With nothing to prove and playing for charitable reasons, Yul Kwon enters Survivor: Winners at War as a long-awaited returnee favorite.
I was a Survivor fan who returned to the show years after its origins in the early 2000s, but even though I didn’t watch every season as it aired, it was hard to ignore the discourse surrounding Survivor: Cook Island. Known offhandedly as the Race War season, four tribes began the game divided by race; a twist unknown to the castaways before they arrived on location.
Yul Kwon almost quit hearing this was the case, as one of his goals appearing on the show was to better the representation of Asian-Americans on US television. Not only would he accomplish his goal with his win and Sole Survivor title ownership, but his collected, strategic demeanor was a calming influence in a season filled with an amazing underdog storyline.
Yul started the game on the Puka Puka tribe, closely aligning strategically with Becky in a partnership that would last the entire season. With Cook Islands being a season that featured the Exile Island twist, he was exiled early on, using minimal clues provided to him that led to Yul finding the Hidden Immunity Idol.
Just like Exile Island before, this version of the idol was overpowered, allowing him to negate any votes against him after the votes were tallied and read. This would prove very useful heading into the tribe swap, as his new tribe Aitutaki would see him working with Penner and Candice alongside Becky (and, in a lesser way, Jessica) to vote out Cecilia and gain control of the swapped tribe.
As the game progressed, fellow tribe member Cao Boi presented Yul with a revolutionary idea to split the vote in the case former exiled player Penner had the idol. With Yul knowing that he had the idol and had plans to work with the rational Penner down the line, he voted out Cao Boi before, after Jessica was later voted out, Penner and Candice would betray Yul.
A sudden opportunity to mutiny and jump ship was taken by Candice and Penner on Day 20, setting up the most improbable comeback story in Survivor history. With just four players left on Aitu to Rarotonga’s eight, what would follow is three-straight tribal Immunity Challenge wins by Yul, Becky, Sundra, and a 24-year-old Ozzy to enter the merge with just a 4-5 swap tribe deficit (all while sending Candice to Exile Island at every opportunity).
Here is where Yul’s patient strategy and calming social influence changed the game. At the merge, he relied on his relationship with Penner to get him to flip, showing trust by revealing his Hidden Immunity Idol and explaining how his rationale is better than those on the Rarotonga numbers. With Nate blindsided and Candice voted out afterward, the Aitu Four had a 4-3 advantage regardless of Penner’s influence, with Yul taking a potentially backfiring hit by voting out an influential juror he used to betray others.
With the Aitu Four being the only players remaining at the Final Four, Ozzy had built an impressive resume of his own, having won all but one of the individual Immunity Challenges through the merge. That would carry through to the Final Four, with Yul and Ozzy splitting Final Tribal Council votes while Becky could barely muster up a Final Four fire, let alone a convincing jury speech.
Yul was nicknamed The Godfather of Survivor: Cook Islands, as he dominated the social and strategic game despite being down in the numbers from a seemingly impossible standpoint. Only a numerical, math-based challenge could take Ozzy down individually in his season, but Yul is also physically fit for his age then (and seems to be now).
What will fuel his game in a show now filled to the brim with advantages is empathy. He explains in his ET Canada video how he was marginalized as a kid for being an ethnic minority and how it pushed him to the edges of educational society as a nerd. He plans on using his ability to empathize with those on the outs or on the lower echelon of the tribe to gain favor and trust.
Yul actively trying to be a footsoldier for those he anticipates will be at war is a great strategy, as he’ll be able to assuage the egos of the big guns while gaining enough social capital to make a move down the line. With Tony, Sarah, Sandra, and Kim on the same tribe, he is in the perfect position to make good on that claim.
Although Yul is fairly well to do thanks to his positions working with the Obama administration and Facebook, his secret motive is to fund the ALS Foundation on behalf of Jonathan Penner’s family (Stacy Title battles with the disease) with all the winnings he receives. He hopes CBS will make a match should he do well, too (and that was before a $2 million prize was revealed to him).
Motivated to help out a close friend, leaving the ego at the door, and ready to empathize with those on the outs, Yul Kwon can win Survivor: Winners at War using the knowledge of social politics married with strategic insight and preparation for a fast-paced game. Barring a lack of pre-game alliances that take him out early, I could easily see Yul making a deep run, if not a sprint to the finish.