Unlike the United States, which fears prosecuting any former president, no matter how horrible, South Korea is a world leader among wealthy democracies in putting its former presidents in jail. Excluding Yoon, South Korea has had eight presidents since 1980; four of them were imprisoned. Yoon, a former prosecutor, was personally involved in the cases against two of them from his own party.
In 2016, Yoon was the head of the investigation under Special Prosecutor Park Young-soo – the South Korean equivalent of Special Counsel Jack Smith – and their work ultimately led to the president’s impeachment and removal. of the time, Park Geun-hye. The politics of Yoon, who is now the country’s top conservative, were unclear at the time, and it didn’t matter. He captivated the nation with his no-prisoner approach to investigation. Park’s criminal prosecution, based largely on the facts Yoon investigated, led to a 20-year sentence. Successor President Moon Jae-in and his liberal administration rewarded Yoon by appointing him a powerful Seoul Central District Prosecutor. Then in 2018, Yoon’s office indicted another former president, Lee Myung-bak, who served before Park from 2008 to 2013, with bribery and embezzlement. Lee was convicted and sentenced to 17 years in prison.
Yoon’s central role in these (ex-)presidential pursuits made him a political star despite his complete lack of charisma. A career prosecutor with no previous electoral experience, Yoon is perhaps the worst public speaker South Korean politics has ever seen. During his presidential campaign, Yoon’s tendency to utter endless sentences that swerved wildly into statements raised eyebrows – such as praising former South Korean dictators as “good at growing the economy” or pleading for a week 120-hour work and relaxing food safety laws so that “poor people can choose to eat substandard food” – earning him the nickname “one goof a day”. (Yet another Biden parallel, one might add.)
Still, his public image as a principled prosecutor opposed to the highest power was enough to land him a victory in the ultra-thin presidential election in March 2022. Biden may not be a prosecutor himself, but Yoon’s tactics could provide Biden with the same kind of politics. power if applied subtly by his allies. Perhaps at the State Dinner at the White House, Biden could lean into Yoon’s ear to whisper: How can I capture some of this magic and profit from these investigations?
First of all, Yoon might answer, leverage the lure of the rule of law. South Koreans are deeply cynical people with low trust in government – much like politically polarized voters in the United States. But this cynicism, in fact, is a byproduct of a strong desire to see fair application of the law that punishes even the most powerful. . One of Yoon’s shining moments came at the start of the Park Geun-hye administration in 2013, when he led the team that investigated the Lee administration’s use of its spy agency. to help elect Park for president. When conservative lawmakers criticized him, Yoon said, “My loyalty is not to one person.” Even for a cynical audience, such lofty appeals to the rule of law can resonate.
Second, make sure you have the media on your side. In a high-profile political trial, the prosecutor’s classic tactic is to make timely leaks to reporters, forcing the defendant to face a parallel trial in public in addition to the one in the courtroom. Despite being a mediocre public speaker, Yoon could wield significant public influence due to his mastery of this tactic.
So far, Biden is keeping a low profile on indicting Trump, a wise move that allows the president to seem above the fray. All is well, but Biden and his team could also communicate privately with journalists to create a media circus, as Yoon did. Technically, under South Korean law, it is a criminal offense for a prosecutor to disclose information obtained during an investigation prior to indictment. As a prosecutor, Yoon blatantly ignored this prohibition. Yoon was well known for constantly working on the phone with reporters and had been spotted meeting with owners of major newspapers. Reports speculated that he gave the media access to inside information in exchange for his favorite story and self-promotion.
Third, and most important: always look for number one and never forget the fact that you are doing this for your own advancement. Yoon would not have become president if he had simply rested on his laurels after pursuing the two ex-presidents. After Lee’s imprisonment, Moon sought to dramatically curtail prosecutors’ investigative power, in a move his opponents have criticized as an attempt to cover up. If Yoon had acquiesced, he would simply be remembered as a famous former prosecutor who ended his career as one of many partners at the Seoul law firm.
Instead, Yoon staged a full-scale revolt. In order to protect the power of his office, he has turned against his boss, Justice Minister Cho Kuk, a star liberal politician in charge of public prosecution reform who could threaten Yoon’s power as prosecutor. Claiming corruption, Yoon targeted Cho with even more extensive and vicious attacks than any of his previous investigations. It was a startling about-face, as if Attorney General Merrick Garland had suddenly set out to investigate Hunter Biden in an open pursuit of power and popularity. Yoon’s investigation team carried out more than a hundred searches which included Cho’s house, his workplace, his mother’s house, his brother’s house, his wife’s workplace and the schools for his children.
Forewarned, a mob of reporters swarmed each raid location, pushing a camera and microphone at anyone who wanted to get out. In one infamous episode, as many as a dozen reporters blocked a delivery man’s scooter exiting Cho’s residence, desperately asking what the attorney general’s family had ordered. Thousands of news reports have raised allegations that Cho was forming a secret political slush fund based on his investment in a private equity fund, even though all of these raids have uncovered any evidence of corruption. Yoon then flipped alleging that Cho’s wife forged documents for their daughter’s college admission and won a four-year sentence against the justice minister’s wife. In the end, prosecutors were unable to charge Cho or his family with bribery, but regardless – unable to withstand the onslaught, Cho resigned from his position, his political life all but over.
Yoon’s attack on Cho made him an unlikely hero for South Korean conservatives, which suited Yoon just fine. For a career prosecutor with little political conviction other than the Nietzschean will to power, the conservative People Power Party, weakened by the imprisonment of two of its former presidents, has become an ideal target for its hostile power grab. With their party in shambles, most South Korean conservatives were ready to welcome any credible champion. The old guard of the PPP, the Park fans who considered Yoon their nemesis, could offer little resistance. His rise to the top provided a clear lesson: mastering the art of pursuing political rivals is the most powerful tool an ambitious politician can use.
Ultimately, just five years after South Korea’s conservatives suffered the embarrassing collapse of Park’s impeachment, they regained the presidency with Yoon. ImagineYoon could tell Biden what you could do for Democrats following a lawsuit against Trump.