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Yoon Suk-yeol faces tough challenges. Is he up to the job?

South Korea’s new president knows he has his hands full.

Yoon Suk-yeol, 61, took office on Tuesday warning of a world in turmoil amid Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, North Korea’s growing nuclear threat, and the intensifying competition between China and the United States – one, South Korea’s biggest trading partner and the other, its main security ally.. . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . . .

War, disease, climate change, food and energy crises, he said, were wreaking havoc across the globe, “casting a long and dark shadow over us”.

At home in South Korea, he spoke of a brewing “crisis of democracy”, with unemployment and an ever-widening gap between the rich and poor stoking discord and leaving many without a sense of belonging or community.

But with characteristic bravado, Yoon told the crowd of 40,000 gathered for his inauguration on the lawn of Seoul’s National Assembly that “nothing was impossible”. He promised to tackle the “complex and multi-faced challenges” by championing “freedom”, “liberal democracy” and rapid economic growth.

Obstacles abound for the new leader, however, chiefly because of his low popularity and his lack of political experience.

A former top prosecutor, Yoon ran on the ticket of the conservative People Power Party and won the March election by a margin of 0.7 percent – the narrowest in South Korea’s democratic history.

Analysts described him as more of an “accidental president”, for whom many South Koreans voted in protest against his predecessor, Moon Jae-in, after the Democratic Party politician failed to deliver on key promises to tackle inequality, rein in sky-high housing prices and broker peace with North Korea.

Moon had, in fact, appointed Yoon as chief prosecutor after he gained fame for successfully prosecuting the former conservative President Park Geun-hye on charges of corruption. But the pair fell out after Yoon began targeting the then-president’s inner circle, including filing fraud charges against his Justice Minister Cho Kuk.

‘Mr Clean’
Korea expert Kyung Hyun Kim says Yoon was “regarded as Mr Clean” for prosecuting prominent businessmen and politicians across the spectrum.

“It didn’t matter which administration was in power, whether it was the left or whether it was the right. Yoon went after corruption in the system. He has a track record of pursuing justice,

no matter what the political cost may be,” said the professor of East Asian Studies at the University of California Irvine in the United States. “And in a society that is seen to be largely unfair, where there’s deep divisions between the rich and the poor, and where many ordinary people feel as if equal opportunity is not guaranteed, there’s hope that he will bring justice to South Korea.”

But despite the respect for Yoon’s tenacity as a prosecutor, the new president begins his single five-year term with historically low approval ratings. Only 55 percent of respondents surveyed for a recent Gallup Korea poll believe he will do well in office. By comparison, his predecessors had received about 80-90 percent before they started their presidencies.

Yoon’s low popularity, according to analysts, partly reflects South Korea’s fractious politics, which is marked by deep divisions between conservatives and liberals, but also several of his own contentious policies,

including a campaign promise to abolish the country’s gender equality ministry. Critics had condemned the pledge as a misogynistic ploy from Yoon – an avowed “anti-feminist” – to exploit South Korea’s poisonous gender politics and attract votes from young men anxious about losing ground to women.

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