SEOUL, South Korea (AP) — South Korea’s former top prosecutor launched a bid to run in next year’s presidential election Tuesday, vowing to unseat the current liberal government that he once worked for and that he also investigated for possible corruption.
Yoon Suk Yeol tops surveys on the South Korean public’s preferred future leader, and his announcement will likely heat up the race to find a successor for President Moon Jae-in, whose single five-year term has been marked by roller-coaster diplomacy with North Korea, a deepening domestic divide and varied economic woes.
“I’m stepping forward with a determination to change the government,” Yoon said at a news conference. “I’ll join forces with everyone yearning for a shift in power and achieve that surely.”
Yoon, who resigned as prosecutor-general in March, had led Moon’s push to root out corruption. But their ties soured as some of Moon’s political allies were investigated over corruption and other charges.
Moon’s supporters have accused Yoon of using the investigations to boost his political standing or thwart Moon’s prosecution reforms. Yoon has said the investigations were conducted in line with due procedures and principles.
While the infighting invited public criticism that Moon’s anti-corruption campaign was only tough on his political opponents, it also helped Yoon emerge as a potential opposition candidate as the conservatives still have no clear standard-bearer to fight against Moon’s governing party in the presidential election set for next March.
During Tuesday’s news conference, Yoon called the Moon government “corrupt,” “incompetent” and “arrogant.” He said he wants to restore constitutionalism and the principle of fairness that he says have been marred by the Moon government.
Moon’s governing Democratic Party hit back at Yoon, accusing him of failing to clearly explain his vision and why he is running for the presidency.
“Today’s announcement of his election bid is full of vagueness and self-contradiction,” party spokesperson Lee So-young said. “He only focused on criticizing the government that he himself served in, and the nature and contents of liberal democracy that Yoon Suk Yeol talked about were vague.”
Yoon has not joined the main conservative opposition People Power Party, though he said he shares its basic political philosophy. Some observers say Yoon may launch his own party if he maintains his current popularity.
The long-dominant People Power Party was in disarray following the explosive 2016 corruption scandal that led to the impeachment and ouster of then-President Park Geun-hye. Its popularity has revived since it elected a 36-year-old party member as its new chairman this month, sparking hopes for a generational change in local politics.
Yoon’s main rival is governing party member Lee Jae-myung, the governor of Gyeonggi province that surrounds Seoul, the capital.
In a public survey conducted by the Seoul-based private Korea Society Opinion Institute last week, 32.4% of respondents choose Yoon as the most suitable figure for the next president, and Lee came in next with 28.4%.
Compared with Lee, who has called for engagement with North Korea and drastic steps to reform family-run conglomerates and other establishments, Yoon’s election platform is still unknown. On Tuesday, Yoon stressed the need to cooperate with North Korea and restore frayed ties with Japan, but didn’t elaborate.
Whoever becomes the next South Korean president will face a slew of daunting challenges such as an increasing North Korean nuclear threat, the U.S.-China rivalry, skyrocketing housing prices and high youth unemployment.
Some critics question if political novice Yoon can withstand the expected massive political offensive by his opponents.
In 2017, former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon was once a favorite to replace the impeached Park, but questions about his political competence and corruption allegations forced his abrupt withdrawal from the race. Moon then scored an easy victory in the election.