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Yoon to set up new office to address low birth rate

New office likely to support making of new ministry on potential population crisis

By Son Ji-hyoung

Published : May 13, 2024 - 15:05

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A mother hold the feet of a newborn child. (123rf) A mother hold the feet of a newborn child. (123rf)

President Yoon Suk Yeol's office is working to set up a new office and hire a new senior secretary to address the matter of South Korea's low birth rate, doubling down on the president's pledge to prioritize his policy focus on the potential population crisis.

Yoon ordered his aides in a closed-door meeting Monday in his office in Seoul to establish a new senior secretary office dedicated to low birth rate, Yoon's spokesperson Kim Soo-kyung told reporters in a briefing.

According to Yoon's office, Seoul was at its nascent stage in the office reorganization and there is no timeframe or deadline set for the change.

But the source said, "I believe the problem of low fertility is undoubtedly the most serious problem in South Korean society over the matter of sustainability."

This is in line with his pledge to establish a new ministry tasked with birth rate-related issues, unveiled during President Yoon's press conference held Thursday, and have the new minister double as the deputy prime minister in a Cabinet.

Yoon's plan, however, requires a revision of the Government Organization Act in the National Assembly whose majority is controlled by the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

South Korea recorded a birth rate of 0.72 in 2023, and there are predictions that things will get worse over time.

Despite Yoon's attempt to bring the low birth rate into the core of the policy agenda, and a press conference that made the plan official, the president's popularity remains in limbo.

According to the poll by Realmeter on Monday, Yoon's job approval rating inched up by 0.3 percentage points to 30.6 percent in the second week of May. This covered the period when Yoon's first press conference in 631 days took place for 73 minutes in his office before some 150 reporters.

For the five straight weeks since the April general election defeat, Yoon's approval rating hovered at the 30 percent range, Realmeter polls showed.

Thursday's press conference "did not lead to a significant change in the public opinion," although Yoon laid out a blueprint for Seoul's ways to tackle the low birth rate and medical reform, among others, according to Realmeter in a statement.

President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) stands behind the lectern during a press conference in his office in Seoul Thursday. (Yonhap) President Yoon Suk Yeol (right) stands behind the lectern during a press conference in his office in Seoul Thursday. (Yonhap)

The pollster noted the event addressed Yoon's weaknesses such as calls for a special counsel over his office's alleged interference in the Marine Corps' internal probe and controversy about his wife Kim Keon Hee's acceptance of a luxury handbag.

The presidential office's actions in response to the ongoing row over Japan's pressure on Naver to shed its control of Line Yahoo operation in Japan could also be a turning point, Realmeter also noted.

Earlier on Friday, a Gallup Korea poll showed Yoon's approval rating came to 24 percent, the lowest among all democratically elected presidents in South Korea in their second year in office. It was the first poll that reflected the public viewpoint during the period that included the hallmark news conference.

Yoon's lack of communication and standoff with local media has been cited as a factor in his low popularity.

According to Reporters Without Borders (RSF) on May 3, Korea scored 64.87 in RSF's World Press Freedom Index for 2024, ranking 62nd in the world. It was the first time Korea's score fell below 70.

Plus, the presidential office is in a legal battle with four broadcasters MBC, JTBC, KBS and YTN over their 11 combined reports from January to mid-April, as the broadcasters challenged the disciplinary actions by the government regarding their coverage mostly of Yoon's affairs, the main opposition Democratic Party of Korea's Rep. Ko Min-jung said Monday.