Yoon loses public’s trust in his first six months in office

Posted on : 2022-11-09 16:11 KST Modified on : 2022-11-09 16:11 KST
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol has shown lack of empathy, intransigence and instability
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a national safety system review meeting Monday at his presidential office in Yongsan. (Presidential office press pool)
South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol presides over a national safety system review meeting Monday at his presidential office in Yongsan. (Presidential office press pool)

Thursday marks six months since Yoon Suk-yeol took office as South Korea’s president — and the public’s assessment of that period has been frosty.

Proof of this can be found in his job performance approval ratings, which remain stuck in the 25%-35% range. His post-election honeymoon period passed quickly with a series of own-goals, which have included vulgar public statements and appointments that suggest personal rather than public motivations.

Every weekend, conservatives and progressives alike have gathered for demonstrations in Seoul’s Gwanghwamun area, offering a symbolic illustration of how Yoon’s presidency — which started off with his remarks about how unity was an “obvious” aim — has instead fomented divisions.

Incompetence and loss of trust

“You can’t succeed without trust. The last six months can be summed up as a loss of trust,” said Jhee Byong-kuen, a professor of political science and international relations at Chosun University.

Many of the experts asked by the Hankyoreh to assess Yoon’s first six months in office noted how rapidly he sacrificed the public’s trust over that period. For Koreans, the deadly crowd crush that took over 150 lives in Seoul’s Itaewon neighborhood on Oct. 29 only served as a reminder of the state’s absence and the “everyone for themselves” mindset.

The Yoon administration showed its disaster response leadership to be in a state of utter collapse when faced with a disaster that happened in the very heart of the capital, just two subway stations away from the presidential office.

Appearing at a national safety system review meeting Monday, Yoon merely took the police to task for their responsibility. His approach stood in stark contrast with his usual remarks about how the state must assume “unlimited responsibility for the people’s safety.”

The public’s hopes have been turned into skepticism and distrust thanks to repeated examples of presidential office hiring decisions being apparently based on personal reasons rather than merit since early in the Yoon administration, along with cabinet appointments that have failed to meet the public’s standards.

After kicking off his administration with rhetoric about “meritocracy,” Yoon has gone the exact opposite path with his appointments.

Trust in the administration as a whole has been eroded by the employment of Yoon’s associates from his days as a prosecutor in key presidential office positions, the hiring of wife Kim Keon-hee’s acquaintances as presidential office staff, the decision to allow the wife of personnel affairs secretary Lee Won-mo to accompany Yoon on his overseas travels, and repeated cases of ministerial candidates stepping down.

Yoon also went back on his own promise not to “interfere” in the affairs of his People Power Party (PPP), as shown by a July text message to PPP lawmaker Kweon Seong-dong in which he referred to former party leader Lee Jun-seok as someone who had engaged in “internal sniping.”

Another devastating blow to the public’s trust in its leaders came with Yoon’s vulgar hot mic gaffe during his September tour of the UK, the US and Canada — along with his denial of the remark in question and refusal to apologize to the National Assembly.

Yoon Tae-gon, director of political analysis at a think tank called The Moa, said, “Because of the failure to establish trust in his governance during the first tenth of his presidency, there’s no sense of stability to his administration or governance.”

Uncomfortable diplomacy and lack of vision

Yoon named strengthening the Korea-US alliance and improving Korea-Japan relations as the key focuses of his foreign policy.

He was quick to join in with the US’ Indo-Pacific strategy and supply chain construction efforts, which involve working together with allies to hem in China. But he also failed to prevent the US’ Inflation Reduction Act (IRA) from dealing a blow to South Korea’s electric vehicle industry. It was a case where his focus on boosting the alliance left him unable to respond appropriately to Washington’s “America first” attitudes.

Faced with critical opinion at home, Yoon announced plans to raise the issue in a summit with US President Joe Biden during his September tour of the UK, the US and Canada — but the meeting ended up lasting just 48 seconds. Yoon came home similarly empty-handed after a cursory meeting with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida.

Meanwhile, the crisis on the Korean Peninsula has been escalating. Yoon came out with a “bold initiative” in which he pledged robust economic support to North Korea if it took part in dialogue toward denuclearization. So far, it hasn’t worked out as intended, and instead the two sides have been flexing their military muscles at each other.

Faced with repeated test launches of long- and short-range missiles by the North, the Yoon administration has responded with its own shows of force and the extension of its “Vigilant Storm” joint air exercises with the US.

Yoon’s domestic policies have also fallen short in terms of showing any clear governance vision or policy approach for the administration, other than reversing the nuclear phase-out and other initiatives by the preceding Moon Jae-in administration.

“The last six months have been a time when [the administration] should have been establishing a future agenda or priority governance tasks, but those things haven’t been sorted out,” said Kim Yun-cheol, a professor at Kyung Hee University’s Humanitas College.

“This has only cemented the impression of [Yoon] as a ‘rough and ready’ President, an unprepared president,” he suggested.

Lack of collaboration and consensus

Over the past six months, Yoon has shown little sign of willingness to communicate or collaborate with the political opposition or critics. In a situation where the PPP’s minority in the National Assembly necessitates cooperation with the opposition, Yoon has yet to meet even once with the leader of the Democratic Party, Korea’s main opposition party.

Instead, he only triggered a backlash from the opposition with remarks during an Oct. 19 meetup with the PPP’s non-parliamentary party committee heads, whom he’d invited to the presidential office. There, Yoon said it was “not possible to collaborate with pro-Pyongyang ‘juche believers.’”

Some observers are drawing connections between such political shortcomings and the backsliding of democracy, with compromise becoming a thing of the past.

“It feels like we’re in the ‘era of non-functioning democracy,’” said Son Hee-jung, a research professor at the Kyung Hee University Center for Cross-Cultural Studies.

In comparison with past presidents, Yoon has lowered the barriers to direct communication with the public somewhat since taking office through impromptu press conferences on his way to work. But he’s come up short when it comes to demonstrating his ability to empathize.

He drew criticism for remarking “You’re telling me all those people died here?” during a visit to the scene of the Itaewon crowd crush. He also came under fire for his attitude during an August visit to a semi-basement apartment in Seoul where a developmentally disabled woman and her family members drowned during a flood. At the time, he asked, “Why weren’t they evacuated ahead of time?”

“Set a direction and follow it”

Experts stressed that Yoon will need to reexamine his governance principles and work to reestablish trust.

“At a time when conditions at home and abroad are getting worse by the day in terms of the economy, security, climate disasters and so on, the president needs to give hope to suffering members of the public and give them the courage to get through it,” said Lee Jin-soon, chairperson of the group We All Govern Lab.

“He needs to consistently provide an overarching vision and principles and follow through on those if we’re all to join together in getting through this,” she stressed.

Park Won-ho, a professor of political science at Seoul National University, said, “Presidents go down in history for their policies. [Yoon] needs to regard it as his job as president to elicit the National Assembly’s cooperation and take proactive steps to find a way.”

By Kim Mi-na, Lee Jae-hoon & Lim Jae-woo, staff reporters

Please direct questions or comments to [english@hani.co.kr]

button that move to original korean article (클릭시 원문으로 이동하는 버튼)

Related stories

Most viewed articles