The Election of a Conservative South Korean President is Good News for the U.S. | Opinion

In South Korea, conservative Yoon Suk-yeol was recently elected president after a particularly contentious campaign. Yoon was justifiably viewed by many leading Korea-watchers in the U.S. as a more pro-U.S. and anti-China candidate than his left-wing opponent Lee Jae-myung, who was correctly seen as being less antagonistic toward China and North Korea. Yoon had campaigned on improving defense- and security-related ties with the U.S. and Japan and more closely coordinating policies with those allies to counter the increasing aggressiveness of China and ongoing provocations by North Korea. The policy proposals of Lee, essentially a continuation of what supporters termed engagement and critics challenged as appeasement of North Korea by outgoing leftist President Moon Jae-in, were apparently rejected by South Korean voters, as were Lee's generally redistributionist domestic economic policy proposals.

Lee's campaign was also dogged by a land development corruption scandal, negatively impacted by widespread public sentiment against the Chinese government. In spite of Moon's attempts by means of various concessions to coax the North to finally take serious steps toward its promises to denuclearize, the North's dictator Kim Jong-un has consistently refused to meet all obligations, while continuing provocations, from killing South Korean citizens to launching various types of missiles. While Yoon supported the decision by a previous conservative administration to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Air Defense (THAAD) system to protect Korea against North Korean missiles, which was a position supported by a majority of the public, Lee had opposed that deployment decision based in part on strong Chinese objections, as did far-left forces in Korea. In addition, Lee also damaged his cause by having made negative remarks about Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelensky, whereas Yoon had stressed that the Russian invasion of Ukraine had demonstrated the importance of even further strengthening the U.S.-South Korea alliance.

President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks
President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol speaks during a press conference on March 20, 2022, in Seoul, South Korea. Jung Yeon-Je - Pool/Getty Images

On the domestic front, Yoon, who said he was a fan of free-market advocate Milton Friedman, had proposed eliminating the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family, which some of his opponents falsely characterized as being indicative of a supposed intent to somehow curtail women's rights. Voters apparently rejected that slander, just as American voters in 1980 did not give any credence to the claim that because Ronald Reagan had proposed eliminating the U.S. Department of Education, that supposedly meant that he was somehow opposed to Americans being well-educated or that he sought to in some manner curtail Americans' educational opportunities. Lee's tax and real estate-related proposals were feared by businesses and property owners, and his plans for a basic income to be provided to all citizens apparently did not sway voters to a sufficient degree to bring him victory.

In the U.S., the Korean election campaign and Yoon's victory have produced rather predictable reactions, with conservative and most moderate, mainstream Korea experts favoring Yoon as one whose policies with regard to both North Korea and China would be more in line with those of the U.S., and leftist Korea-watchers opposing Yoon and favoring Lee for that same reason. It must be pointed out, however, that not all of Yoon's opponents in the U.S. are what one would term ordinary left-of-center individuals or the typical supporters of Lee's party. Some of Yoon's most vocal and strident critics here have been pro-North Korea activists and other far-left extremists who, for example, are opposed to the presence of U.S. forces in South Korea, opposed to South Korea's cooperation with the U.S. and its regional allies against Chinese aggressiveness, and in some cases have even condemned what they term U.S. "militarism" and "imperialism" and hold that North Korea's actions are to be blamed on what they and the Chinese and North Korean regimes similarly denounce as the alleged "Cold War mentality" and "hostile policies" of the U.S. government. These critics of Yoon are not run-of-the-mill or mainstream opponents of his policies or supporters of Lee, but rather radical fringe organizations and activists who are in sympathy with the North Korean regime and constantly deny or make excuses for its crimes.

Some of those most stridently condemning Yoon's election are pro-North Korea individuals who have co-authored a report opposing sanctions on North Korea which was funded by the outgoing leftist South Korean government of Moon, and other sympathizers with and apologists for North Korea who have for years been collaborating with North Korean intelligence agents based at the North's Mission to the United Nations in New York City.

The purpose of these revelations regarding some of Yoon's extremist critics is not necessarily meant to impugn all of those who may oppose him or disagree with his proposed policies. However, it is certainly important to note that there are pro-North Korea individuals among his outspoken foes in the U.S. whose extremism is relevant to whether or not their professed declarations of concern about Yoon are credible or worthy of serious consideration. This caveat applies all the more to those of Yoon's critics, the ones who condemn his strong stance against North Korea and China, who have ties to the outgoing South Korean administration which was opposed to Yoon and connections with officials of the North Korean regime engaged in intelligence-related work. Most Americans would no doubt agree that the real "threat to peace" is not Yoon, South Korea or the U.S., but rather the fundamentally criminal nature of the North Korean regime, which continues its cyber-attacks, weapons proliferation to other rogue regimes, missile launches and other types of provocations, as well as its horribly brutal treatment of its own people.

Lawrence Peck serves as an advisor to the North Korea Freedom Coalition, the largest network of North Korea human rights groups in the U.S.

The views expressed in this article are the writer's own.