Yoon Suk Yeol: Is South Korea's President Overpowered by a Small Onion?

  • By Jean Mackenzie
  • Seoul Correspondent

image source, Reconstruction of the Korea Party

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Cho Kuk, an opposition leader, campaigns with a Dior handbag and a small onion

In February, the price of an apple in Korea reached $7 (£5.50), albeit at a fancy department store. Fruit prices are high here, but that crosses a line for voters who struggle to punish high grocery prices.

In an attempt to address their concerns, President Yoon Suk Yeol visited a food market and marveled at how “reasonably priced” onions were. The market in question was indeed heavily subsidized. Online outrage and ridicule ensued.

“The President is going to be brought down with a small onion,” grumbled an opposition leader.

But food prices were one of a long list of reasons why President Yoon's conservative party lost South Korea's parliamentary election, which was seen as a vote of confidence during his first two years in office.

Mr Yoon has always been unpopular. Since being elected with the lowest vote share in South Korean history – 0.7% – his approval rating has hovered around 30-40%. Last month, half of those surveyed said he had done a “worst” job ever.

Political scientist and pollster Dr Lee Changxin said: “There are several incidents in his position. The first is a series of diplomatic gaffes that made international headlines, such as when Mr Yoon was caught swearing on a mic shortly after meeting US President Joe Biden. Koreans felt Mr Yoon had tarnished their reputation abroad. These incidents were embarrassing.

Then there was his wife, First Lady Kim Kyon-hee, who, according to Prof. Lee, “is loved by the people more than the president”.

He was accused of plagiarizing his university dissertation and dealing in stocks. Last year, footage emerged of her apparently flouting anti-corruption laws by accepting an expensive Dior handbag. Despite initially playing an active role as first lady, Mrs Kim has since been rarely seen in public with her husband.

image source, Good pictures

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Analysts say Mr Yoon is less popular than first lady Kim Kyon-hee

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

“He is stubborn, doesn't listen or compromise, and has developed an almost authoritarian tendency,” said Dr. Lee of the Korea Institute for National Unification.

In short, President Yoon has failed to win over voters beyond his loyal conservative support base. The result is that his party has failed to win control of parliament, meaning it will be harder for him to pass laws and fix pressing issues — such as a sluggish economy, unattainable housing prices and a rapidly aging population.

Before Wednesday, the opposition already controlled parliament. The defeat makes him the only president in South Korea's constitutional history to face an opposition-led legislature throughout their single five-year term. His authority has been severely weakened and he risks what analysts call a “lame-duck”.

Friendly relations and growing cracks

With his domestic agenda in disarray, Mr Yoon has so far focused his efforts on foreign policy, and he has succeeded in making friends abroad despite his unpopularity at home. He entered office wanting South Korea to play a bigger role on the world stage, determined to move on from what he saw as the myopia of his predecessor.

Mr Yoon cast himself as a champion of liberal, democratic values ​​and promised to call out those who did not adhere to them. So his strategy was to be tough with Pyongyang. He increased military exercises on the peninsula, imposed economic sanctions on the North, and retaliated whenever Kim Jong Un provoked him.

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

But his relationship with America has blossomed. Strengthening Seoul's security alliance with Washington has been central to Mr Yoon's foreign policy. When he serenaded President Biden with his rendition of Don McLean's American Pie at the White House, it was an indication of how both countries are singing from the same page. Mr Yun has been listening to the United States, which is urging it to strengthen its alliances in Asia to counter China.

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WATCH: South Korean President Sings American Pie for Joe Biden

Mr. Yoon won further respect from the United States when he buried historic disputes with Japan to spur a tripartite security relationship between Tokyo, Seoul and Washington at considerable political cost. The move was unpopular domestically, but Western diplomats praised the leader for his bravery and courage. The lack of security ties between Japan and South Korea was seen as a major weak link in Asia.

But such courage has a cost. In the past, South Korea has walked a delicate tightrope between the United States and China, carefully balancing the needs of its military ally and its largest trading partner. This approach is called “strategic ambiguity”. But ambiguity is not Mr Yoon's style. He criticized China and warned about its behavior toward Taiwan, much to Beijing's anger. This is something South Korean leaders have never done before. Mr Yoon's comments were seemingly impulsive and left some in his group unsettled.

“There is a sense among some in the government that they have allowed relations with China to get too strained, and they need to redress the balance following the election, especially to renew economic ties,” said Dongmin Lee, a political science professor at Tangkook University. .

While espousing liberal democratic values ​​is a noble pursuit, some here argue that it is not the best strategy for a country caught between China and Russia, especially at a time when both are becoming closer to your enemy. As one official put it, “North Korea is a factor in every decision we make”.

The biggest and most unpredictable challenge facing Mr Yoon in the coming year is the possible return of Donald Trump to the White House. While president, Mr Trump cozyed up to Kim Jong Un and threatened to withdraw all US forces from South Korea. Whatever direction Mr Yoon is headed, Trump's re-election could force him to change course.

image source, Good pictures

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Mr Yun has won praise for a major three-way summit with President Biden and Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida in 2023.

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

He branded his opponents “communists”, attacked the media for “fake news” and his office prosecuted critical journalists for defamation. She has been accused of fueling gender segregation by promising to abolish the government's Gender Equality Ministry. Unable to do so without parliamentary support, the Gender Minister has instead left the post vacant.

This is according to a recent report by Sweden's Varieties of Democracy Institute South Korea's democracy is on a “downward slope.” Since the inauguration of President Yoon. According to Jeongmin Kim, editorial director of the Korea Pro news service, the study gained popularity in the country: “It is clear that at least liberals and centrists can detect the hypocrisy and feel uncomfortable. See Western leaders praise Yoon as one of democracy's defenders.”

Although parliamentary divisiveness is common in South Korea, Mr Yoon has never once reconciled with the leader of the opposition. Instead, he has resorted to torpedoing his president's veto laws. He used his veto more than any other president since the 1980s. This earned him a reputation as someone who didn't care about being popular, but did what he believed in regardless of what others said or thought.

“It seems that what Yun really cares about is being remembered fondly by his hardcore supporters and in the history books — not what other people, the parliament or even his own party think of him,” Jeongmin Kim said.

Yoon Suk Yeol may have already earned himself a place in the history books with his reconciliation with Japan. But with his power gone, he would carry less influence abroad. Domestically, given his lack of support, South Koreans can expect more parliamentary chaos, political hostility and polarization.

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