There is an old, unwritten law in South Korea’s political circles: Whenever a president approaches the end of their term or returns to civilian life, they almost always face an ignominious end. Some have even labeled this seemingly inevitable downfall a curse.
Curse or not, the phenomenon is readily observable in South Korean history.
Syngman Rhee, the nation’s first president, was forced to step down in 1960 after student protesters revolted against his authoritarian rule. Escaping judicial scrutiny, Rhee fled into exile in Hawai’i where he later passed away.
Park Chung-hee, who ascended to power via a military coup in 1961, was brutally assassinated by his confidante Kim Jae-kyu in 1979. By then, Park had maintained his iron grip on power for 18 years.
The vacuum Park’s assassination left was filled by two army veterans, Chun Doo-hwan (in elected office from 1980-1987) and later Roh Tae-woo (1988-1993). After leaving office, the two were indicted for, among other things, masterminding a coup and treason. Chun was sentenced to life in prison and Noh to 17 years imprisonment. They were released only after being pardoned by the same president, Kim Young-sam, who investigated them and directed their arrests.
This trend continued into the 2000s. Roh Moo-hyun (in office 2003-2008), a civil rights attorney who rose to prominence through a grass-roots political movement, died by suicide in 2009 while being investigated on bribery charges post-presidency.
Lee Myung-bak (in office 2008-2013), who succeeded Roh, was arrested after leaving the Blue House for commissioning crimes of embezzlement and tax evasion.
In 2017, Park Chung-hee’s eldest daughter, Park Geun-hye, became the first sitting leader to be impeached in South Korea. Park (in office 2013-2017) was later sentenced to 24 years in prison (afterward bumped up to 25 years) for bribery and abuse of power.
Both Lee and Park spent nearly five years behind bars before being pardoned.
The “curse,” however, appears to be nearing its expiration as former President Moon Jae-in (in office 2017-2022) has avoided the misfortunes of his predecessors – at least for now. Moon completed his five-year term last May and has since returned to his home base of Yangsan, South Gyeongsang province. He now runs a small independent bookstore and stays largely out of the public eye.
With Moon’s uneventful departure from high office, has the “curse” that has plagued South Korean leaders for so long been lifted? Unfortunately, it’s too early to tell.
While the current Yoon Suk-yeol administration has shown little interest in investigating Moon, it is fully committed to arresting Lee Jae-myung, Moon’s closest confidant and political heir. While an arrest warrant for for Lee tied to corruption and abuse of power charges was recently denied by a South Korean court, the Yoon administration remains adamant about pursuing the high-handed investigation. And there is a clear reason for this.
Yoon first climbed to prominence by spearheading the investigations against Lee Myung-bak and Moon’s predecessor, Park Geun-hye. Yoon, who became a prosecutor general under the auspices of the liberal Moon regime, ran for and won the presidency from the then-opposition conservative People Power Party (PPP). He did so by confronting Moon’s bid to weaken the prosecutorial authorities mid-way through his term. The tension reached a boiling point when Yoon successfully prosecuted Cho Kuk, a close ally of Moon’s and former minister of justice under the Moon administration.
For Moon, Yoon might have been a traitor, but by turning against Moon while heading the prosecutors’ office, Yoon became an overnight celebrity among the conservative crowd. The prospect that Yoon would similarly indict Moon and his allies if elected president was part of the reason right-wingers rooted for a political outsider with no former ties to the conservative party. In that sense, Yoon owes a great debt to his constituents, which he has yet to repay.
Put differently, it also means that Yoon’s political base is as fragile as his allegiance to the party. And this fragility is beginning to manifest itself in real life. Yoon’s approval rating has plunged since he took office in May 2022 and now hovers around the mid-30 percent range at best. Adding to the woes, the PPP, headed by Yoon, recently suffered a major defeat in a crucial by-election in the Gangseo District of South Korea’s capital city, Seoul.
With two and a half years still left in his term, there are already reports suggesting Yoon may experience an early-onset lame-duck presidency. The recent rumors that Yoon may be forming a new political party are, therefore, not entirely unfounded.
Historically, South Korean leaders have utilized anti-Japan nationalist sentiments to resuscitate their approval ratings and divert voters’ attention from domestic failures. Moon Jae-in deployed this strategy while in office, for example, nosediving Japan-South Korea ties to their lowest point in decades. But for Yoon, who is deeply committed to reinvigorating bilateral ties vis-à-vis Tokyo, this is not a viable option.
Likewise, Yoon’s attempts to mobilize his conservative base through the recent ideological war, primarily by ginning up opposition to communism, have largely been fruitless. What little boost it brought him seems to be wearing off.
Yoon’s beleaguered PPP is facing a critical general election next April. If the party fails to secure enough seats, and the opposition Democratic Party keeps its majority, that could utterly fracture an already polarized conservative base. And if push comes to shove, Yoon and his circle may all the more seek to crack down on the conservative’s archnemesis: Moon Jae-in.
But the tit-for-tat style of demonizing and prosecuting one’s political opponents has largely run its course in South Korea. Pursuing Moon – whose presidency received a 45 percent approval rate, higher than Yoon’s current numbers – could backfire by ginning up sympathy for the opposition.
Whether Yoon can finally break the age-old curse comes down to his political will and courage. First, Yoon will have to convince his constituents. Then he needs to refocus on communicating with and improving the livelihood of the people, as he promised in a recent closed-door meeting. This is a tall order, and it’s not yet clear whether Yoon, who made a career as a prosecutorial technocrat, is up to the task. Nevertheless, this may be the only recourse for him to dodge an early lame-duck status and reinstate himself as a true unifying leader, which he aspired to since his inauguration.