After 2 years in office, Yoon’s promises of fairness, common sense ring hollow

Posted on : 2024-05-07 16:55 KST Modified on : 2024-05-07 16:55 KST
Thursday, May 10, will mark the second anniversary of Yoon Suk-yeol being inaugurated as president of South Korea
The briefing room of South Korea’s presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul. President Yoon Suk-yeol is scheduled to give his first press conference in 21 months here on May 9, 2024. (Yonhap)
The briefing room of South Korea’s presidential office in Yongsan, Seoul. President Yoon Suk-yeol is scheduled to give his first press conference in 21 months here on May 9, 2024. (Yonhap)

Will there be a change in how the country is being run, or will we see the same unilateral approach? 

At 10 am on Thursday, President Yoon Suk-yeol of South Korea will hold a press conference to elaborate on his positions regarding various issues and policies. This press conference, coming on the eve of the two-year anniversary of Yoon being sworn into office, will be the first such press availability by the president since August 2022, when he held a press conference to commemorate his first 100 days in office. 

In a press briefing on Monday, presidential spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung announced that Yoon would use the opportunity to “expound on his governance throughout the past two years as well as the policies he will pursue going forward.” 

The upcoming press conference by the president will be a litmus test for determining how Yoon and his administration have interpreted the People Power Party’s defeat in the recent general elections. On April 27, 2022, the presidential transition committee announced that it would base its governance on “fairness, common sense, the national interest and pragmatism,” while saying the incoming Yoon administration would “approach all policies and national issues from the perspective of pragmatism and the national interest.” 

“Statecraft will be based not on ideology but on common sense and the interests of the majority of the Korean people. We will stand firm in the rule of law before which all are equal. We will not tolerate special interests or any violations from those in positions of privilege,” the transition team said at the time. 

Yet throughout the past two years of Yoon’s administration, these principles seem to have vanished — or at least been selectively applied. This has sowed seeds of distrust among the public. Many see the current administration as having taken Korea backward rather than pushing it forward.

In particular, the claims of “fairness and common sense” evaporated when it came to Yoon exercising his power to shield his wife from investigation and prosecution. He vetoed a bill that would assign a special prosecutor to investigate allegations that the first lady was involved in stock manipulation in Deutsch Motors. He also blocked an investigation into the first lady receiving a luxury handbag from a pastor, which he claims she begrudgingly accepted because she didn’t want to be “cold-hearted.”

He then appointed former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as the ambassador to Australia while Lee was under investigation for alleged involvement in government interference in an investigation regarding the death of a Marine who died during a flood rescue mission in 2023. Many would question whether this is in line with the “rule of law before which all are equal.”

Yoon has been caught on tape using coarse language when talking about US President Joe Biden. He also refused to offer a proper apology regarding the government’s blundering response to the Itaewon crowd crush. “Common sense” and governance geared toward the “majority of the Korean people” did not appear to apply here.  

Heavy-handed investigations into news outlets and reporters who raised suspicions surrounding government personnel appointments caused South Korea to drop 15 places in the Reporters Without Borders’ annual world press freedom index, from 47th place in 2023 to 62nd in 2024.

The administration’s pursuit of national interests and practicality has also been subsumed by ideology-based diplomacy and a slipshod maintenance of national affairs. For the past two years, a diplomacy that deepened the rift between two camps —South Korea, the US and Japan on one side and North Korea, China and Russia on the other — has heightened tensions on and around the Korean Peninsula.

The administration has touted the improvement in South Korea-Japan relations as a legacy achievement, but its third-party compensation for victims of forced labor during Japanese colonial rule or the dumping of radioactive water from the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear power plant into the ocean suggest that such actions were not made for the sake of national interest, but in order to absolve Japan of any and all blame for past historical wrongs.

Policies that were ordered without any prior preparation or game plans, such as the lowering of school entry age to 5 in his first year of office, the order to eliminate so-called “killer questions” in the College Scholastic Ability Test in June 2023, and the expansion in medical school admissions seats, have done nothing but push the public into chaos.

While he insists on tax cuts for the wealthy and fiscal soundness, there is no clear solution to alleviating the cost-of-living crisis weighing on a public that is frantically trying to get by while facing high living expenses and interest rates.

In the end, whether or not Yoon is open to change is likely to determine whether we’ll see a change in the way that national affairs are run in his remaining time in office.

Lee Kwan-hu, a politics professor at Konkuk University’s Sang-huh College, said, “It’s important for the president to demonstrate change by empathizing with the public, actively working with the opposition party, and changing how he acts when running the country.”

By Lee Seung-jun, staff reporter

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