South Korea’s ‘republic of prosecutors’ is in trouble

Recently elected President Yoon Seok-youl faces a credibility crisis over his arrogance and nepotism. He must change.

South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol at a press conference on August 17, 2022, in Seoul.
South Korea's President Yoon Suk-yeol at a news conference on August 17, 2022, in Seoul [Reuters]

The honeymoon is over. South Korean President Yoon Seok-youl’s approval ratings are plummeting three months after he took office promising economic reforms and a return to fairness and common sense in Korean society.

Yoon’s razor-thin margin of victory in the presidential election earlier this year – just 0.73 percent – meant that he started out without the buffer of mass popularity that his predecessors have had. Amid soaring prices and rising interest rates, his already weak support base appears to have collapsed. In a Gallup poll conducted earlier this month, only 24 percent of respondents positively approved of Yoon’s handling of state affairs, while 66 percent disapproved.

However, the rapid fall in his ratings points to deeper crises for the president and his People Power Party (PPP) beyond the global and local factors that are behind South Korea’s economic challenges. Yoon, a former prosecutor, made his name as an outsider taking on powerful individuals under the previous government. But in the public eye, he is now seen as someone who lacks not only political competence to run the administration, but also the humility to admit wrongdoing – even if it means damaging the principles of fairness and justice he championed during the election campaign.

Thankfully for South Korea, he appears to be finally recognising the credibility crisis he faces. Yoon initially shrugged off his falling approval ratings by dismissing them as “meaningless.” But upon returning from his summer break in early August, he pledged to carefully listen and look at problems “from the perspective of the people” and “take action if necessary”.

Yoon’s dogmatic appointment of unqualified people to his first cabinet and the presidential office is a huge reason for this crisis. The former prosecutor general’s appointments have mainly focused on his close former aides and associates: 15 ex-prosecutors have so far been appointed to top posts. They manage personnel, intelligence and financial affairs in what some critics are describing as Yoon’s Republic of Prosecutors.

Yoon said his aim was “to recruit competent people in the right place.” Some appointments, however, are tainted by past wrongdoing and a lack of expertise. The resignation of Deputy Prime Minister and Minister of Education Park Soon-ae after a public backlash following her sudden announcement to lower the school entry age from six to five, is an example of Yoon’s unqualified appointments that have provoked public distrust in his leadership.

Similarly, Yoon’s awkward morning doorstep briefings, while intended to show a connection with the people – former President Moon Jae-in rarely held news conferences – have ironically deepened concerns over his rash and arrogant attitude. He has denied that his appointments are misguided, while blaming the previous administration when under public scrutiny. When he was questioned by reporters about some of his controversial appointments, he said: “Have you seen any better ministerial nominees in the former administration?”

It is not just Yoon’s attitude, though. His wife, Kim Kun-hee, has not helped. During the campaign, Kim accepted that she had exaggerated her educational qualifications during earlier job interviews, apologised publicly and promised to focus on supporting her husband if he became president. But as first lady, she has continued to dominate the news cycle: A controversial fan club appears to have worrying access to her; and she has been accused of influencing the selection of construction firms that are remodelling the presidential residence. Yoon and Kim have also faced allegations of cronyism and nepotism for hiring relatives and acquaintances as aides.

The presidential office has denied any wrongdoing. The opposition Democratic Party, which holds 169 seats of the 300-member National Assembly, has however openly cited the impeachment of former President Park Geun-hye over her abuse of power and coercion to warn the Yoon government.

Finally, Yoon has failed to stick to his earlier commitment to stay out of the PPP’s internal politics. A recently leaked text message between Yoon and his closest aide Kweon Seong-dong, acting chair and floor leader of the PPP, revealed the president apparently speaking ill of the party’s previous boss.

Yoon desperately needs public support for his reform drive, just as the PPP needs cooperation from the opposition Democratic Party, which has been obstinately using its majority to veto the ruling party’s initiatives in the legislature.

For that, Yoon must radically change his dogmatic attitude and leadership style, while also reorganising his presidential office based on his recent commitment that the people are the “beginning, direction and the goal of state administration.”

Luckily, time is on his side. He might have won the presidency. But the former prosecutor needs to plead a new political case before the Korean people.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.