neither of these candidates have experience in the National Assembly (South Korea’s parliament or congress) and both have struggled to attract any female support. Who are they?
Lee Jae-myung is a 57 year old former human rights lawyer. He started as a lawyer working to defend working class Koreans, then later became the mayor and governor of the Province Gyeonggi-do close to Seoul. He has a reputation for standing up for the country’s poor population, and for expanding social benefits as a governor.
However, he is controversial for the way he speaks. He is not afraid of insulting and criticising people who disagree with him. Lee once described the opposition conservative party as “pro-Japanese, dictatorial, traitorous, people-massacring forces.” And Lee’s Democratic Party has also seen a lot of sexual harassment scandals recently.
Yoon Suk-yeol, from the opposition People Power Party, is also a lawyer. He has a reputation as being firmly anti-corruption who did not stop under heavy political pressure. As a prosecutor, Mr Yoon helped to send two former presidents and the head of Samsung to prison.
However, Yoon and his party have become increasing anti-feminist in recent years. According to the BBC, 90% of men in Korea are “anti-feminist” and do not support women’s rights. One of Yoon’s key policies is to abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family. I’ll touch on gender issues again in a short while.
As the Japan Times simply put it, the election seems to be a choice between an anti-feminist or foul-mouthed liberal.
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What are the Issues in South Korea’s Election?
Elections are always impacted by a wide variety of different issues. So which issues are most important in South Korea today? I think broadly there are three big problems that divide the candidates – the economy, North Korea, and gender.
First, South Korea is struggling with some economic issues. There are some concerns that the country could be about to face a similar situation that Japan faced in the 1990s – a period of stagnation. Korea also struggles with inequality and a lack of social mobility. Think about two of the most popular Korean movies and TV shows – Parasite and Squid Game – they are both comments on inequality and social problems.
One major issue is the lack of houses – especially affordable houses for young Koreans. Both of the candidates have promised millions of new homes if elected, but they have widely different ways of achieving this. Lee, from the progressive party, has suggested a strong government approach – more welfare, universal basic income, government investment, and government regulation. On the other side, Yoon advocates for private industry and market-led solutions.
Second, North Korea is always an issue in South Korean politics. In the last few weeks, the North has tested missiles and apparently started construction again at nuclear sites. What to do about North Korea also divides the candidates.
Lee wants to continue the approach of out-going president Moon – diplomacy, meetings, talking, and eventually trying to build peace. Yoon is tougher and more aggressive – he wants sanctions on North Korea and more military collaboration with the United States.
And third, as I already briefly mentioned, gender is a major issue in South Korea. South Korea has one of the worst gender equality ratings in the world. The average monthly wage of a woman in South Korea is 33% less than that of men and women only make up 5% of corporate boards.
However, South Korean men have become increasingly anti-feminist and against any policy or action to address inequality or discrimination. Men are angry about the requirement for all men to serve in the military for 18 months before the age of 30 and the economic stress on them. Yoon has been accused of trying to appeal to the anti-feminist men in Korea, while Lee has tried to attract more female support.
Finally, although policies and issues are important, many of the debates and discussions during the election have been more personal and argumentative. Rather than discussing who has the best solution to the housing crisis or North Korea, the two candidates spent a lot of time accusing each other of moral and legal misconduct.
Who will win the election? As I’m writing this, we don’t know – it is far too tight to call. You might know by the time you listen, but most current surveys put the two candidates neck and neck.
Some Koreans have even been describing this election as “a contest between the unlikeable” – An ignorant misogynist against a rude loud mouth. Others see the election as a reaction against South Korea’s political history – one candidate is promising “economic justice” while the other is promising “criminal justice.”
Whoever wins will be in charge of a major economic, cultural, and political power. The South Korean election could be one of the most significant events of the year, so it is definitely important to understand their politics.
What do you think? Who will win the election? The progressive Lee or conservative Yoon? What about your country? What are the major issues in your country’s politics?
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