South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol is under pressure following a series of gaffs. Image: Tasmin News Agency

SEOUL – Yoon Suk-yeol has 1,725 days remaining as president of South Korea, but after just 100 days in the hot seat, his tenure is already looking decidedly shaky.

Having won the March election with a margin of less than 0.75% – the smallest in the nation’s democratic history – his approval ratings have plunged from 54% when he entered office in May to 25% at present.

That is, according to local pundits, a record for a new leader. Calling it “extremely rare,” the conservative Chosun Ilbo editorialized, “It means that not only the people who voted for or abstained from their opponents in the presidential election, but also the people who chose President Yoon Suk-yeol are disappointed.”

While his policy record so early in his term is difficult to fault, his optics are dire. As a former backroom player – he was an elite prosecutor before entering the national political arena – his inexperience has been glaring under the spotlight.

To be sure, Yoon is a novelty. He expended scare political capital on moving the presidential office/residence from the “imperial” Blue House compound to a workaday site in the Defense Ministry’s office cluster, declaring he wanted a more open presidency.

Previous presidents only spoke to media in pre-scripted press conferences but Yoon has taken to speaking to a press gaggle most mornings as he arrives for work. While his attempt at openness is commendable, he has been flayed for his unprepared, gawky and sometimes indignant responses.

Nor has his high-profile wife and his unpopular personal appointments – he is accused of cronyism by seeding the bureaucracy with ex-prosecutors – done him any favors.

And his media behavior has been reflected by what look to be unpracticed policy announcements by his ministries. The progressive Hankoyreh daily compared Yoon’s governing style “to the reckless maneuvering of an inexperienced driver.”

“In Korea, the sense is you have to announce a thing before the public – ‘an announcement before an announcement’ – that gives time to read and gauge the public mood before dropping policies,” David Tizzard, who teaches Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University, explained. “That is what is harming him at the moment and probably shows his lack of political experience and expertise.”

As in most democratic polities, it is domestic policies that matter most. But on the foreign policy front, Yoon has taken power at a time of dangerous developments: China-US decoupling is widening a multifaceted security-industrial-technological-trade chasm in the region.

Unlike his predecessors, Yoon is taking a clear side.

The president and his advisors, “see that the long-term landscape in East Asia is bipolarization: decoupling is happening and South Korea is at the edge of this, the frontier. So what is the answer?” Go Myong-hyun, of think tank the Asan Institute, told Asia Times. “They have been very critical of [presidential predecessor] Moon Jae-in who they think tried to sit on the fence and ignore the problem and hope it will go away.”

Yoon has so far taken a radically different approach to foreign policy than predecessor Moon Jae-in. Credit: Handout.

China-US conundrum

South Korea has always existed in a tough neighborhood. Not only does it face off against nuclear-armed national competitor North Korea, it is surrounded by bigger local powers – China, Japan, Russia and the US.

Critically, South Korea’s position is complicated by a fiendish conundrum: It is beholden on the one hand to China, its main export consumer, and on the other to the US, its security guarantor.

Yoon’s democratic predecessors managed to pull off a balancing act between these divergent powers. But now, South Korea is under greater-than-ever pressure to lean in one direction.

At a time when North Korea is seeking to draw diplomatically closer to an increasingly isolated Russia, South Korea is coming under US pressure to cleave closer to its bosom as Washington seeks to slow the advance of rising competitor China.

Some signals Yoon has delivered on the China-US conundrum may be misleading.  

Yoon surprised the global anti-China commentariat when he was the only regional leader not to meet US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on her controversial Asia tour. Pelosi ignited massive tensions over and around Taiwan, an issue South Korea has zero interest in being drawn into.

“South Korea’s position is not inconsistent: it has always stuck to the ‘One China’ policy and wants stability in the Taiwan Strait,” Go said. “I think this is why Yoon did not meet Pelosi – she went there against the advice of her own president…anyone who shakes the boat here in the region is the guilty party.”

And both Yoon’s foreign and technology ministers, speaking to foreign reporters, have voiced hopes that the nascent Washington-led “Fab 4” semiconductor supply chain agreement, which aims to unite Japan, South Korea, Taiwan and the US, will not be an exclusionary body.

But overall, the course of Yoon’s foreign policy alignments is clear.

Having sounded the pro-American trumpet during his campaign – promising to both expand the scope of the US alliance beyond its traditional security limits, and to talk up the benefits of democracy, rights and freedom on the global stage – he was rewarded with a visit from US President Joe Biden in May.

On the occasion, he joined the US Indo-Pacific Economic Framework (IPEF) discussion group, designed – albeit with considerable vagueness – to set future global industrial and technological cooperation and standardization.

His position on that front has been beefed up with multi-billion dollar investments in the US by Korean tech giants SK hynix and Samsung Electronics.

He also pleased US hawks by attending the Madrid NATO summit and restarting the once-customary joint drills on and around Korea with GIs. They were suspended under Yoon’s predecessor Moon Jae-in on the grounds of first giving diplomacy with North Korea “room to work,” then on the grounds of Covid-19 risks.

China cannot fail to have noticed Yoon’s pro-US slant.

Still, Yoon might have hoped that his reticence toward Pelosi would give his foreign minister, Park Jin, some goodwill in his wide-ranging discussions with China’s Foreign Minister Wang Yi last week. 

That hope was dashed. A post-visit diplomatic storm blew up over the operational conditions of a US THAAD missile defense battery on Korean soil and the so-called “Three Nos.”

The launch of a US High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD) interceptor. Photo: AFP

Some background: China imposed economic sanctions on South Korea after the battery, which Seoul said was for South Korea’s defense against North Korea but which Beijing insisted could snoop on its own missiles, was deployed in South Korea in 2017.

That led Moon to offer “Three Nos” to Chinese President Xi Jinping, namely that there would be no expansion of THAAD; no joining of a US missile defense system; and no trilateral security alliance with Japan.

With a new Korean president in office, Beijing clearly wants policy continuity that Yoon’s team has not yet offered.

Post-meeting claims by China’s foreign ministry regarding the “Three Nos” were immediately refuted by Park in comments to media. And major figures in South Korea including the defense minister stormed that the THAAD deployment was a sovereign decision to be taken by South Korea, not China.

Amid this sturm und drang, a Korean Ministry of Foreign Affairs official told local media that, “Basically, the two foreign ministers were clearly sounding out each other’s positions on THAAD.”

Still, one expert reckons that Yoon is being nothing but realistic.

Yoon’s team believe “strategic ambiguity has run its course and want to put strategic clarity on the table as the best way to minimize damage to South Korea’s position,” Go said. “People worry that this will make China angry, but I think what is more risky is to sit on the fence and believe that South Korea is a neutral zone.”

Given public opinion polls that suggest that China is now the least-popular country among Koreans, Yoon may be given leeway by middle Korea when it comes to taking a tougher line against the nation’s key trade partner.

“Some Koreans on the left will see anything America as imperialism and on other side, there are all these old people waving US flags in demonstrations downtown,” Tizzard said of two political extremes. “But I think the average Korea is more on the side of the US than China, because of values.”

Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is waiting for Yoon Suk-yeol to resolve issues before he makes his own move to improve Japan-Korean ties. Photo: AFP / Masanori Genko / The Yomiuri Shimbun

Olive branches for Japan

Chinese eyebrows may also be raised by Yoon’s posture toward Japan.

Defying a highly emotive thread of public sentiment that vilifies Japan for both its 1910-1945 colonial-era brutalities and its perceived refusals to atone since, Yoon continues to hold out an olive branch of improved relations.

Rather than lambasting Japan in his speech on August 15 – the date of the Japanese defeat in 1945, ergo liberation day for Koreans – Yoon said, “Japan is our partner as we face common threats that challenge the freedom of global citizens….the governments and peoples of both countries, based on mutual respect, must contribute to the peace and prosperity of the international community through extensive cooperation.”

But he has a problem. Under his predecessor Moon, two agreements and compensation packages – one on forced labor in 1965, one on “comfort women” in 2015 – were de facto overturned.  The former issue, which was ignited by a 2018 Korean court decision that seized Japanese assets to compensate forced laborers, is particularly problematic.

Yoon is a long-time legal professional, but due to the systemic South Korean firewall between judiciary and executive, any political finessing of the 2018 court decision is ticklish if not impossible. 

And Asia Times has learned from a source that Prime Minister Fumio Kishida is unlikely to make any major concessions toward South Korea until the 2018 decision is resolved.

Kishida has personal exposure as the then-foreign minister who convinced then-prime Minister Shinzo Abe to sign a 2015 deal in which Japan admitted “painful responsibility” toward comfort women and “sincere apologies and remorse” as premier. Abe reluctantly agreed, the source said, only when the words “final and irreversible” were inserted into the agreement.

However, the deal signed by the then-Park Geun-hye administration was unilaterally abrogated by the Moon government. It is left to Yoon to pick up the pieces if he wants to upgrade Japan relations.

It may take time before he can take actions that will keep his own public mollified while satisfying Tokyo.

“I think it is a matter of time, neither side is in a hurry.” Go said. “There are strong political demands from the perspective publics and politically the Yoon camp probably believe they have done a lot compared to what Moon did. That is not a high bar to clear.”

And given that he was elected largely on dissatisfaction with his predecessor’s policies on housing – which is in short supply and seriously overpriced in metropolitan areas – he has to double down on domestic issues before he can refocus on Japan.

“Yoon is reaching out a lot as Tokyo is a democratic ally,” said Tizzard. “But he needs to focus on housing as that is what got him into office – ‘It’s the economy, stupid.’”

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