May 10, 2023 13:23
President Yoon Suk-yeol marks his first year in office on Wednesday. The presidential office claimed it has "normalized the abnormal" and cited as Yoon's key achievements strengthening U.S.-Korea relations, labor reforms and reversing the nuclear phaseout of the previous administration. To be sure, strengthening alliance with the U.S., which was beginning to show cracks under the previous government, and ensuring some involvement for Korea in the use of U.S. nuclear arms in its defense was a major achievement. Yoon was also able to thaw diplomatic relations with Japan by shifting the focus toward the future, leading to strengthened trilateral cooperation between Seoul, Washington and Tokyo.
On the home front, dealing firmly with the tactics of militant labor unions was something the previous administration have been unable to do. But the pension, labor and education reforms Yoon promised during his presidential campaign have not even begun, and he made little progress in helping the economy grow or improving the livelihood of Koreans amid runaway inflation. The main opposition Minjoo Party still holds a majority in the National Assembly and has blocked him at every turn. As it focused mainly on divisive politics and protecting its leader, Lee Jae-myung, from being thrown in jail for corruption, the Minjoo Party tackled only 36 out of 144 bills the Yoon administration tabled. The party that was responsible for increasing the national debt by more than W400 trillion is now blocking efforts to set fiscal limits (US$1=W1,324).
The president derives his mandate from the public. When he took office, Yoon enjoyed an approval rating of more than 50 percent, but that soon fell to the 30-percent level. Yoon needs to assess why this has happened and ask himself what he has done to disappoint the public.
Many Koreans agree with their president's goals but are disappointed by his attitude and management style. When his penchant for appointing prosecutors to senior government posts became a problem, Yoon said, "I can do that even more if necessary." The president and his Cabinet were embarrassingly out of sync in policy-making, with startling gaffes from ministers like plans to lower the school age, expanding the working week again and offering tax cuts to chipmakers. Yoon also triggered controversy when he seemed to meddle in the ruling party's affairs. He fell out with the former young leader of the ruling party as well as a former rival presidential candidate who quit the race to support him. Many Koreans are not sure why these things happened.
The president faces a long and winding road ahead. The new cold war between the U.S. and China shows no signs of easing. The economic slump, soaring household debt, sky-high interest rates and living costs and other woes continue to haunt the country. That means the president must tackle the problems he can solve first. He must also become more modest and communicate more effectively with the public. If it is difficult to talk to the pig-headed leadership of the main opposition party, he must try to contact the back benches. Another reshuffle of the Cabinet and presidential secretariat may also be in order. If Yoon can win back public support, the Minjoo Party will not have such an easy time obstructing him. The first step is to make the public feel that the president is willing to change.
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