The Korea Herald


[News Analysis] Yoon's first 2 years marked by intense confrontations, lack of leadership

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : May 9, 2024 - 15:55

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President Yoon Suk Yeol enters the briefing room in his office for a news conference held in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol enters the briefing room in his office for a news conference held in Seoul on Thursday. (Yonhap)

President Yoon Suk Yeol spent his first two years in office facing persistent and intense political confrontations, public censure over his unilateral approach to communication, and controversies surrounding his wife that have cast a shadow over his policy initiatives and foreign affairs activities.

Having been elected to South Korea's most powerful office only six months after entering politics, the 63-year-old former prosecutor has remained unpopular domestically for the past two years, with his approval rating in the low 30-percent range for most of his tenure.

With the ruling bloc's April general election defeat, chances to reverse course now appear scarce for the president, who had never held an elected office before becoming president and is now floundering with his term less than halfway through.

"I think that the ruling bloc's defeat in the April National Assembly election wasn't a question of policy, but rather a result of a majority of South Korean voters disagreeing with President Yoon's leadership style," Ramon Pacheco Pardo, professor of international relations at King's College London.

Since his inauguration in 2022, Yoon has had to work with an opposition-controlled National Assembly.

Against this backdrop, Yoon chose to focus on foreign affairs -- restoring ties with Japan, tilting to the United States, visiting 18 countries and holding 153 formal meetings with foreign leaders -- instead of resolving domestic political problems.

Also, Yoon chose to give his political rivals the cold shoulder. Before the April election defeat, Yoon had never held formal talks with his political opponent, Rep. Lee Jae-myung, who chairs the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

Yoon was quoted as saying by Prime Minister Han Duck-soo in September that his meeting with a figure currently on criminal trial "could be seen as unfair," given that Lee is facing multiple criminal allegations.

In return, Lee's party ramped up offensives against the ruling bloc by ramming through bills without the ruling party's consultation. Yoon responded by exercising his veto power nine times, the second-highest number of vetoes in the first two years of a presidency.

The main opposition also called for investigations into Yoon's family members including first lady Kim Keon Hee.

"With the result of the 2022 presidential election being so tight, I think that voters would have expected more dialogue between the president and his party on the one hand and the opposition on the other," Pacheco Pardo said.

The legislative gridlock has also delayed efforts at reform, such as to the public pension system. During Yoon's first two years, only 40 percent of government-proposed bills passed the parliament, compared to rates of between 80 and 90 percent over the past two decades.

"It is hard to determine how much his leadership actually hurt his party in the National Assembly, but it is safe to say that it didn’t help," said Karl Friedhoff, fellow for Asia Studies at the US-based think tank Chicago Council on Global Affairs.

Beleaguered by enemies

Yoon continues to face the risk of not being able to have a domestic policy breakthrough in the remaining three years, as the main opposition party is set to dominate the new National Assembly session that kicks off next month.

The April general election also allowed budding parties seeking to challenge Yoon to debut in the National Assembly.

Rebuilding Korea Party Chair and former Justice Minister Cho Kuk fell from grace when Yoon, then the prosecutor-general, led an investigation into his family's admissions forgery scandal. New Reform Party leader Lee Jun-seok was estranged from the People Power Party although his leadership yielded victories in both the presidential and local elections in 2022. Both figures won a seat at the April election, and so did a dozen of their party members combined.

Yoon's enemies are not limited to political opponents. Yoon's lingering standoff with doctors shows no signs of abating, as Seoul has been moving to increase the number of doctors and doctors themselves are against it.

Yoon also has a history of locking horns with labor unions, pushing through back-to-work orders on striking truckers who protested the government's rejection of extending the freight rate hike.

"Many South Korean voters are tired of constant bickering over minor issues," said Pacheco Pardo.

In his first year of Yoon's presidency, the conservative ruling party was successful in two elections earlier in the year.

Following Yoon's narrow victory against then-liberal candidate Lee Jae-myung in March 2022, the conservative party was also victorious in the local election in June 2022, winning 12 out of 17 metropolitan mayoral and gubernatorial posts.

But the ruling party suffered defeat in a by-election in September -- an event that proved to be a bellwether for the April general election.

The People Power Party lost its bid for the Seoul Gangseo-gu Office head position, as it pushed ahead with its plan to let Kim Tae-woo of the People Power Party attempt to regain his seat as the former head.

The by-election was held to fill the position that Kim used to hold. Kim was forced out of the position after he was found guilty of leaking information about presidential office affairs during the liberal former Moon Jae-in administration as a special investigator. Yoon had pardoned Kim in August, three months after he was convicted by the top court.

Friedhoff argued that the ruling bloc's agenda-setting lacked consistency and substance through Yoon's first two years.

He said Yoon's presidential election pledge to disband the Ministry of Gender Equality, and the ruling party's proposal to expand Seoul to incorporate Gimpo suggest the ruling bloc is "out of ideas and out of step."

"The question the public is asking is, 'Do the conservatives actually have an agenda?'" Friedhoff said.

External turbulence

Yoon is expected to remain steadfast in his foreign policy in the remainder of his three years in office.

One of the most notable points in Yoon's foreign policy so far is mending ties with Japan. Yoon met his Japanese counterpart, Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, seven times in his first two years, more than several past presidents -- Park Chung-hee, Chun Doo-hwan, Roh Tae-woo, Park Geun-hye and Moon Jae-in -- did during their terms.

But experts noted that there are issues that need to be addressed to create a solid foundation for Seoul's restored ties with Tokyo and prepare for the US presidential election in November.

Friedhoff said that historical issues are not fully settled between Seoul and Tokyo, contrary to Yoon's words that "Korea-Japan relations must now go beyond the past."

"Relations with Japan need to be improved in a way that also takes care to address the underlying historical difficulties ... the ground will inevitably shift and revert in the future," Friedhoff said.

Friedhoff added that Seoul will need to increase its pursuit of "minilaterals" -- activities involving small numbers of countries -- in order to brace for the possibility of a former US President Donald Trump victory and the turbulence that comes with it.

"That could include Japan, but should also include countries like Australia, India and the Philippines, for example," he said.

Attention is also being paid to whether Seoul would manage to successfully host the trilateral summit of Seoul, Beijing and Tokyo.

"I believe that South Korea will strive to talk to China, just as the US, Japan, France or Germany are also doing," Pacheco Pardo said. "I think that this is normal."