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[Editorial] Time for self-reflection

President Yoon should take decline in approval rating seriously following his personnel missteps

It is rare for a top leader to downplay public approval ratings, whose key function is to send out a warning when things go awry. President Yoon Suk-yeol took a step further, saying he “pays no attention” to approval ratings and calling them “meaningless” -- to the bewilderment of the public.

That is the controversial comment Yoon made Monday when asked by reporters about the decline in his approval ratings.

According to a survey by Realmeter released Monday, 50.2 percent of respondents said Yoon is “not handling state affairs well,” while 44.4 percent said he is “performing well.” Negative responses went up by 2.5 percentage points from the previous week, and positive responses decreased by 2.2 percentage points.

Polling agency Gallup put out a similar result Friday, showing positive responses dropped for three straight weeks, by a total of 10 percentage points.

Experts point out that the decline in approval ratings to below 48.6 percent -- the percentage of votes Yoon got in the presidential election -- is worrisome, and Yoon should check why and how the numbers are falling. But Yoon seems unlikely to change his perception about approval ratings.

Yoon’s reaction -- or inaction -- toward approval ratings is problematic for two reasons. First, it appears that he does not understand exactly why the approval ratings are sliding. Second, he does not understand why an open-minded attitude matters for a leader in a democratic society.

The data by polling firms demonstrate that Yoon’s falling approval ratings are largely stemming from the problems with his personnel appointments. Indeed, many of his choices for the government’s key positions are those with whom he has personal relations -- mostly men in their 50s who graduated from Seoul National University. In addition, Yoon, a former prosecutor general, is accused of recruiting too many former prosecutors for such important posts, sparking heated disputes.

Worse, his appointments for ministers were filled with controversies. On Monday, Yoon appointed former professor Park Soon-ae as education minister and Army Gen. Kim Seung-kyum as the chair of the Joint Chiefs of Staff without parliamentary hearings.

Park’s nomination was criticized as she lacks experience in education. Park was also caught for drunk driving in 2001 and accused of mistreating her teaching assistant and students. She denied the allegations linked to her time as a professor.

The unilateral appointment came shortly after Health Minister nominee Kim Seung-hee voluntarily stepped down amid mounting criticism. She is now under investigation for allegedly using political funds for personal interest in violation of the related law.

Yoon’s nominee for chief of the antitrust regulator, Song Ok-rial, was forced to apologize over allegations that he sexually harassed students in the past.

Along with a series of dispute-laden personnel choices, the People Power Party’s internal strife is also showing Yoon in a negative light. The ruling party’s leadership is in disarray over allegations that party leader Lee Jun-seok received sexual services as a bribe.

Given the latest developments, it is apparent that Yoon’s own actions and choices are hurting his approval ratings. Of course, the presidency is not designed to be a popularity contest. Sometimes, the president has to push for a painful, unpopular policy in the face of the public opposition, largely because it is necessary for the nation.

But Yoon’s flat disregard for falling approval ratings is not related to one of these exceptional cases. One of the reasons he is getting flak is his failure to grasp what went wrong and his refusal to listen to the public -- an essential quality for a democratic leader.

When asked about the controversial nominations Tuesday, Yoon retorted, “Did you see any praiseworthy people among minister nominees of the previous administration?” His latest response is exactly what can be deemed “meaningless.”

By Korea Herald (khnews@heraldcorp.com)
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