Yoon faces challenges as administration marks first year

Home > National > Politics

print dictionary print

Yoon faces challenges as administration marks first year

President calls new diplomatic approach his biggest feat

President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, speaks to reporters at an event marking the opening of the Yongsan Children's Garden in front of the presidential office in central Seoul on May 2 ahead of the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

President Yoon Suk Yeol, center, speaks to reporters at an event marking the opening of the Yongsan Children's Garden in front of the presidential office in central Seoul on May 2 ahead of the one-year anniversary of his inauguration. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

President Yoon Suk Yeol on Wednesday marks one year since his inauguration, which heralded the "Yongsan era,” symbolic of his wishes to become a leader who is more open and transparent to the public.  
When Yoon took office on May 10, 2022, he immediately kept a key campaign pledge to move the presidential office out of the secluded Blue House in north Gwanghwamun to the Defense Ministry compound in Yongsan District, central Seoul. This was in keeping with his campaign pledge to become a president more accessible to the people and press, though the move also resulted in public concern over security matters, cost and logistics.
Yoon also followed up with promises to strengthen the South Korea-U.S. alliance and improve frayed bilateral relations with Japan, taking into consideration Seoul's strategic interests and economic security priorities.  
This comes in light of North Korea's intensified nuclear and missile threats over the past year and heightened geopolitical tensions with the rising U.S.-China strategic competition and Russia's invasion of Ukraine.
As a political outsider who hails from a public prosecutor background, Yoon has made notable strides since he took office, both in domestic policies and diplomatic matters, but also struggles to improve his public approval ratings, which consistently hover in the 30s.  
Likewise, Yoon has done little to prevent further political polarization despite promises to bring national unity and joint governance between his conservative People Power Party (PPP) and the liberal Democratic Party (DP). This could put a damper on his domestic policies and visions of key reforms, especially as the DP holds a majority in the National Assembly.  
"As I received criticism and encouragement, before I knew it, a year has already passed," Yoon said at a surprise appearance at a luncheon attended by reporters and presidential staff to mark the opening of the Yongsan Children's Garden on May 2. "Next year, I plan to speed up changes that have been slow to move along and correct the areas that need to be corrected."
No longer a rookie president, Yoon now faces the challenge of moving along the major policy tasks he aims to accomplish during his five-year term.  
U.S. lawmakers give a standing ovation as Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, on the podium, gives an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 27. [AP/YONHAP]

U.S. lawmakers give a standing ovation as Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, on the podium, gives an address to a joint session of the U.S. Congress on Capitol Hill in Washington on April 27. [AP/YONHAP]

Keeping security promises  
From the onset, Yoon set out to prioritize the Korea-U.S. alliance with a focus on strengthening security and economic cooperation.
This was shown through action, with U.S. President Joe Biden's unusually early visit to Seoul in May 2022 and Yoon's state visit to the United States in late April.  
Yoon has emphasized the core values of freedom and solidarity and attempted to differentiate his administration from the previous Moon Jae-in government. This comes through in his foreign policy, which underscores value-based diplomacy based on universal values such as liberal democracy and human rights.
Yoon's approach diverges from previous governments that have stuck to a policy of strategic ambiguity amid the struggle for hegemony between the United States, Korea's traditional ally, and China, its largest economic partner.  
Yoon held his first summit with Biden on May 21, just 11 days after becoming Korea's president. The two leaders agreed to upgrade relations to a "global comprehensive strategic alliance," broadening coordination in military and security affairs to economic and technological cooperation.
Yoon recently returned from a weeklong state visit to the United States in late April as the two countries marked the 70th anniversary of their alliance.  
During their summit at the White House on April 26, Yoon and Biden adopted the Washington Declaration, committing to strengthening extended deterrence and creating a NATO-inspired bilateral Nuclear Consultative Group.  
In an outreach to the American public, Yoon gave an English-language address at the U.S. Congress, stressing that Korea will become a "compass for freedom" with the United States. He also became the first Korean president to make a speech at Harvard University, though he most notably made headlines for singing Don McLean's "American Pie" at Biden's state dinner.  
Yoon also prioritized improving relations between Seoul and Tokyo, which have further deteriorated in recent years due to historical and territorial disputes and a trade spat.  
In early March, the Yoon government announced a plan to compensate Korean victims of forced labor during Japan's 1910-45 colonial rule through a Seoul-backed public foundation without set contributions from Japanese companies, a move protested by some victims and civic groups.  
The Korean Supreme Court in 2018 ordered Japanese companies to individually compensate forced labor victims during World War II, a move that was strongly protested by Japan. This led to Japan placing export restrictions on Korea the following year and a period of tit-for-tat diplomacy.  
During a bilateral visit to Tokyo for a summit with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on March 16, Yoon said that Korea's national interest is not a "zero-sum relationship" with Japan's, underscoring that the normalization of bilateral relations will be helpful to the security of both countries. He also fully normalized the General Security of Military Information Agreement, the bilateral military intelligence-sharing with Japan.
Yoon's Tokyo trip was reciprocated by Kishida's bilateral visit to Seoul on Sunday, marking a resumption of a so-called "shuttle diplomacy" between the two countries' leaders for the first time in 12 years.
On the global front, Yoon stepped up efforts toward international solidarity and attended the NATO summit for the first time in June 2022. He also announced last year he will participate in the U.S.-led Indo-Pacific Economic Framework, seen as a grouping aimed at decoupling from China to diversify supply chains. In December, the Yoon government announced its own strategy for a "peaceful and prosperous" Indo-Pacific region.
Yoon is also set to host the Third Summit for Democracy after co-hosting the U.S.-led second summit in March, seen as a part of Biden's efforts to unite democracies aligned with the United States, in contrast to the global trend toward the authoritarianism of autocracies like Russia and China.
Likewise, Yoon has also recently become more vocal in support for Ukraine, condemning Russia's invasion multiple times during his recent state visit to the United States.  
In an interview with Reuters last month, Yoon suggested Korea could provide military aid if Ukraine comes under a large-scale attack on its civilians. Korea officially maintains it will not provide lethal aid to countries at war.  
Later this month, Yoon heads to Japan for the Group of 7 Summit in Hiroshima upon the invitation of Japan, an opportunity to further enhance trilateral security cooperation through an earlier reunion with Biden and Kishida and also leverage South Korea's growing global status.  
This comes amid concerns that a new Cold War structure is emerging as North Korea, China and Russia draw closer amid strengthening trilateral coordination between Seoul, Tokyo and Washington.
Despite closer ties with Washington, Yoon faces the continued struggle of leveraging Seoul's position in cases such as the Inflation Reduction Act (IRA), which puts Korean automakers at a disadvantage as the United States, reminiscent of Donald Trump's "America First" policy.
Critics of Yoon's foreign policy are worried he may be escalating regional tensions through language that seemingly aggravates schisms. The DP blasted Yoon for what it called his "humiliating diplomacy" with Japan for not prioritizing historical issues and victims of colonial rule. It also criticized him for not gaining enough security and economic guarantees from the United States.  
Since China and Russia play vital roles in the North Korean denuclearization process, increasing international polarization could make denuclearization negotiations more difficult.  
Regarding North Korea, Yoon proposed his "audacious initiative" to help North Korea's economy in stages, provided Pyongyang takes substantive steps toward denuclearization.  
But Yoon has been more hawkish toward Pyongyang than his predecessor, who pushed for a peace initiative favoring inter-Korean cooperation, and Seoul and Washington, in turn, resumed a series of full-fledged joint military exercises.  
Yoon has vocally criticized North Korea's human rights abuses, marking a return of South Korea as a co-sponsor of annual human rights resolutions adopted by the UN General Assembly and the UN Human Rights Council. The administration also published its first public report on North Korean human rights in March.
"When I think about taking office as president around this time a year ago, there is no area that has undergone as big of a change as foreign affairs and national security," Yoon said in a Cabinet meeting Tuesday on the eve of his inauguration anniversary.  
Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, chats with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in front of U.S. President Joe Biden’s gift of baseball memorabilia from Yoon’s state visit to Washington at the Yongsan presidential office in central Seoul Sunday during their bilateral summit. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol, left, chats with Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida, in front of U.S. President Joe Biden’s gift of baseball memorabilia from Yoon’s state visit to Washington at the Yongsan presidential office in central Seoul Sunday during their bilateral summit. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

Domestic hurdles
Domestically, a major stumbling block for the Yoon administration has been the lack of speed in promoting urgent public welfare and economic policies amid continued confrontation between the PPP and DP.
A DP-controlled National Assembly means cooperation is necessary as Yoon pushes forward with his signature "three major reforms" in labor, education and pensions, as well as other state affairs.
However, Yoon has yet to hold a meeting with DP leader Lee Jae-myung over the past year, despite his campaign pledge to reach across the aisle to bridge the political divide and become a president who communicates with the opposing party and brings national unity.
Lee also faces judicial risks as the Daejang-dong development scandal continues to spiral.
Yoon served as prosecutor general in the Moon Jae-in administration and is recognized for successfully pursuing high-profile corruption and abuse of power cases involving figures from the previous administrations of Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye.
In the presidential election of March 9, 2022, Yoon defeated DP rival Lee Jae-myung by a razor-thin margin of 0.73 percentage points of the vote.
Yoon campaigned for a change in government, championing fairness and justice.
Hopes for the new government led to a victory for Yoon and the PPP in local elections and by-elections on June 1, 2022. The PPP clinched 12 of 17 key metropolitan mayor and provincial governor posts contested.  
Under a year, Yoon is seen to have successfully gained a grip on the PPP, a party that was deeply divided between supporters of the president and those who were not. The PPP faced a series of hurdles during the campaign process and overcame internal turmoil after the ouster of its former leader Lee Jun-seok, who faced allegations of sexual bribery and a cover-up attempt last summer.  
In March, Kim Gi-hyeon, a four-term lawmaker and a Yoon loyalist, became PPP's new leader after winning the party's national convention, further securing the president's grip over the party ahead of the April 2024 general elections. The result of these elections will be another opportunity to evaluate Yoon's performance.  
The Yoon government has come down hard on illegal acts committed by striking labor unions, which in turn has been protested by progressive-leaning labor groups as going against democratic rights.  
In terms of economy, Yoon has stressed market-driven growth led by the private sector, differentiating himself from the income-led growth policy of the Moon administration.  
Yoon also pushed for deregulation and encouraged comprehensive tax reduction policies, including in real estate and corporate taxes.  
He notably scrapped the previous administration's nuclear phase-out policy and is focusing on growing Korea's high-tech industries, including semiconductors.
This comes as the country faces complex crises, including high interest rates and exchange rates, inflation and low growth.
Earlier this year, the National Assembly, where the DP holds 169 seats, unprecedentedly impeached Yoon's interior minister, Lee Sang-min, to take responsibility for the bungled response to the Itaewon crowd crush on Oct. 29, 2022, that claimed the lives of 159 people.  
Last month, Yoon vetoed the DP-backed grain bill, his first executive veto, rejecting a piece of legislation that would have required the government to purchase surplus rice.  
Yoon has been plagued by relatively low approval ratings for a president still fairly new into his term, with his favorability peaking after his inauguration at over 50 percent.
His approval ratings fell below the 30 percent mark several times last summer amid the PPP's internal turmoil, controversy surrounding the launch of a police bureau within the Interior Ministry and an embarrassing hot mic incident during Yoon's New York trip last September.  
The low ratings were also attributed to some of Yoon's own gaffes, especially during overseas trips, as well as controversies related to his tendency to hire prosecutors and friends to key posts and his subpar communication compared to what he had initially promised.  
In September, the presidential office blamed broadcaster MBC after Yoon was caught on mic using foul language during a private conversation at Biden's fundraiser event in New York.  
In November, Yoon suspended his trademark daily doorstepping sessions, which were chances for journalists to ask questions to the president directly and part of his campaign pledge to be more accessible than his predecessors. This came after an MBC reporter and a presidential aide got into a verbal altercation at such a session.  
Since November, Yoon's approval ratings have been generally above 30 percent, rising above 40 percent briefly after a positive public response to the president's focus on the economy and livelihood matters in March. It dipped below 30 percent in the second week of April amid reports of U.S. wiretapping of the presidential office.  
Yoon's approval rating was 34.6 percent, slightly up for a second consecutive week, according to the latest Realmeter poll released Monday, up 0.1 percentage points from the previous week, largely due to the effects of Yoon's state visit to the United States.  
Yoon's disapproval rating was 62.5 percent, 0.1 percentage points down from the previous week, in the poll conducted on 1,504 adults aged 18 or older conducted from May 2 to 4, with a margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points at a 95 percent confidence level.
Support for the PPP was at 34.9 percent, and the DP at 45.5 percent.  
A Gallup Korea poll taken just ahead of the first anniversary of Yoon taking office released Friday also showed Yoon's approval at 33 percent, up for a third consecutive week and up 3 percentage points from the previous week.
The poll conducted on 1,000 adults from May 2 to 4 showed Yoon's disapproval rating was 57 percent, down 6 percentage points from the previous week.  
His predecessors, Moon Jae-in had an approval rating of 78 percent at the one-year mark in May 2018, according to Gallup Korea, while Park Geun-hye had 57 percent favorability in February 2014. Lee Myung-bak, however, had a 34 percent approval rating in 2009 and Roh Moo-hyun just 25 percent in 2004.  
People who met President Yoon Suk Yeol, including actor Lee Jung-jae, center, express their support for building a better Korea in a YouTube video released by the presidential office marking his one-year anniversary since inauguration this week. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

People who met President Yoon Suk Yeol, including actor Lee Jung-jae, center, express their support for building a better Korea in a YouTube video released by the presidential office marking his one-year anniversary since inauguration this week. [PRESIDENTIAL OFFICE]

Speeding along change  
"Everyone says that we should show the results of how much work our government has done in the past year," Yoon said, presiding over a Cabinet meeting on May 2. "But more than that, I think it is necessary to show what kind of changes we are pursuing."
Yoon told his aides that he didn't want a one-year anniversary press conference simply to pat himself on the back and congratulate himself for his accomplishments since taking office.  
"It is now the first anniversary of the inauguration of the government," Yoon said in the meeting. "Let us all join forces to transform the Republic of Korea into a prouder country full of freedom and innovation."
To mark the first anniversary of the president's inauguration, Yoon's office released a series of videos on its YouTube page this week.
A video revealed Monday entitled "The president's promise for an upright Republic of Korea" relays Yoon's promises to the people and steps taken for the past year focusing on five areas: security, fairness, national interest, future and national status.
Yoon promised to solidify security through cooperation with allies and foster a strong military through science and technology, as well as "establishing a true peace, not a fake peace," the presidential office said in a statement.  
Regarding fairness, Yoon stressed his intentions to "set right laws and principles," including labor reforms and breaking away from "cartels" with vested interests.
On protecting national interests, Yoon said he will continue to push for Korea's nuclear power plant exports, including the recent commercial operation of Barakah nuclear power plant Unit 3 in the United Arab Emirates. Regarding the future, he touted his space economy roadmap, marked by the successful launches of the Nuri rocket and lunar orbiter Danuri.  
Yoon also underscored that preserving national status means remembering those who devoted themselves to defending Korea.  
He pledged to make sure to create together with the people "a nation that stands upright" and a "Republic of Korea that takes a bigger leap forward again."  
During the May 2 luncheon with the press corps, Yoon said he plans to look back at how much the country and society have changed; how many more dreams can be given to future generations; how much more just and fair society has become; and how much security and social safety have been secured.
Addressing the lack of a customary one-year anniversary press conference, Yoon told reporters he would rather sit and "chat over beer," saying, "I don't think it's polite to give out a bunch of data and pretend to be proud in front of the public."
Yoon also skipped out on a New Year's press conference, another opportunity for presidents to take direct questions from reporters.  
But Yoon ultimately didn't confirm if he would be resuming doorstepping sessions or hold a press conference any time soon.  

BY SARAH KIM [kim.sarah@joongang.co.kr]
Log in to Twitter or Facebook account to connect
with the Korea JoongAng Daily
help-image Social comment?
lock icon

To write comments, please log in to one of the accounts.

Standards Board Policy (0/250자)