Pressures mount in South Korea

As ratings slide, president urged to act to improve governance, lift economy

South Korea's President Yoon Suk-Yeol looks on during a tri-lateral meeting with the US President and Japan's Prime Minister on the sidelines of the NATO summit at the Ifema congress centre in Madrid on June 29, 2022. (BRENDAN SMIALOWSKI / AFP)

South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol faces a tough challenge to regain public support in the face of sliding approval ratings, with experts hoping to see more concrete measures from the leader to improve governance and lift the economy.

Economic indicators point to strains in the economy, with consumers becoming more downbeat as inflationary pressures rise. The consumer sentiment index dropped by 10.4 points month-on-month to 86 in July, the lowest in nearly two years, while expected inflation for the upcoming year hit a record high of 4.7 percent, data from the Bank of Korea, the country's central bank, showed on Wednesday.

Against this backdrop, experts say Yoon has struggled to get South Koreans to identify with his administration's goals.

"In South Korea, new presidents have enjoyed high approval ratings early in their tenure. By contrast, President Yoon Suk-yeol's current approval rating is lower than the percentage of voters who voted for him among the entire electorate in the presidential election in March," said Shin Jin-wook, professor and head of the Department of Sociology at Chung-Ang University in Seoul.

Shin said that, given that no national disasters or dramatic policy failures have occurred in the past months, Yoon's rapid fall in standing among the public is "a very unusual phenomenon".

Less than three months since Yoon took office on May 10, his approval rating had plunged to 33.3 percent in the third week of July, compared with 52 percent in the first survey in May, according to data released on Monday by pollster Realmeter. The slide had extended to eight straight weeks; Yoon's disapproval rating reached 63.4 percent.

In contrast, Moon Jae-in's approval rating stayed above 70 percent in the first few months of his term as president. In March, Yoon, of the People Power Party, won the presidential election in a neck-and-neck race, securing 48.6 percent of the vote. His rival, Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party of Korea, gained 47.8 percent.

As for the favorability rating of political parties, the PPP had 39.7 percent support in the Realmeter poll, 0.6 percentage point higher than in the previous week. The Democratic Party of Korea garnered 44.6 percent support, up 0.4 percentage point.

"It's a very uneasy situation for Yoon," said Hong Sung-gul, professor of public administration at South Korea's Kookmin University.

Among the contributing factors is dissatisfaction with people in Yoon's administration, Hong said. Questions have been raised over the integrity of the administration after several high-ranking officials appointed by Yoon were charged with corruption or other illegal acts.

However, Shin said that demands from the public for Yoon's clarification on these issues have been ignored.

Also contributing to people's dissatisfaction are the conflicts that have erupted among leading members of the PPP.

The attitude of Yoon and his ministers, most of them former prosecutors, may also be raising the ire of liberal-minded citizens, including the younger generations, said Shin, noting the administration's tendency to stress the importance of law and order rather than communicating with those who disagree with its policies.

The International Monetary Fund on Tuesday lowered its economic growth outlook for South Korea to 2.3 percent from its previous forecast of 2.5 percent.