Declining approval rating feared to dampen Yoon's political drive

President Yoon Suk-yeol reviews documents as he prepares to attend the 2022 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit at a hotel in Madrid, Spain, Thursday, in this photo released, Sunday. Courtesy of the presidential office

Ruling party's internal rift, slowing economy sap support for president

By Nam Hyun-woo

President Yoon Suk-yeol's approval rating is mired in a downward spiral less than two months after he took office, May 10, setting new record lows for three consecutive weeks.

Yoon, who just returned from his first overseas trip to the 2022 North Atlantic Treaty Organization (NATO) Summit in Spain, seeks to take advantage of the outcomes of his meetings there to recover from the declining support, as his predecessors did following overseas trips. But political watchers remain skeptical of Yoon's ability to do so, as domestic issues dragging down his approval rating have no clear answers.

According to a Gallup Korea weekly poll that surveyed 1,000 adults from June 28 to 30, Yoon's job approval rating stood at 43 percent, down 4 percentage points from a week earlier. The number has been slipping for three straight weeks to new record lows.

Of particular note in Friday's poll was the 42-percent disapproval figure, up 4 percentage points from a week earlier. Due to this figure, the gap between those rating him positively and negatively narrowed to one percentage point, which is within the survey's margin of error.

Other surveys that were conducted before Yoon left for Spain were even more negative. A survey by the Korea Society Opinion Institute released on June 27 showed that Yoon's disapproval rating outpaced his approval rating by 47.4 percent to 46.8 percent, and a Realmeter survey also suggested a similar outcome. Further details of the surveys are available at the website of the National Election Survey Deliberation Commission.

Yoon's approval rating is relatively low compared to that of his predecessors during similar periods of their terms.

According to the Gallup Korea survey, Yoon's average approval rating as president, from May to June, was 50 percent.

This figure is lower than the average approval rating of 81 percent that former President Moon Jae-in had during the first three months of his presidency, a 52-percent approval rating of former President Lee Myung-bak, a 60-percent approval rating of former President Roh Moo-hyun, 71-percent approval rating of former President Kim Dae-jung and 71-percent approval rating of former President Kim Young-sam.

Among the surveyed presidents, the only ones who had approval ratings lower than Yoon's for the period are former President Park Geun-hye with 42 percent and former President Roh Tae-woo with 29 percent.

Yoon's low approval rating is triggering fears that his policies many lose momentum at such an early juncture in his single, five-year term.

"Faltering approval ratings will trap the president in a vicious cycle," said Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University.

"When the rating goes down, the president's control over the ruling party weakens, and this affects his approval rating again," Shin said. "In general, an overseas trip by a president boosts the approval rating, because he or she keeps a distance from domestic political matters. However, in Yoon's case, it remains to be seen whether the NATO trip will do that."

President Yoon Suk-yeol shakes hands with ruling People Power Party Chairman Lee Jun-seok after landing at Seoul Airport in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, Friday. Courtesy of the presidential office

Shin stressed that Yoon's approval rating appears to be declining because of the ruling People Power Party's (PPP) internal rift between Chairman Lee Jun-seok and lawmakers close to him.

Lee is now losing political ground, as the party is poised to discipline him over allegations that he received sexual services as a bribe twice. In doing so, the PPP's pro-Yoon lawmakers are mounting political attacks against Lee, in what appears to be a power struggle for the party's leadership.

Amid the internal rift, the National Assembly has yet to name its speaker and subcommittee members for the second half of its tenure, failing to fulfil its lawmaking function. This situation is also amplifying the negative public sentiment against the government and the ruling party.

"Yoon is now keeping a distance from the PPP's internal conflict, but he has to come up with whatever measures necessary to end this vicious cycle and regain his political drive," Shin said.

Economic difficulties are also affecting Yoon's approval rating. Yoon has been pursuing a market-driven economy, but the triple whammy of inflation, high interest rates and a weak won against the dollar is putting Yoon's policy direction to the test.

Rising raw material prices are also weighing heavily on the export-oriented Korean economy. According to trade ministry data released on Friday, Korea's trade deficit for the first half of this year hit a record high of $10.3 billion, despite record-high exports in the same period. This situation is attributable to a greater surge in imports due to the spike in raw material prices.

Although Yoon reiterated that he will "go all-out to resuscitate the economy," the government has yet to come up with compelling policy ideas that can offer hopeful messages to the public, experts said.

"When the public voted for Yoon, they did not expect him to demonstrate fancy diplomacy at NATO, bring dramatic reforms to politics or revamp the prosecution," said Park Sang-byeong, a professor at Inha University's Graduate School of Policy Science.

"The public was asking for Yoon to come up with policies that can alleviate economic difficulties, or at least a message that can counter the current high inflation. However, Yoon has focused on political issues so far, while the government is taking the policy direction of pouring money into the market, which is the opposite measure of countering inflation. The faltering approval rating shows the public's disappointment with Yoon's economic policies."

A person sits in front of several closed restaurants in downtown Myeongdong, central Seoul, Sunday. Yonhap
Nam Hyun-woo

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