Misogyny and Real Estate Tax Produced Conservative Victory in South Korea

Five years after Park Geun-hye’s expulsion, a narrow win for the Korean right.

By , a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party celebrates with supporters at the party's headquarters in Seoul.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party celebrates with supporters at the party's headquarters in Seoul.
South Korean President-elect Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party celebrates with supporters at the party's headquarters in Seoul on March 10. Chung Sung-Jun via Getty Images

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea issued a historic decision: that impeached President Park Geun-hye should be expelled from office. South Korea convulsed as acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi read the unanimous decision from the bench. The pro-Park riots that followed the decision killed three people, and the Korean military was moments away from executing a coup before deciding against it. The millions of people who protested Park in the candlelight demonstrations quickly mobilized in the following snap election in May 2017, making the liberal Moon Jae-in the next president of South Korea.

This January, Lee made news again—this time as an attorney, following the end of her term as a Constitutional Court justice. Lee filed a constitutional challenge against the comprehensive real estate tax (CRET), the progressive taxation levied on homeowners with multiple houses, individuals with a high-value house, or corporations owning homes, in addition to the ordinary property tax. The actual amount of CRET, applicable to 2 percent of all houses in South Korea, is modest: For single homeowners whose house value is more than $1.3 million, the average CRET bill with standard deductions is about $400 a year. Yet Lee argued in her suit that the CRET was an infringement on the constitutional right to property and equality.

It was a sign of things to come. On March 9, five years after Lee and her fellow justices removed Park from office, Yoon Suk-yeol—the candidate of the People Power Party (PPP), a successor to Park’s Liberty Korea Party—was elected to be the next president of South Korea, ending the Democratic Party’s hold on the Blue House to just a single term. Yoon defeated the liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung in the narrowest election in South Korean history, one that was primarily driven by grievance over the rising real estate tax.

On March 10, 2017, the Constitutional Court of Korea issued a historic decision: that impeached President Park Geun-hye should be expelled from office. South Korea convulsed as acting Chief Justice Lee Jung-mi read the unanimous decision from the bench. The pro-Park riots that followed the decision killed three people, and the Korean military was moments away from executing a coup before deciding against it. The millions of people who protested Park in the candlelight demonstrations quickly mobilized in the following snap election in May 2017, making the liberal Moon Jae-in the next president of South Korea.

This January, Lee made news again—this time as an attorney, following the end of her term as a Constitutional Court justice. Lee filed a constitutional challenge against the comprehensive real estate tax (CRET), the progressive taxation levied on homeowners with multiple houses, individuals with a high-value house, or corporations owning homes, in addition to the ordinary property tax. The actual amount of CRET, applicable to 2 percent of all houses in South Korea, is modest: For single homeowners whose house value is more than $1.3 million, the average CRET bill with standard deductions is about $400 a year. Yet Lee argued in her suit that the CRET was an infringement on the constitutional right to property and equality.

It was a sign of things to come. On March 9, five years after Lee and her fellow justices removed Park from office, Yoon Suk-yeol—the candidate of the People Power Party (PPP), a successor to Park’s Liberty Korea Party—was elected to be the next president of South Korea, ending the Democratic Party’s hold on the Blue House to just a single term. Yoon defeated the liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung in the narrowest election in South Korean history, one that was primarily driven by grievance over the rising real estate tax.

Yoon’s rise is baffling. He was a career prosecutor who led the criminal investigation of Park, which initially made him a star among South Korea’s liberals. But after he was appointed as prosecutor general in 2019, Yoon rebelled against Moon’s reforms that attempted to reduce the authority of the powerful public prosecutors’ office. As if to demonstrate the office’s might, Yoon directed the full strength of the office to his boss, Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his family. The investigation, which pushed Cho to resign from his post, made Yoon a conservative darling.

Since he entered politics in June 2021 and throughout his campaign during the PPP primary and the presidential election, Yoon’s political career has resembled a series of absurd dares. Can you win elections with a candidate who was recruited from the opposing administration and is trying politics for the first time with the presidential election in nine months? Can you win elections with a candidate whose nickname is “A Gaffe a Day” and who freezes on live television for two minutes when he’s not given a script? Especially in the wake of Park, who was impeached for her corrupt association with a shaman’s daughter, can you win elections with a candidate who has been persistently associated with numerous shamans, including an anal acupuncturist? Can you win elections with a candidate whose mother-in-law was a serial white-collar criminal, convicted multiple times of document forgery and illegal reception of government subsidies that also implicated his wife?

Well, it turns out you can.

Yoon managed to get through the PPP primary leaning heavily on machine politics to defeat Hong Jun-pyo, the veteran conservative who had more popular support. But by January, all of Yoon’s liabilities appeared to catch up to him. The political machine he borrowed was exploding in his face, as various conservative factions feuded bitterly against one another. The PPP’s president, Lee Jun-seok—a 36-year-old pundit who became a political star by becoming the leader of misogynist young men—quit Yoon’s campaign twice before returning to the fold. By the first week of January, Yoon was behind in the polls to his main rival, Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party, by 7 to 9 percentage points.

Yoon got out of this hole thanks to misogyny and the media. After slimming down his campaign staff by prioritizing the voice of young men, Yoon posted a simple message on his Facebook page: “Abolish the Ministry of Gender Equality and Family.” (For good measure, Yoon flashed this message again on the day before the election, which was also International Women’s Day.) The misogynist young men, who were souring on Yoon’s campaign as their champion Lee Jun-seok was running hot and cold with Yoon, responded instantly. (The staffer who crafted that message was later arrested for taking a hidden-camera photo of a woman in public.) Yoon rocketed upward in the polls in a matter of weeks, posting a 9-percentage-point lead by mid-February.

It helped that Yoon’s rival was an imperfect candidate. Lee Jae-myung was hampered by the Daejang-dong real estate scandal, a public-private development partnership in which the private developer bribed numerous public officials to win the bid for development. As Lee at the time was the mayor of Seongnam, where Daejang-dong district is located, there was persistent suspicion that Lee took bribes, too. The Daejang-dong scandal became the go-to weapon for Yoon: In an analysis that examined the frequency of words appearing on his social media site, the words “Lee Jae-myung” and “Daejang-dong” appeared more frequently on Yoon’s social media than his own name.

In a fairer media environment, this attack would not have worked because each additional fact that was revealed about the scandal exonerated Lee while implicating Yoon. Although the public prosecutors’ office heavily investigated Lee, nothing connected him to any bribes. In a recorded phone conversation, the lead Daejang-dong developer was heard calling Lee a “communist” and a “piece of work” for making his company put more of the development profit into the city’s public spaces, while Yoon “made the case go away” during the investigation of an illegal loan that provided the seed money for the development. In the final televised debate, Lee challenged Yoon directly: Let us agree to appoint a special prosecutor immediately, and if the special prosecutor finds criminality with the election winner, the winner will step down. Stunned by the demand, Yoon first stammered and then shouted at Lee that the Democratic Party was covering up the investigation while refusing to agree with a special prosecution investigation.

These stories were duly reported in the media. But in South Korea’s media landscape, heavily tilted toward conservatives (the country’s top five newspapers all lean right), their impact was muted. Small faults of Lee and his family—such as Lee’s wife’s secretary using a government credit card to order meals—received nonstop coverage, while large faults of Yoon and his family—such as Yoon’s wife being involved in a stock pump-and-dump scheme that earned her more than $700,000 in illegitimate profit—were reported and then forgotten.

Drawing on the parallels of a political novice winning a narrow election thanks to an appeal to bigotry, some have dubbed Yoon a Korean version of Donald Trump. That comparison is only half-true because it undersells Trump. For all his faults, Trump had his own brand of charisma that fostered a cult of personality—similar to the impeached Park, who had the allure of being the daughter of the dictator Park Chung-hee, who oversaw South Korea’s economic development. In contrast, no throng of fans follows Yoon. The Trump comparison, however, is correct in this sense. Both Trump and Yoon won using the same tactic of promising a tax cut for the wealthy and stoking bigotry in the masses, both with the aid of friendly media to create an alternate reality. Despite being a worse individual politician than Trump, Yoon was able to use this tactic well enough to win, if barely. In the end, Lee lost only two cohorts that previously voted liberal in 2017: young men and the Seoul neighborhoods with increased home values. But in an election with a margin of 0.73 percentage points, or just over 247,000 votes, that mixture of households and South Korea’s increasingly misogynistic young men proved the difference.

Moon will leave the Blue House as South Korea’s most popular president by a wide margin. With less than two months left in his term, Moon’s approval rating is above 40 percent, when all other South Korean presidents polled under 30 percent in the lame-duck period. His administration staved off a nuclear war with North Korea, saved thousands of lives by delivering a top-notch response against the COVID-19 pandemic, and oversaw the country’s international profile elevating higher than ever before. That was not enough to defeat aggressive sexism and a $400 increase in real estate taxes for owners of million-dollar homes, pushed by a deeply flawed candidate. Five years after the end of the disastrous Park administration, South Korea’s conservative party is back in power.

S. Nathan Park is a Washington-based attorney and nonresident fellow of the Quincy Institute for Responsible Statecraft.

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