Less than a hundred days have passed since the enthronement of Yoon Suk-yeol, and his rating is rapidly falling. If in the first week of June it was 52.1%, then on June 22 the negative assessments of the president exceeded the positive ones, while as of July 25, 2022, the rating of Yoon Suk-yeol was 33.3%, and it was already 28% on July 29.
Those who supported Yoon said that he is resolute (28%), communicates well with the public (18%) and is fair (18%). The biggest reason for the negative assessment was that Yoon was too dogmatic and one-sided (30%), followed by a lack of experience and competence (28%) and the appointment of unsuitable people (16%).
Of course, such a rating cannot be compared with the indicators of Moon, the beginning of whose reign was accompanied by inflated expectations, but it is still lower than others. Only Lee Myung-bak is worse, who began his presidency in February 2008 with an average of 52% support, but at the end of May this figure quickly fell to 21% amid the onset of the economic crisis and public resistance to government negotiations on the revision of the Free Trade Agreement between Korea and the United States, which assumed the resumption of imports of American beef.
This phenomenon can be explained by several sets of problems, and we immediately note that public opinion has no complaints about a tougher course towards the DPRK. He is more interested in internal issues.
The first reason for the fall in the rating is related to economic difficulties caused by sharp inflation, the weak exchange rate of the won against the dollar and the increase in interest rates.
The index of expected business activity of the ROK for August 2022 amounted to 86.9 points, which indicates the predominance of pessimistic moods over optimistic ones. In the manufacturing sector, the index was 82.5 points, and 91.4 points in the non-manufacturing sector. In these segments, negative indicators are recorded for the third month in a row. The so-called Misery Index (developed by American economist Arthur Okun and calculated based on the unemployment rate and inflation) in Q1 2022 amounted to 10.6 points, which is the maximum mark since 2015, when the maintenance of these statistics began.
According to the estimates of the Ministry of Finance of the ROK, against the background of increased inflation and deterioration of foreign economic factors, fears of a slowdown in the economy of South Korea and a reduction in exports are growing. There is a further increase in the risks of market volatility and global economic downturn caused by a sharp increase in the US Federal Reserve’s key rate, a slowdown in China’s economic growth and the consequences of the protracted military conflict between Russia and Ukraine.
Due to increased external economic uncertainty, the risks of stagflation, sharp growth and high inflation caused by soaring world prices for energy and raw materials and persistent disruptions of global supply chains are increasing.
From the point of view of some economists, the country may face a situation at least similar to the economic crisis of 2008, although most of these problems were inherited from the previous administration, and therefore Yoon’s critics pay attention to something else.
The second set of problems is controversial personnel appointments, because the team gathering was not perfect, and some ministers were forced to recuse themselves, while in some cases this fate befell their successors. There are a lot of stories, and therefore we will have to tell them briefly, since we mentioned some earlier.
- Kim In-cheol, a candidate for education minister, has been at the center of a scandal over the appropriateness of Fulbright scholarships offered to members of his family. Kim was president of the Fulbright Alumni Association and an auditor of the commission, while his daughter received a scholarship from the program in 2014, and his son in 2016. On May 3, 2022, he resigned.
- Jong Ho-cheol, a candidate for the post of Minister of Health and Social Security, was suspected of having organized his children to enter the medical school of Gyeongbuk National University, where he was a professor. On May 23, Jong Ho-yeong announced his voluntary recusal. Despite the fact that the accusations against his children were not confirmed, he said that this was not enough for a part of society, and therefore he made such a decision.
- Kim Seung-hee, the next candidate for Minister of Health, withdrew her candidacy on July 4 due to accusations that she used political means for personal purposes. Kim is under investigation for allegedly using her “political expenses” to pay for her husband’s car insurance and car rental fees when she was a deputy, in violation of the Law on Political Funds. According to Kim, there was an accounting error, but she decided to resign in order to take responsibility for managerial flaws.
- Park Soon-ae, the Minister of Education, was displeased because of her past experience of drunk driving in 2001 (0.251% alcohol in the blood; apologized for it at the inauguration ceremony), but was still appointed. It is also reported that in the past she was charged with mistreatment of assistants, violation of research ethics, etc., but Park rejects this as “misunderstandings.”
- Secretary of Religion and Multiculturalism Kim Song-hwe on May 13, 2022 was forced to write a resignation letter of his own volition because of his posts on social networks three years ago. In them, he called homosexuality a kind of mental illness that needs to be treated, and equated “comfort women” (“wianbu”) with prostitutes.
- The president’s Secretary for Administrative Affairs, Yoon Jae-sun, came under fire for a verse of his own composition 20 years ago, which stated that the subway is a place where “naughty boys are guaranteed freedom, and they can touch the bodies of voluptuous girls.” It was also found that Yoon was disciplined for sexually offensive statements he made when he was an investigator of the prosecutor’s office. Nevertheless, he got off with a public apology.
- Song Ok-ryol, a candidate for the position of head of the antimonopoly regulatory authority of South Korea, publicly expressed his intention to resign on July 10 amid ongoing controversy over allegations that he, as a university professor, harassed students almost a decade ago.
- Yoon’s maternal second cousin surnamed Choi worked as a senior assistant secretary in the presidential administration. Formally, there was no conflict of interest when hiring Choi, since the law restricts hiring only close relatives (spouses, brothers, ancestors and descendants). However, the audience still sees nepotism and remembers Choi Soon-sil.
- A lady by the surname of Shin, the wife of Yoon’s Secretary for Personnel Affairs, Lee Won-mo, accompanied the president to the NATO summit in Spain, while not being an official employee of the presidential office. Shin is known for her family business managing one of the largest groups of traditional Korean medicine hospitals in Korea, is a confidant of the presidential couple, and together with her mother donated 10 million won (USD 7,700) to Yoon during his presidential campaign.
- An employee of the presidential administration surnamed Wu, who works in the office of the Senior Secretary of the President for Social Policy, turned out to be the son of a long-time acquaintance of Yoon, who donated 10 million won to Yoon’s election campaign. This gave rise to rumors that the young man was appointed by the gang and as a reward for donations.
- An employee of the presidential administration surnamed Ahn worked as an assistant to the official presidential photographer, and resigned on July 13, 2022 after reports that she was the sister of YouTuber Ahn Jung-gwon, who held noisy rallies at the house of former President Moon Jae-in since his resignation.
Although the reasons for scandals are very unequal, and the inflating of stories from 20 years ago suggests that no other compromising material has been found on a person, “the sediment remains.” Moreover, there are two more claims to Yoon’s personnel policy. The first concerns the lack of inclusiveness and gender equality (many of his candidates for key positions in the government are those with whom he has personal relationships, mostly men aged 50 who graduated from Seoul National University). Although, when women were put in the places of ministers of education and health, the Democrats began to poison them with no less enthusiasm.
The second one speaks about the “republic of prosecutors”, since there are many people from there among Yoon’s associates for obvious reasons. To date, 15 former prosecutors have occupied senior positions in the offices of the Presidential Secretary, government ministries and departments, including the Minister of Justice, the Minister of Unification and the Head of Administration.
According to Yoon, there is nothing wrong with this. “In developed countries, such as the United States, individuals with legal experience are appointed to various government posts.” Under Moon, for example, in government agencies there was a similar busting of representatives of the NGO “Lawyers for a Democratic Society” (Korean: “Minbyun”).
Finally, the factional struggle in the conservative party itself did not give support to Yoon, where, after the departure of Lee Jung-seok, certain tensions arose even between supporters of the president himself, but this topic should be covered separately.
The third set of reasons for discontent is related to the fact that, despite promises to “do as Moon did not do,” some methods of the previous president began to be used, such as attempts to forcibly terminate the powers of a number of officials appointed under Moon, while urging them to resign their posts for the sake of stable work of the current government. And if the head of the state analytical center “Korea Development Institute” (KDI) and the “architect of income-oriented growth policy” Hong Chang-phe eventually resigned, the chairman of the Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Commission (ACRC) Jung Hyun-hwe refuses to leave yet, while stating that her term of office and independence are guaranteed by law.
This also includes a conflict between the Ministry of Internal Affairs and the national police agency that deserves a separate material, which can develop into an analog of the war between the prosecutor’s office and the Ministry of Justice.
The fourth is due to the fact that, unlike Moon, Yoon is not a professional politician, but he really communicates a lot with the press, i.e. meetings with journalists take place every day, and this is much better than what Moon Jae-in did, who promised to communicate with people, better than Park Geun-hye, but as a result, during his five-year term, he held less than 10 official press conferences and rarely gave individual interviews.
Compared to Moon’s closed communication style, Yoon’s willingness to share his views directly with the press is commendable, but this coin also has a downside. Not only does any of his reservations go into the public space and are interpreted by Democrats accordingly, but they also raise questions and “unfiltered provocative comments” related to the problems above.
Let’s say a few words about the Democratic Party. Against the background of two scandals that Democrats perceive as political revenge and a veiled undermining of ex-President Moon Jae-in (who, if some facts are proven, faces charges of abuse of power and even complicity in murder), the question is to what extent they will take advantage of the situation in the country. They have a lot of opportunities taking into account the majority in parliament, but there is still no reason to impeach. But they can try to pass a number of bills that would turn South Korea from a presidential republic into a parliamentary republic, or wrap up any initiatives and bills, and then accuse Yoon of being unable to manage the situation. But for now a) a reason is needed, and b) they should be careful that they themselves would not be accused of sabotage.
The left-wing trade unions are also creating a certain problem. If the truckers’ strike has been settled, then a number of other conflicts are developing now, because from the point of view of Democrats, trade unions are fighting for their rights, and from the point of view of Conservatives, they are making unacceptable demands. At the time of writing, Yoon was limited to statements, not actions, but if there is a harsh suppression of strikers, as it was under Lee Myung-bak in 2008, it will aggravate social contradictions even more.
But there is a final question, i.e. to what extent does the president’s rating really reflect the opinion of the people in a situation where most rating agencies are closely associated with certain political forces. This is also a topic for a separate material, but I note that if such a rating system were under Park Chong-hee, the current government would hardly have high support. However, so far no one has been caught on falsifications, the author is waiting for real cases, and then it will become clear whether Yoon Suk-yeol was right about meaningless ratings.
Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of China and Contemporary Asia RAS, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.