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President Yoon faces uphill battle upon return to work

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President Yoon Suk-yeol poses with thespians as one of them takes a selfie after a play at a theater in Daehangno, Seoul, Wednesday. Courtesy of presidential office
President Yoon Suk-yeol poses with thespians as one of them takes a selfie after a play at a theater in Daehangno, Seoul, Wednesday. Courtesy of presidential office

Tough economy, low job approval rating bear on Yoon's downtime

By Nam Hyun-woo

Daunting tasks await President Yoon Suk-yeol as he will return to work on Monday after going on leave for one week. Soaring consumer prices and the negative public sentiment of the Yoon administration are two of the pressing issues he must overcome.

During his vacation since Aug. 1, Yoon has been staying at his residence in Seoul. He watched a performance at a theater in Seoul on Wednesday and spoke over the phone with U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi on Thursday. Except these two known activities, little is known about how he spent his first vacation since he took office on May 10.

Presidential aides said Yoon used the time to rest and explored ideas that can help him tighten his grip on state affairs.

When he returns, awaiting him are grave economic difficulties as soaring consumer prices and steep rate hikes are weighing heavily on the public's livelihood.

According to Statistics Korea, the country's consumer price index rose 6.3 percent year-on-year last month, which was the sharpest increase in 23 years. With vegetables and other groceries prices showing noticeable increases, this comes as a heavy burden for the Korean public in the wake of the Chuseok holiday period from Sept. 9 to 12.

"In an overall evaluation, inflation remains at a high level, and it will reach its peak around October as we have predicted before," Choi Sang-mok, senior presidential secretary for economic affairs said. "With this year's Chuseok holidays coming, we have concerns about consumer prices, so we will soon hold an emergency economic meeting to come up with measures to ease the public's burden."

Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Dae-ki, answers reporters' questions at the presidential office, July 24. Joint Press Corps
Presidential Chief of Staff Kim Dae-ki, answers reporters' questions at the presidential office, July 24. Joint Press Corps

Along with the economy, the dismal public sentiment regarding his administration is another concern for Yoon.

According to a Gallup Korea poll released Friday, Yoon's job approval rating stood at 24 percent in the first week of August, plummeting by 4 percentage points from a week earlier to set a new record low. The poll surveyed 1,001 adults from Aug. 2 to 4.

Pundits have said a president's job approval ratings tend to go up when he or she maintains distance from pending state affairs during a vacation period. This was, however, not the case for Yoon, due to a controversy over the construction of his residence, an alleged influence-peddling attempt by a shaman rumored to have close relations with the presidential couple and heated debates over Yoon's decision not to meet U.S. House Speaker Pelosi in person when she visited Seoul from Aug. 3 to 4.

During Yoon's vacation period, presidential secretaries held press conferences to promote the government's policies, but those efforts were overshadowed by public and media attention on the aforementioned controversies.

As his job approval ratings have fallen into a downward spiral, suggestions are coming from within the ruling bloc that Yoon may be thinking of replacing some high-ranking aides, such as his Chief of Staff Kim Dae-ki and Senior Secretary for Political Affairs Lee Jin-bok, to refresh the public's perception of the administration.

Reflecting such opinions, an online news outlet reported that Kim and a number of senior secretaries have already tendered their resignations to Yoon and the president has turned them down. The presidential office denied the report.

"The president's style is keeping trust in people he has chosen," an official at the office said. "With daunting tasks awaiting him after the vacation, it seems it would be difficult for the president to spend time finding new aides."

Against this backdrop, Yoon will take on three key engagements in the coming weeks, which will be an opportunity for him to regain public support.

On Aug. 15, the country will celebrate its National Liberation Day, and Yoon is scheduled to grant presidential special amnesty to some high-profile figures serving prison terms. Political observers are forecasting former President Lee Myung-bak, Samsung Electronics Vice Chairman Lee Jae-yong and Lotte Group Chairman Shin Dong-bin to be on the list.

Also gaining attention is Yoon's speech on that day, which will showcase the president's thoughts on state affairs, North Korea issues and Seoul-Tokyo relations.

Two days later, Yoon will mark his 100th day in office. Yoon's predecessors have held nationally televised press conferences to present their achievements and plans to the people.

It remains uncertain whether Yoon will hold such an event. The presidential office said it is yet to fix a plan for the 100th day event, while speculation is growing that Yoon may rather opt to hold a short press conference.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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