Yoon Suk Yeol: Was the South Korean president upset by a spring onion? -BBC.com

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Yoon Suk Yeol: Was the South Korean president upset by a spring onion?  -BBC.com

  • By Jean Mackenzie
  • Correspondent in Seoul

Image source, Party for the Reconstruction of Korea

Legend,

Opposition leader Cho Guk campaigns with a Dior handbag and spring onions

In February, the price of an apple in Korea hit $7 (£5.50), but in a fancy department store. Fruit is notoriously expensive here, but for voters, who are struggling to stomach rising food prices, that has crossed the line.

In a failed attempt to address their concerns, President Yoon Suk Yeol visited a food market and marveled at the “reasonable price” of spring onions. The market in question was in reality heavily subsidized. Online outrage and mockery ensued.

“The president will be overthrown by a spring onion,” exclaimed the leader of one of the opposition parties.

But the price of food is just one of many reasons why President Yoon’s conservative party lost South Korea’s legislative elections, seen as a vote of confidence in his first two years in office.

Mr. Yoon has always been unpopular. Since he was elected with the lowest vote share in South Korean history – 0.7% – his approval rating has tended to hover around 30 to 40%. Last month, half of those surveyed said he had done a “very poor” job so far.

“Many incidents have eroded his reputation,” said political scientist and poll expert Dr Lee Sangsin. First there was a series of diplomatic gaffes, which made international headlines, such as when Mr Yoon was caught swearing into a microphone shortly after meeting US President Joe Biden. The incidents embarrassed Koreans who felt Mr. Yoon had tarnished their reputation abroad.

Then there is his wife, First Lady Kim Keon Hee, who Professor Lee says “people don’t like even more than the president.”

She was accused of plagiarizing her university thesis and stock manipulation. Last year, footage emerged of her appearing to break anti-corruption laws by accepting an expensive Dior handbag. Although she initially took an active role as first lady, Ms. Kim has not been seen in public with her husband since.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend,

Mr Yoon with First Lady Kim Keon Hee, who analysts say is less popular than him

Mr. Yoon has also alienated voters because of his confrontational political style. A former prosecutor with no prior political experience, Mr. Yoon is sometimes said to act more like a prosecutor than a politician.

“He gives the impression that he is stubborn, that he does not listen, that he does not compromise and that he has developed an almost authoritarian attitude,” said Dr Lee of the Korea Institute for national unification.

In short, President Yoon failed to win over voters beyond his loyal, conservative support base. The consequence is that his party failed to take control of Parliament, which means it will be difficult for him to pass laws and resolve pressing problems, such as the slowing economy, prices unattainable real estate and the rapid aging of the population.

Before Wednesday, the opposition already controlled Parliament. The defeat made him the only president in South Korea’s constitutional history to face an opposition-led legislature for his entire single five-year term. His authority has been greatly weakened and he risks becoming what analysts call a “lame duck.”

Friendships and growing divisions

With his domestic agenda hampered, Mr. Yoon has so far focused his efforts on foreign policy and, despite his unpopularity at home, he has managed to make friends abroad. He entered office wanting South Korea to play a greater role on the world stage, determined to break away from what he saw as the short-sightedness of his predecessor, who toward the end of his term was entirely absorbed by peace with North Korea.

Mr. Yoon presented himself as a champion of liberal and democratic values, promising to denounce those who did not adhere to them. His strategy was therefore to be firm towards Pyongyang. He has stepped up military exercises on the peninsula, imposed sanctions on the North and retaliated whenever Kim Jong Un harassed him.

His critics say he has been unnecessarily provocative. The North is launching more weapons than ever before and relations between the two Koreas are at their worst level in years.

But its relations with the United States have developed. Strengthening the security alliance between Seoul and Washington is at the heart of Yoon’s foreign policy. When he serenaded President Biden with a rendition of Don McLean’s American Pie at the White House, it symbolized how the two countries were singing from the same page. Mr. Yoon has been music to America’s ears as it strives to strengthen its alliances in Asia to counter China.

Video caption,

Watch: South Korean President Sings American Pie for Joe Biden

Mr. Yoon gained more respect from the United States when he buried historic differences with Japan, triggering a three-way security relationship between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington, at significant political cost . The move was not popular at home, but Western diplomats praised the leader for his courage and boldness. The lack of security ties between Japan and South Korea was seen as a major weak link in Asia.

But such boldness comes at a cost. In the past, South Korea has walked a tightrope between the United States and China, carefully balancing the needs of its military ally and its largest trading partner. “Strategic ambiguity” is the name given to this approach. But ambiguity is not Mr. Yoon’s style. He criticized China, even warning it about its behavior towards Taiwan, to the fury of Beijing. This is not something South Korean leaders have done before. Mr. Yoon’s comments were apparently impulsive and out of step with those of some members of his team.

“Some members of the government feel that they have let relations with China deteriorate too much and that after the elections they must restore the balance, especially to revive economic relations,” said Dongmin Lee, professor of political science at Dankook University. .

Some argue that while defending liberal democratic values ​​is a noble quest, it may not be the wisest strategy for a country sandwiched between China and Russia, especially at a time when the two are growing closer more and more of your enemy. As one official said, “North Korea is a factor in every decision we make.”

The biggest and most unpredictable challenge Mr. Yoon will face in the coming year is the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House. When he was president, Mr. Trump courted Kim Jong Un and threatened to withdraw all U.S. troops from South Korea. Whichever direction Mr. Yoon takes, Trump’s reelection could force him to change course.

Image source, Getty Images

Legend,

Mr Yoon has won praise for his historic three-way summit with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in 2023.

But while Mr Yoon has aligned himself with the West as a defender of democracy, his government has been accused of democratic backsliding at home.

He called his opponents “communists,” attacked the media for “fake news,” and his office filed defamation lawsuits against critical journalists. He was accused of stoking gender divisions, by promising to abolish the government’s gender equality ministry. Unable to do so without parliamentary support, he left the position of Minister of Gender vacant.

A recent report from the Swedish Varieties of Democracy Institute concluded that South Korean democracy has been on a “downward slope” since President Yoon took office. The study eventually became a trend in the country, according to Jeongmin Kim, editorial director of the Korea Pro news service: “It’s clear that people, at least liberals and those in the center, can spot hypocrisy and feel uncomfortable when they see Western leaders praising Yoon as one of the protectors of democracy. »

Although divided parliaments are common in South Korea, Mr. Yoon has not once spoken to the opposition leader to seek a compromise. Instead, he used his presidential veto to torpedo the laws. He has used his veto more than any other president since the 1980s. This has earned him a reputation as someone who doesn’t care about being popular, but someone who will do what he believes in, regardless of what others say or think.

“It seems that what Yoon really cares about is what his die-hard supporters and the history books remember fondly – ​​not what the rest of the population, parliament or even his own party think of him,” said Jeongmin Kim.

Yoon Suk Yeol has probably already earned a place in the history books thanks to his reconciliation with Japan. But with his authority shaken, he will have less influence abroad in the future. Domestically, his lack of support means South Koreans can expect more parliamentary gridlock, political animosity and polarization.

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