President Yoon Suk-yeol will mark his first 100 days in office Wednesday. Under normal circumstances, he should have enjoyed favorable coverage from the media, lawmakers and citizens during the period -- a “honeymoon period” traditionally reserved for an incoming president at the start of a five-year term.
Unfortunately, Yoon appears to have skipped the supposedly sweet honeymoon period to confront a hostile political battlefield filled with loud explosives from critics and hidden attacks from some of his own allies in the ruling party.
What brought Yoon to this sorry situation? According to what he earlier brushed off as “meaningless” approval ratings, the current mess is said to be largely brought about with his misguided choices.
In a survey of 1,000 adults from Aug. 12-14 by Hankook Research, Yoon’s approval rating came to 28 percent, dipping below 30 percent . It did not come off as a total surprise, since the rating had already tumbled into the 20 percent range this month -- a rare development for a president who only took office about three months ago.
In the survey, 46.2 percent of respondents said Yoon himself is responsible for his low approval rating. Other polls suggested that people did not view Yoon in a positive light largely because he made poor personnel choices for high-ranking officials.
At the heart of the dispute is that Yoon, an ex-prosecutor general, appointed too many of his former colleagues from the prosecution office to important government positions. He also went ahead with a controversial plan to set up a police bureau under the Interior Ministry, which sparked strong protests from the police and opposition party members.
In addition, the ruling People Power Party is embroiled in an internal feud between Lee Jun-seok, the suspended former party leader, and Yoon’s key aides.
There are also signs that Yoon’s core supporter base is weakening after Yoon failed to meet expectations as a leader capable of bringing much-needed changes to the country.
Yoon, meanwhile, might have felt that latest negative developments are unfair. After all, shortly after he took office with election pledges to push for a smaller government based on solid fiscal policy, consumer prices spiked and a gloomy economic outlook hit the market. Worse, the war between Russia and Ukraine is sending shock waves to the global market, leading to higher energy prices and delays in global supply chains.
The COVID-19 pandemic also came back with new, more transmissible strains, at a time when the country had dropped most of its strict social restrictions. In the past week, South Korea recorded the highest number of confirmed cases per million people among 216 countries.
On the geopolitical front, South Korea is in an uncomfortable position as the United States, the country’s key ally, is locked in tough clashes with China, an important trading partner. Yoon’s diplomatic performance score also went down, as he decided not to meet US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi during her visit to South Korea two weeks ago. This touched off a wave of criticism, as his action was interpreted as an attempt to avoid provoking prickly Beijing.
The Yoon administration has yet to push forward with reforms in labor, education and the pension scheme -- the very objectives Yoon pledged earlier to carry out. This is a particularly painful situation, since the ruling party ended up failing to take advantage of clear signs given by voters for reform measures, although it won the local election against the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea in June.
The embattled Yoon is now badly in need of a decisive breakthrough. On Tuesday, Yoon told reporters he is considering “changes” to better serve the people. More specific plans for those changes should be unveiled at the news conference marking his 100 days in office slated for Wednesday. This is not only to restore the public’s trust in Yoon’s presidency, but also to help steer the nation through a turbulent period ahead.