Roh Moo-hyun passed his baton to Lee Myung-bak. Lee made his best effort to revive the Korean economy, but the outcome was short of his campaign marks. His average approval rating was around 35 percent owing mainly to his unilateral decision to import U.S. beef and his older brother’s corruption scandals. The military was displeased with Lee’s governance but remained in the barracks. An important reason was that they noticed that the Lee government spent a bit more money on the national defense than his predecessor, Roh Moo-hyun.
Park Geun-hye succeeded Lee Myung-bak. Park is a daughter of Park Chung-hee, the assassinated military dictator. A 2011 Gallup Korea poll revealed that Korean voters favored Park as a presidential candidate for two reasons. Park was a woman candidate, and her late father made the country economically rich. Before her impeachment in the fourth year, Park had an average approval rating of about 42 percent. The military favored Park since she was considered the heiress of their godfather, Park Chung-hee. There was even evidence that the military plotted a loyal coup to keep, not remove, Park in power when she was undergoing the impeachment process that began due to the abuse of presidential power by Choi Soon-sil, her longtime confidante and a private citizen.
Moon Jae-in was elected as the next president after Park’s impeachment. Moon enjoyed an average approval rating of about 53 percent during his term, the highest among all former presidents. The military had no reason to challenge a highly popular president, despite the country’s economic outlook not being particularly favorable. Yet despite the slow economy, the five-year average military expenditure as a percentage of government spending was higher under Moon than it is under Yoon. The military was able to receive as much money as it could, so it did not have many economic grievances against Moon.
By promoting “fairness and common sense” as his campaign slogan, the opposition party candidate, Yoon Suk-yeol, defeated the ruling party candidate, Lee Jae-Myong, on March 9, 2022. Though razor slim, more voters were convinced that Yoon, a former prosecutor general, will do a better job in combatting corruption than Lee, the former governor of Gyeonggi Province. Nevertheless, once elected, Yoon put aside his major pledge—fairness and common sense will prevail in government affairs such as appointing officials with high standards and ethics and exercising power under the rule of law. Instead, Yoon created a government of the prosecutors, by the prosecutors, for the prosecutors.
Yoon’s prosecutor-backed presidency has launched a full criminal investigation targeting Moon and his former officials. However, as a New York Times reporter points out, “going after his predecessor could be a political gamble for Yoon,” since Moon’s average popularity was almost three times higher than Yoon’s as of August 11. The marginalized soldiers are aware not only that Yoon is currently losing political legitimacy to rule the country, but also that he neglects to better soldiers’ economic welfare. Most importantly, how soldiers perceive Yoon’s low approval rating and military budget matters far more than the actual figures (19 percent of the approval and 13 percent of the military budget). If Yoon fails to quickly ameliorate these negative perceptions that are permeating among soldiers, there is a chance that history will record him as the first civilian president subject to a military insurrection since the introduction of the 1987 democratic Constitution.
Seung-Whan Choi teaches International Relations and Korean politics at the University of Illinois at Chicago. A retired Army officer, he is the author of several books, including Emerging Security Challenges: American Jihad, Terrorism, Civil War, and Human Rights (Santa Barbara: Praeger).