South Korean Voters Rebuke Yoon’s Governing Style; Go-It-Alone Approach to Tough Issues May Have Cost Votes

Voters wearing traditional attire pose for a photo as they vote in the parliamentary election in Nonsan, South Korea, on Wednesday.

SEOUL — The main reason the People Power Party (PPP), South Korea’s conservative ruling party, suffered defeat in the general election was the president’s approach to exercising leadership.

Regarding the issue of lawsuits concerning former wartime requisitioned workers from the Korean Peninsula, which has been a pending issue in Japan-South Korea relations, President Yoon Suk Yeol announced a solution in March last year that does not require the Japanese side to pay compensation, despite public opposition.

Yoon tends to go ahead whenever he thinks it is the right thing to do without regard to public sentiment. This is believed to be influenced by his background as a prosecutor.

Yoon’s actions of this type were seen as one-sided by many voters, and he came to be regarded as a leader who is unable to communicate with the people.

Last month, Yoon appointed former Defense Minister Lee Jong-sup as South Korean ambassador to Australia while Lee was facing allegations of abuse of power. Yoon is believed to have done so despite opposition within his own party. It led to a fall in support for the PPP in areas such as metropolitan regions with many swing voters, which may have determined the outcome of the election.

On the issue of a conflict with the medical community over the government’s plan to increase the number of students admitted to medical schools, the president met with a representative of doctors for the first time on April 4, the day before early voting, but failed to present a significant compromise. The meeting did not lead to a change in the electoral situation, to the discouragement of PPP officials and others.

For opposition parties, which have been calling for a harsh judgement on the Yoon administration, the president was an easy target.

The words “judgment” and “Yoon Suk Yeol” were frequently used in the speeches of Lee Jae-myung, the leader of the Democratic Party, the main leftist opposition party in South Korea, according to an analysis by JoongAng Ilbo, an influential newspaper in the country. The name of Han Dong-hoon, the PPP’s emergency committee chairman, who enjoys popularity, never appeared in any of Lee’s speeches.

Opposition parties are expected to force a vote on a bill that would put pressure on the administration to get to the bottom of stock manipulation and other allegations against first lady Kim Keon Hee. Yoon is expected to use his veto power to prevent the passage of the bill, but that is likely to reinforce his image as a president who ignores the will of the people.

The Yoon administration has announced its own Indo-Pacific strategy, strengthening bilateral cooperation with Japan and trilateral cooperation with Japan and the United States in order to deter North Korea’s provocations. His foreign policy is not expected to waver, but opposition parties that criticize the administration’s diplomacy with Japan as “pro-Japan” and “humiliating diplomacy” are likely to step up their campaign against the administration, raising concerns about their impact on public opinion.