The accomplishments of the Yoon Suk Yeol administration in its first year are far from small. His presidency marked the first anniversary on Wednesday.
It set some state affairs that had caused problems right. The Yoon administration scrapped the nuclear phase-out policy that damaged Korea’s advanced nuclear industry. It eased anti-market real estate regulations that caused property prices to skyrocket. Its attempt to redress the high-handedness of large labor unions is something the previous government did not do.
In particular, Yoon's diplomacy and national security policies based on universal values such as liberal democracy and human rights deserve to get high scores.
Unlike past leaders that pursued strategic ambiguity between the United States and China, he made the clear choice of a strong Korea-US alliance. An outcome of such change is the Washington Declaration that contains measures to establish the Nuclear Consultative Group and strengthen the US' extended deterrence strategy toward North Korea’s threats.
Yoon sought to normalize Korea-Japan relations, which had fallen to a low point during the Moon Jae-in administration. Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida paid a return visit, reviving reciprocal relations after 12 years. Security cooperation among Korea, the US and Japan will be further strengthened after their summit meeting in Hiroshima this month. Their closer ties are likely to cause a backlash from China and Russia. Minimizing related economic damage will be a new task.
The Yoon administration discarded the expansionary fiscal policy of the previous administration. It sought to reduce corporate taxes and mended punitive taxation systems. Jobs well done, but it is hard to assert that it performed remarkably in revitalizing the economy and improving the livelihood of the public, and conditions are not favorable at home and abroad.
It is true that the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea’s majority in the National Assembly is to blame. The party has effectively bound the government hand and foot for the past year. Its abuses of legislative power are too many to enumerate. In its first year, the Yoon government submitted 144 bills to the Assembly, and only 36 of them were passed. Pension, labor and education reforms made little progress.
The second year of his presidency has begun. Normally it is time to accelerate major state tasks the president vowed to achieve. But the road ahead of Yoon is very bumpy. The opposition party will keep putting the brakes on almost everything his government is going to do until the general elections in April next year. Given this situation, the president needs to communicate with people more often -- and more humbly. If the president’s policies arouse sympathy from the people, the Democratic Party will find it difficult to oppose them unconditionally.
The thrust of presidential leadership comes from the people. Yoon’s approval rating topped 50 percent at the time of his inauguration, but now lags in the 30-percent range. The president must think about why such change came about in a year and whether he has disappointed people.
His policy directions -- rebuilding the US alliance, normalizing ties with Japan, market-led growth, fiscal soundness and the three reforms -- were positive in the eyes of many people. But there are observations even among his supporters that his style of pushing through a policy leaves something to be desired.
As the general elections draw nearer, politicians will be tempted to seek populist policies. Parties may be swayed by populism in an election season, but the government must not be shaken.
As time goes by, reforms become more difficult to carry out. The government must waste no time in pushing forward the three reforms, along with other important tasks. Their success will depend much on the outcome of the general elections. It should do its best then wait for voters’ choice.