SEOUL, May 9 (Korea Bizwire) — President Yoon Suk Yeol marks his first year in office on Wednesday amid positive assessments of his foreign policy achievements but with little to show in terms of political skill, according to experts.
Yoon’s efforts to rebuild ties with the United States and Japan have won him praise, as a stronger relationship with both countries could lead to more effective deterrence against North Korea’s nuclear threats and widen the space for cooperation against global supply chain risks.
In particular, Yoon and U.S. President Joe Biden adopted the Washington Declaration during their summit last month, agreeing to launch a Nuclear Consultative Group and regularly deploy U.S. strategic assets to the Korean Peninsula to increase the credibility of the U.S. “extended deterrence” commitment to South Korea.
Extended deterrence refers to the U.S. commitment to mobilizing all of its military capabilities, including nuclear weapons, to defend its ally.
With Japan, Yoon took bold steps to mend relations badly frayed over historical disputes by offering to compensate Korean victims of wartime forced labor without contributions from Japanese firms.
The decision led to the resumption of “shuttle diplomacy” between the two countries’ leaders after a 12-year hiatus and produced agreements to fully normalize a military intelligence-sharing pact and restore each other as trusted trading partners.
“The best thing he did was to restore the deteriorated South Korea-U.S. alliance,” said Kim Hyeong-jun, chair professor at Pai Chai University.
“The U.S.-China hegemonic war and war between Russia and Ukraine have triggered a new Cold War, and we have no choice but to strengthen South Korea-U.S.-Japan cooperation in order to survive. There can be no compromise on questions of the nation’s survival,” he said.
Park Sang-byeong, a political commentator, however, accused Yoon of choosing “bias” over “balance” in South Korea’s relations with its neighbors, referring to criticism that his close alignment with Washington and Tokyo has driven a wedge between Seoul and China, as well as between Seoul and Russia.
“What can we gain from being pro-U.S. or pro-Japan? We’ll pay a severe price for abandoning balance,” Park said.
On the domestic front, Yoon faced a hostile National Assembly controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party (DP) and frequent backlashes over his push to reform the labor, pension and education sectors.
Yoon held no meetings with DP Chairman Lee Jae-myung — his rival during the presidential race — and rejected motions or bills railroaded by the opposition party by exercising his veto power.
Proposals to revise the 52-hour working week and lower the elementary school entry age were met with fierce opposition from the public, forcing the government to backtrack and replace the education minister.
Experts said Yoon’s lack of political skill is partly to blame for his low approval ratings, which have largely stayed within the low- to mid-30 percent range.
“The opposition party has overwhelming legislative power, so the Yoon Suk Yeol administration is repeatedly blocked every time it tries to do something,” Shin Yul, a political science professor at Myongji University in Seoul, said.
“But not only is it not very good at appealing to the public, it has an image of being noncommunicative,” he added.
Park, the political commentator, argued that the 30-something percent Yoon gains in public approval ratings is only a reflection of the intensifying competition between rival political blocs.
“No matter what, he is bound to win 30 percent. In other words, President Yoon hasn’t been able to win a single percent beyond the 30 percent given to him,” Park said. “He has to change his way of thinking in order to revive politics.”
Kim, the Pai Chai University professor, cited economic challenges as the biggest reason for Yoon’s ratings.
“Lots of people are suffering from economic difficulties,” he said. “He has to send a signal that the economy will improve and find a solution by restoring fairness and common sense.”