Interview with South Korea’s next president, Yoon Suk-yeol
Q: You are a first time politician and now you are about to become the president of the world’s 10th largest economy. Tell us about yourself and your leadership style. As a leader, who are your role models? Walk us through your process of making your most difficult decisions?
A: Because I am talking to the U.S. readership, I think the first person who comes to mind is Abraham Lincoln, who was instrumental to the development of the federal system. I have deep admiration for him as a politician. But on a personal level, former president John F. Kennedy is my favorite American politician.
It’s difficult to describe, but he has a certain charm. When I was in high school, I watched a black-and-white documentary about him in the wake of the Bay of Pigs Invasion. He came out in front of the public and explained his mistake in a frank manner. It made a big impression on me. If he had not been assassinated, I believe he would have been able to win a second term. He worked hard to promote human rights in the U.S. As a student of the law, I regard very highly the legacy he left behind through the civil rights and voting rights laws that he worked on while in office and took effect after his death.
To your second question: When I face a difficulty, rather than mulling over it on my own, I discuss it with people who I think would be able to give good advice in those kind of circumstances. In my role as a public servant, I have often consulted my aides, colleagues or those who came before me and listened to their opinions, which naturally results in wiser decisions.
If it’s still hard to find an answer — while that kind of case is rare — I think solely about what is the right thing to do. In hindsight, I find that making a judgment based on what is right, rather than considering my personal interests, was the right call.
Q: When you are going to be in the Blue House, do you plan to keep a go-to group of advisers like those predecessors you consulted, or do you plan to have a rotating cast based on the issue or the timing?
A: There are official advisory groups. I need to consult staff members of the presidential secretary’s office, and my cabinet members, including the prime minister, ministers and vice ministers. As a country’s president, I will have special advisers and form special presidential advisory groups in an official capacity rather than through unofficial, private channels — thereby receiving help in my decision-making in a transparent manner.
Q. Before we get into policy, let’s talk about food and cooking. I watched you cooking on Korean talk shows, you seem really experienced at it and seem to enjoy it. How did you come to appreciate food? And what are your favorite dishes to cook?
A: My mother fed me well, she is good at cooking and made delicious food for me since I was young. Naturally, I grew up thinking that eating is one of the important pleasures in our lives. I believe it is very important and meaningful in life to spend quality time over meals with friends, family and other people close to us.
Cooking is one of those joys. You can always just go out and buy food instead of cooking. But I spent a lot of earlier years of my career living by myself as I worked up the prosecutor ranks in local and regional offices, so I came to cook a lot for myself and enjoyed it. I think also learned skills naturally by watching my mother in the kitchen when I was young. What was the cooking you saw on the TV show?
Q: I saw you make gyeranmari (rolled omelet) shaped into rectangles. What other dishes are you confident about making?
A: In Korean cuisine, it’s kimchi jjigae (stew) and bulgogi. In Western cuisine, I like and am good at making omelets, spaghetti and mushroom soup.
Q: Korean food is quite trendy in the United States so our readers will know all those things — kimchi jjigae and bulgogi. Now onto foreign policy, you envision South Korea as a “global pivotal state.” What does that phrase mean to you? What do you want your foreign policy legacy to be?
A: The current administration placed too much emphasis on the relationship with North Korea alone, and was rather insufficient in global diplomacy, with some even saying that global diplomacy went missing. South Korea and the United States maintained a relationship in a formal capacity, but substantive and intimate discussions diminished, on issues such as military and intelligence. Therefore, we should not only focus on relations with North Korea, but rather expand the breadth of diplomacy in the E.U. and throughout Asia with the South Korea-U.S. relationship as our foundation.
Another important thing for South Korea, as one of the top 10 economies in the world, is to have a responsible attitude in international society, for instance, having ODA (Official Development Assistance) programs, which we are not doing enough of. We should take on a greater role in fulfilling our responsibility as one of the top 10 economies in the world.
Q: So when you talk about that added responsibility as this large economy, how does the Russia and Ukraine situation feed into that? What is the responsibility that Korea should be living up to when it comes to both pressuring Moscow and aiding Ukrainians?
A: We should take part in the international pressure campaign on Russia, which the current government is doing to a certain extent. When we are asked by the international community to participate more, we need to firmly demonstrate our attitude of respect for the international rules-based order.
Countries such as Germany are providing defensive weapons [to Ukraine], but in South Korea, realistically, we face many obstacles to weapons assistance. Therefore, we provided $10 million worth of humanitarian aid under the current administration, and I think we need to provide more such aid.
Q: You want South Korea to join the Quad, which is a grouping to counter China’s rise. But South Korea is still heavily dependent on China economically, and of course it also has North Korea to think about. Given these circumstances, why should Quad members view South Korea as a credible partner and a potential new member? And how can South Korea diversify its economy so that it is less dependent on China?
A: When it comes to economic issues, South Korea and China are important trade partners to each other. Economic issues are important to both countries, and it is not unilateral. It is unquestionable that the two countries cannot neglect or ignore one another. On political and security issues, China has an alliance with North Korea, and we have an alliance with the United States. But there are 40 military divisions deployed along the DMZ [demilitarized zone]. That is our reality on the ground.
For the political issues in South Korea’s relationship with China, we need to consider that our constitutional or political values are completely different. We have to respect those differences. While our political values are different from China, our economic issues are intertwined. So I think South Korea can coexist between these economic and political issues when it comes to China and the United States.
On the issue of Quad membership and the issue of whether the four Quad partners are willing to accept South Korea into the group, rather than thinking about whether to immediately join the Quad, the more important issue for us is first to work together on vaccines, climate change and emerging technologies to create a synergy with Quad countries.
Q. But how can you decouple the economic reality and the political reality when, for example in 2017, South Korea saw significant retaliation from China economically. You can talk about that as a security matter but it carried real economic costs for South Korea. So would you actually separate them? Is it realistic?
A: China’s economic retaliation in response to the THAAD [a U.S. missile defense system deployed to South Korea] issue was seen as a totally unfair movement by South Korea and the international community. China’s unilateral retaliatory measures could hurt our economy to an extent, but I believe China knows very well that such an unfair action would hardly be beneficial to China either or sustainable for them.
Q: You invoke the Kim-Obuchi era [South Korean President Kim Dae-jung and Japanese Prime Minister Keizo Obuchi] and have promised a forward or future-oriented relationship with Japan. Relations are so bad right now that it seems there’s nowhere else to go but up. What ideas do you have to build confidence between South Korea and Japan? What is the importance of improved U.S.-South Korea-Japan trilateral relations?
A: The Kim-Obuchi declaration calls for a future-oriented bilateral relationship that is not trapped by the past. The South Korean public has traumatic memories of the Japanese colonial rule, and while most citizens have not experienced the rule firsthand, such memories have widely been inherited from their parents’ generation.
However, the more important thing is that we look toward the future. I firmly believe that South Korea should not seek domestic political gains when looking to engage Japan diplomatically for the future. Our relationship with Japan has hit rock bottom but that is not what the South Korean public wants.
Before the Democratic Party’s government [2017-2022] started exploiting the South Korea-Japan relationship for domestic politics, many South Koreans traveled to Japan, which is so easy you can take a short trip over the weekend. They appreciated Japanese culture with respect. It was the same in Japan, toward Korea.
However, dragging the decades-old colonial rule back onto the table hurts the bilateral relationship between South Korea and Japan. Our weakened relationship with Japan is the Achilles’ heel of South Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation. South Koreans are averse to inflicting direct damage on South Korea-U.S. relations.
A future-oriented development of South Korea-Japan relations is beneficial to not only Japan, but also brings huge benefits to the people and companies in South Korea. So the diplomatic and economic issues in bilateral relations should not be dragged into domestic politics for political exploitation. We should not deal with any country in such a manner.
For instance, even for a country with a different system that holds totally different political and social values from us, we need to properly manage our bilateral relationship with them if we share critical interests in areas such as economics, culture and international cooperation. Rather than handling the Korea-Japan relations like a fragile glass bottle that requires care, the Democratic Party’s leaders who dealt with Japan decided to be tough. I think we need to avoid taking such an attitude in handling diplomatic relations.
When I am president, South Korea-Japan relations will go well. I am sure of it. I will change our attitudes and systems toward a normal diplomatic relationship.
Because the relationship has suffered serious damages, politicians from South Korea and Japan — myself included — could communicate and meet more often, like shuttle diplomacy. Our countries are located so close to each other. And if we do not exploit South Korea-Japan relationship for domestic politics, if the two countries manage things well for both of our national interests, I believe our two countries will benefit greatly.
Q: You have said South Korea’s “main enemy” is North Korea. North Korea is rapidly testing its growing array of weapons and has tested an ICBM for the first time since 2017. How will you deal with the North Korean missile threat?
A: Our North Korea policy needs to take a two-track approach. I called North Korea the main enemy. The concept of the “main enemy” designation emerged during former president Kim Young-sam’s era 30 years ago, amid North Korea’s nuclear weapons development and tensions in inter-Korean relations. And afterward, under the Sunshine Policy in inter-Korean relations, the “enemy” expression was dropped.
There are two reasons I call North Korea the main enemy. North Korea broke its [self-imposed] moratorium [on long-range and nuclear tests], and tested a hypersonic missile, which means that the country’s tests for nuclear weapons delivery has reached a serious level. There is a heightened nuclear threat against South Korea.
Amid all this, we need to establish our defense policy and build operational intelligence and other things. We need to reconfigure North Korea as such to accurately identify the country’s motivations and make preparations.
However, I do not intend to respond to North Korean threats in an excessive and overly sensitive manner. Regarding the nuclear issue, if North Korea abides to international rules — most importantly, if it accepts nuclear inspections and takes irreversible steps for denuclearization — I will start an economic development support program for North Korea.
Regardless of the circumstance, we are the same race. So I will provide humanitarian aid [to North Korea] at any time. We will always keep open the conversation channel that we need to solve problems like the military threats. Even countries at war maintain such channels. While North Korea’s military threat is a serious matter, we always leave the conversation channels open to handle these problems. This is our two-track approach.
Q: What is the role that your government can and should have in closing gender gaps in South Korean society?
A: I have a clear principle that we must conform to global standards for social and government activities, and gender issues, and guaranteeing women’s opportunities must also go in line with global standards. Compared with the United States or European countries, South Korea has been rather slow in promoting equal opportunities for women, because of a lag in awareness, social movements and government actions.
If we look at the older generation, there is still a lack of women in high-level positions, but their presence in such positions is growing very fast thanks to our commitment to equal opportunities. While we, the majority of our ministers, are men, for now, women will take over in the near future.
The matter of gender became an issue in South Korea during the presidential elections. I am fundamentally a legal professional, so I have a clear philosophy that we need to protect equal rights for women in line with the judicial systems like in the United States and in Europe. The gender issue that emerged during South Korea’s presidential race was a politically framed one that is far from the essence of gender issues.
High-level officials in the Democratic Party government sexually harassed women who worked for them. Women’s rights groups and the Gender Equality Ministry that support such groups mishandled the [harassment] cases and turned a blind eye. The South Korean public was very disappointed. Also, unlike the older generation, the younger generation grew up without facing systemic discriminations collectively as men and women.
Rather than approaching gender equality from a collective perspective, there is widespread demand to handle individual cases of crime or unequal treatment in employment or education, on a case-by-case basis, and making up for the criminal damage. By approaching the issue from the perspective of eliminating the collective gender discrimination, or from the perspective of collective equality, it is hard to solve the problems such as unfair treatment in employment and other opportunities.
Having administered the law for a long time, I hold a firm principle and philosophy that we need to guarantee the rights for men and women regardless of their gender in such unfair situations and criminal circumstances.