South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol. Photo: Asia Times / Andrew Salmon

SEOUL – Despite being warned of potential “annihilation” by not-so-amicable neighbor Kim Jong Un yesterday, conservative South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol feasibly has much good news to mull.

National flagship Samsung Electronics yesterday announced its second largest-ever quarterly profits: 11.1 trillion won, a 15.2% rise, year on year. South Korea is negotiating its biggest ever arms deal with Poland, enriching national arms merchants to the tune of $15-20 billion. And national GDP growth this year is set for a solid 2.7%, according to the IMF.

In terms of global prestige, Yoon – in a first for a South Korean president – was invited to this year’s NATO summit in Madrid. He is also receiving a revolving door of senior visitors from his leading ally: After President Joe Biden visited Seoul in May, Treasury Secretary Janet Yellen dropped in this month and Under Secretary of State for Political Affairs Victoria Nuland was in town this week.

All very presidential and positive. Yet Yoon’s approval ratings today fell below 30%, according to a Gallup poll reported today (July 29) by Yonhap news agency.

For such an early-term leader – Yoon took office on May 10 – those numbers are unprecedented. So what happens if he has already lost the popular mandate to govern so early in his tenure?

That political reality would certainly not be welcome in Washington. Yoon, after all, has leaned closely to the US – preaching the values of freedom, democracy and human rights; supporting Ukraine including through arms sales to NATO allies; agreeing to restart joint summer military drills regardless of Kim’s bluster; and promising to improve relations with Japan.

To be sure, political misfortune for a close US ally is hardly unique in current times.

Following Russia’s invasion of Ukraine, Biden publicly stated that Russian President Vladimir Putin cannot remain in power. In fact, Putin remains firmly entrenched, while anti-Putin US allies are tumbling left.

Hardcore anti-Putinist UK Prime Minister Boris Johnson has been given the boot by his own party for his endless lies and dissembling. In Italy, President Mario Draghi has fallen from power, partly for his anti-Russia stance.

Granted, Yoon is not – at least, not yet – headed for the abyss that has swallowed Johnson and Draghi. But his plummeting popularity is unlikely to make enacting politically risky pro-Japanese, pro-US or anti-North Korean policies easier. 

Waddle waddle, quack quack

Gallup found today that only 28% approved of Yoon’s policies, compared with 68% who were opposed. According to a survey of the Gallup poll ratings of late-term Korean presidents by local media Joongang Ilbo, Yoon’s numbers look closer to the ratings of those about to exit office than a newcomer with a fresh electoral mandate.

As Korean presidents are constitutionally restricted to single terms, late-term lame-duckhood essentially means that their dictates can be ignored or slow-played by a lethargic bureaucracy, meaning their power ebbs away.

The Joongang found that the end-of-term approval ratings of those presidents who held power from 1998 to 2017 were 24%, 27%, 24% and 5%. (That last 5% was an anomaly: Then-President Park Geun-hye was impeached and left office on the back of million-person demonstrations).

Yoon’s immediate predecessor exited with a far more muscular mandate.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in delivers his adresses at the ISEAS-Yusof Ishak Institute 42nd Singapore lecture on July 13, 2018, during a three-day state visit in Singapore. Photo: AFP/Roslan Rahman
Then-President Moon Jae-in cut a more charismatic figure than Yoon. Photo: AFP / Roslan Rahman

Though Moon Jae-in was beset by the failures of multiple high-profile policies – notably, his outreach to North Korea and his efforts to level out the real estate market, a perennial political hot potato – he left office with a rating of 45%.

But – beyond ultra-hardcore and mostly elderly right-wingers who insist Moon was a “Red” commie traitor – most Koreans saw Moon as an affable leader who had handily managed the Covid pandemic.

What has gone wrong?

Many analyses emphasize the fact that Yoon faces a hostile National Assembly – at least, until parliamentary elections in 2024.

That situation is not unique to Yoon. Indeed, a situation wherein one party holds the presidency and the other holds the (unicameral) legislature is the classic balance of power in South Korean democratic politics.

What is unquestionable is that he won the presidency by a whisker, with a less than 1% margin.

Given that, it is odd that he kicked off his administration with a major expenditure of scarce political capital: An unnecessary and poorly justified move of the presidential office and residence away from its customary, purpose-built location, the Blue House, to a workaday ministerial site.

A stated aim of leaving the gated, mountain-backed Blue House was “getting close to the people.” In that vein, Yoon did something even more shocking: He instituted a regular morning stand-up Q&A with waiting media.

Previous Korean presidents tended to hold a new year’s press conference, offer a sprinkling of exclusive interviews over the rest of the year – usually with questions sent in advance – and that was it. “Door-stopping” was simply not a media tradition here.

Yoon overturned all that. His unscripted approach to answering reporters’ shouted questions should have been a breath of fresh air. Alas, unscripted has often looked unprofessional, with his un-prepared, off-the-cuff responses being criticized even among members of his own party.

There are also matters of substance. Gallup found many disapproved of Yoon due to economic worries. That is no surprise: Korea, a net energy importer, is suffering from the soaring energy prices that have followed in the wake of the Ukraine strife.

Korea’s Consumer Price Index (CPI) rose 6% year-on-year in June, the highest level since November 1998 during the traumatic Asian financial crisis. Compensatory interest rate rises by the Bank of Korea are placing a heavy burden on Korea’s massively indebted households, who will face greater difficulty servicing their debts.

South Korean inflation is surging. Image: Screengrab / BBC

Gallup found there was also controversy over personnel appointments. Those are a common bugbear in Korean politics but Yoon has faced particular criticism for placing so many ex-prosecutors in high places.  

There is also discontent within both the public and constabulary over a mooted police oversight bureau, raising yet another perennial Korean controversy: Political control of law enforcement bodies.

Yet another issue Gallup found to be a concern was Yoon’s inexperience, which has shown through in some dodgy optics.

Unlike Moon – who despite his modest stature walked within an aura of charisma, the sum perhaps of years of political experience – Yoon had prior to his presidential run zero political bona fides. His professional expertise was at the top of the elite but faceless ranks of the national prosecution service, a stern and far-from-fluffy organization.

During the NATO summit, Yoon was photographed wearing a cheesy grin as he reached out to press the flesh with Biden. It had looked as if Biden was about to greet Yoon, but in fact, he was approaching another participant.

Though it was a diplomatic gaffe by the elderly US president, the embarrassing shot of Yoon drew derision when it was plastered all over Korean media and social media.

Then there is his wife, Kim Kun-hee. She has been accused of falsifying segments of her resume, offering positions to chums and benefitting from insider information – though these are all common pratfalls in Korean politics.

The wider problem is that Kim is very different from previous first ladies who have tended to be matronly figures who fade into their husband’s shadows.

Eleven years Yoon’s junior, Kim looks far more youthful, dresses like a celeb and has taken a high-profile approach to her public duties. Disapproval has simmered and the media have zoomed in.

All this provides plentiful ammunition to Yoon’s detractors among the electorate.

The First Lady Kim Kun-hee with her husband and dog. Image: Twitter

A pro-Moon voter who runs a design business stormed in Seoul, “He talks badly, he walks like a gangster and his wife is an embarrassment!”

“He has a solid brain trust around him but he is proving intransigent, not listening to people around him,” Kim Sung-nam, an Inchon-based translator who voted against Yoon, told Asia Times. “The party suggests he spruce up his image, but apparently he has a weird Trumpian attitude – ‘I am the president and I run this show!”’

Internal controversies within Yoon’s People Power Party are not helping, either. The PPP has seen the party’s youthful head resign amid sexual abuse allegations. This could potentially erode Yoon’s support among 20-something males, a politically active cohort.

Inherited problems

What has gone so wrong so fast?

“The general wisdom is that Yoon has inherited the problems,” Michael Breen, author of The New Koreans, told Asia Times. “We thought that, coming out of Covid, we were free, but it is payback time economically and the war in Ukraine has happened with all its consequences.”

“There are a lot of issues to handle, and there is not a strong feeling of vigorous leadership to guide us through,” Breen said.

Kim the translator agreed. “He does not seem to know what to do,” he said. “Not having a macro direction, not having an over-arching policy – the Yoon government is not putting that forth.”

If Kim is correct, Korean democracy is steering for uncharted waters. For a country with a tradition of strong top-down leadership and industrial policy, it has never been led by a disempowered president so early in his term.

But Breen counters that the lame duck issue has less to do with poll popularity, and more to do with the fact that Korean presidents run the show for a single five-year term.

“In the last year [of the presidency] everybody is thinking about who will be the next leader, which means the current leader has no authority to do anything,” Breen said. “But I don’t think it applies now. Yoon has more than four more years to go.”

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