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ANALYSISYoon's poor support rate burdens his foreign policy agenda

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Yoon needs to play role of chief risk management officer

By Kim Yoo-chul

A presidential job approval rating is considered to be the benchmark in measuring the job execution ability of a country's leader. A low approval rating can undermine how much an incumbent president can achieve during his or her time in office.

Within that context, the difference between maintaining a solid job approval rating and a weak one could be the difference in getting things done.

Since his inauguration in May, President Yoon Suk-yeol's job approval rating has plunged to a new low of 24 percent amid concerns about the economy as well as controversy over his remarks on a hot mic in New York, according to a weekly survey released last week by Gallup Korea. Yoon's predecessor, Moon Jae-in, had a 45-percent support rate when he left Cheong Wa Dae in May.

Despite coming into the presidential office with a bold vision to combat domestic challenges, rising wealth inequality and a political gridlock, Yoon's agenda has faced continuous backlash and obstruction from the country's main opposition party and from even some members of his own ruling party.

Yoon's low support rate is due mostly to domestic setbacks, as his approval ratings are in sync with the public's dissatisfaction over his administration's economic policies amid rising energy prices, high inflation and nomination of ex-prosecutors to important positions in the administration. Yoon himself was Korea's prosecutor general until he decided to run for president after disagreeing with the Moon Jae-in administration's attempts to reform the prosecution.

But experts and lawmakers in the country's ruling People Power Party (PPP) view that Yoon's low support rate will have a knock-on effect throughout his administration's foreign policy agenda.

A poor support rate will hinder Yoon's earlier commitment to take a hawkish stance toward North Korea and adopt a tough line with China, as he vowed to get closer to the United States and improve relations with Japan.

"President Yoon himself has become the key underlying factor that led to a new low of a 24-percent job approval rating. When assessing the president's support rate, all things matter. Supporters of Yoon and the PPP had hoped things would get better, but what's happening due to the accumulated storylines, things that the public hear and are told, is reaching a very alarming level," said Bae Jong-chan, chief of Insight K, a local consultancy.

The core challenge for an unpopular president is that he will no longer have substantial political support to win backing for his leadership on various key issues that may encounter domestic resistance. Experts say that if Yoon's support rate plunges even more, then his foreign policy initiatives being sought will face opposition.

Protesters stage a rally to oppose a visit by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in front of the presidential office in Seoul, Sept. 29. The banners read,
Protesters stage a rally to oppose a visit by U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris in front of the presidential office in Seoul, Sept. 29. The banners read, "We denounce President Yoon Suk-yeol's government participating in the South Korea-U.S.-Japan military alliance!" AP-Yonhap

The country's main opposition party, the Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), used its majority in the National Assembly to pass a motion calling for Yoon to dismiss Foreign Minister Park Jin, to hold him accountable for Yoon's recent problems overseas.

Yoon didn't accept the non-binding motion. His gaffes abroad were partly related to protocol issues encompassing scheduling difficulties, which led him to forgo paying his respects to Queen Elizabeth II as she lie in state on her funeral day. The presidential office said that Yoon's comments caught on camera included parts that "cannot be specified." Yoon said that he never said the words, President Biden, and doesn't remember cursing, despite the video footage.

Seoul's key diplomatic challenges include handling Beijing's discontent about South Korea's joining of a U.S.-led initiative for semiconductor supply chain resilience, known as the Chip 4, as China is South Korea's largest trading partner. Tokyo is unwilling to accept repeated conciliatory gestures from Seoul to improve bilateral relations. In the meantime, North Korea is set to conduct another nuclear test sometime between Oct. 6 and the U.S. mid-term elections on Nov. 7, according to Seoul's intelligence officials.

Need to improve public's perception

Because there are a lot of factors to analyze when assessing a president's approval rating, Yoon's current poor rate of support doesn't necessarily mean political paralysis is inevitable.

But the presidential office and top presidential aides are increasingly being asked to apply measures to improve the perception of Yoon, according to PPP officials and aides to former President Moon.

"A presidential approval rating doesn't mean that the public agrees or disagrees with all things. More likely, the approval rating is about general perceptions. More South Korean citizens want Yoon to play the role of the top risk management officer at a time of high uncertainty on multiple fronts. Yoon is the president of South Korea, not a professional prosecutor," an aide to former President Moon said by telephone.

A low job approval rating doesn't always act as a constraint on the implementation of a president's foreign policy agenda. But Seoul's restoration of bilateral relations with Tokyo and improvement of relations with Pyongyang are issues with a high degree of domestic political polarization, said government officials and experts.

For example, a survey conducted by local pollster Media Tomato of 1,009 respondents on Sept. 26 and 28 showed that more than 55 percent disapproved of Yoon's informal one-on-one talks with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on the sidelines of the United Nations General Assembly, while 37 percent supported it.

South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks during a press conference in Seoul in this file photo. South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a motion, Sept. 29, calling for President Yoon Suk-yeol to dismiss the foreign minister over a series of alleged diplomatic missteps, including Yoon's controversial remarks caught on a hot mic while in New York. AP-Yonhap
South Korean Foreign Minister Park Jin speaks during a press conference in Seoul in this file photo. South Korea's opposition-controlled National Assembly passed a motion, Sept. 29, calling for President Yoon Suk-yeol to dismiss the foreign minister over a series of alleged diplomatic missteps, including Yoon's controversial remarks caught on a hot mic while in New York. AP-Yonhap

Relations between Japan and South Korea are at their lowest in decades, after Seoul's top court ordered Japanese companies to compensate surviving South Korean victims of wartime forced labor, which the Japanese government rejected. Tokyo has yet to respond to South Korea's request for the restoration of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA,) a military information-sharing pact, and for the withdrawal of its export controls on chemicals used by South Korean semiconductor manufacturers.

"If Yoon and his foreign policy team want to see improvement in Seoul's ties with Tokyo, then Yoon needs solid public support. One reason behind Japan's passiveness regarding Seoul's requests is because of its worries over Yoon's low approval rating," said a former senior diplomat.

Regarding the North Korean nuclear issues, no signs of improvement with Pyongyang have been seen since he took power. In fact, Yoon said North Korea would face a "determined and overwhelming response" from South Korea and the United States if Pyongyang attempts to use nuclear weapons.

Speaking at the country's 74th Armed Forces Day ceremony on Saturday, Yoon promised that the militaries of South Korea and the United States would "strongly respond" to the North's military provocations and threats. Yoon's "audacious initiative" aimed at North Korea's denuclearization in exchange for economic rewards has yet to gain much public support. North Korea launched missiles after U.S. Vice President Kamala Harris' visit last Thursday to the DMZ, the line officially separating the two Koreas.

"Yoon's solid domestic standing matters a lot in terms of executing his foreign policy agenda. Given South Korea's greater exposure in batteries and semiconductors, Seoul's longtime allies want the Yoon administration to take a more expanded role, internationally. If Yoon's support rate plunges more, then his high-profile foreign policies will go no further," a PPP lawmaker said on condition of anonymity.

"Yoon has to rebrand himself as the chief risk management officer by relying less on the views of likeminded elites, those of whom share his background. It doesn't matter how much political experience Yoon has because what matters the most is that his administration is becoming ineffective."




Kim Yoo-chul yckim@koreatimes.co.kr


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