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Will foreign policy buoy Yoon’s ratings?

By Choi Si-young

Published : May 15, 2023 - 15:52

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President Yoon Suk Yeol at his weekly Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on May 9, 2023. (Yoon’s office) President Yoon Suk Yeol at his weekly Cabinet meeting at the presidential office in Seoul on May 9, 2023. (Yoon’s office)

Eyes are on President Yoon Suk Yeol’s upcoming diplomatic engagements, with some speculating how the coming weeks could influence his still-low popularity at home, which has seen improvement since summits with the US and Japanese leaders.

The five-day Realmeter poll conducted from May 8-12 found that 36.8 percent of Koreans approve of Yoon’s job performance -- a steady rise from three weeks ago, when the figure stood at 32.6 percent in the same weekly poll.

In the last week of April, Yoon announced a nuclear accord with US President Joe Biden, the single biggest diplomatic gain so far for the conservative Korean leader who took office in May last year. The deal, an upgrade to the allies’ current defense treaty, gives Seoul a bigger say in Washington’s potential nuclear response to North Korea, Seoul’s biggest threat.

Last week, Yoon and his Japanese counterpart shook hands on deeper ties chiefly to contain the North, vowing to put behind them a historical dispute that had long thwarted such cooperation. Yoon and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida agreed to revive their regular visits to each other’s countries, known as “shuttle diplomacy,” after a 12-year hiatus.

Yoon’s push for foreign policy wins, however, is not likely to aid his approval ratings, despite a series of potential policy gains in recent weeks, commentators said.

“Yoon’s outreach to Washington and Tokyo had bolstered his traditional support base -- the conservatives and some of those in the middle,” said Rhee Jong-hoon, a political commentator. He added however that the momentum for such “foreign policy wins” will be short-lived, saying Yoon seems to have reeled in “every possible support from the conservatives and the undecided out there.”

Yoon, Biden and Kishida, representing a coalition working on North Korea’s denuclearization, are expected to meet again Sunday -- the last day of a three-day Group of Seven meeting that starts Friday. The three-way meeting on the sidelines of the gathering Japan is hosting in Hiroshima to discuss global priorities is what Yoon and his supporters believe is crucial to advancing South Korea’s global status.

Hwang Tae-soon, also a political commentator, said Yoon’s growing popularity in the last three weeks has more to do with “declining confidence in the main opposition,” a party that has been rocked by infighting over corruption scandals involving a former chairman at the party and a lawmaker close to the current chairman.

“The way I see is the poll is a reflection of a change of heart for those people who threw their support behind Yoon because they were disappointed with his opposition. Yoon is the lesser evil, hence a rise in popularity,” Hwang said, ruling out a further rise.

Jang Sung-chul, head of a local policy think tank in Seoul, said Yoon’s three-way meeting with Biden and Kishida on Sunday would provide little to build on the momentum for an uptick in popularity, either.

“Yoon’s adviser has just said the three leaders won’t issue a joint statement, which to many is an indication the gathering will not reveal something unexpected. That’s not good,” Jang said, dismissing a sudden popularity boost.

Kim Tae-hyo, Yoon’s first deputy national security adviser, said the meeting will “review coordinating responses and efforts dealing with the common nuclear and missile threats from North Korea.” It will not discuss a “consultative group” to be exclusively responsible for supporting joint anti-North Korea measures, he added. Many expect the body to be evidence of ever closer three-way ties.

During the trip to Japan, Yoon, who is scheduled to address the seven leaders at an extended G-7 meeting, will also pay respects to Korean atomic bomb victims at a memorial in Hiroshima, according to Kim, who stressed it will be the first time for a Korean leader to do so.

It will also be the first time Yoon and Kishida will jointly pay respects to the Korean victims, Kim stressed. The two leaders agreed on the plan at Kishida’s trip to Seoul from May 7-8 -- a tour that followed Yoon’s visit to Tokyo from March 16-17.

Meanwhile, Yoon is looking to enhance Korea’s ties with Canada and Europe as well.

The president will hold talks with Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau on Wednesday to mark 60 years of relations. Next week, Yoon will meet with German Chancellor Olaf Scholz, European Council President Charles Michel and European Commission President Ursula von der Leyen.