South Korean president pledges to focus on economy after election shock

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday that his government’s efforts to improve people’s lives had fallen short, conceding that his governing party’s crushing election defeat last month reflected voters’ assessment of his two years in office.

In his first news conference in 21 months, Yoon pledged to focus on improving the economy and tackling what he called the national emergency of flagging birth rates over the three years he has left in office.

“I think the important thing going forward is indeed the economy,” he said.

“Corporate growth and job creation are important too, but what I think is more important is to try harder to look for what is inconvenient in the life of each and every person and to resolve them.”

South Korea’s economy beat most forecasts to grow 1.3% in the first three months of this year, though living costs have remained stubbornly high, despite some progress in tackling inflation.

In a new policy push, a government ministry will be set up to tackle the record-low birth rate and fast-aging population, Yoon said in opening remarks from his office, behind a plaque reading “The Buck Stops Here.”

“This is not a matter we can take time to work on,” he said.

South Korea’s fertility rate, already the world’s lowest, maintained its dramatic decline in 2023, as women cited concerns about bearing most of the burden of raising children, lost career opportunities, and the financial cost of raising children as reasons to delay childbirth or to not have children at all.

Yoon’s People Power Party suffered a heavy loss in an April 10 vote, which prompted calls for a change in his leadership style and policy direction to salvage a presidency not yet at the halfway mark.

“I think it reflects the public’s evaluation that my administration’s work is far short of what is needed,” Yoon said when asked about his party’s election defeat.

He apologized for the first time for a controversy surrounding his wife’s acceptance of an expensive Dior handbag. The issue is likely to weigh heavily on his attempts to win co-operation from the opposition-controlled parliament on policy priorities.

Yoon, who won the presidency in 2022 by a margin of less than one percentage point, has seen his support ratings plunge to a low of 21% in one public opinion poll.

Lawmaker Park Chan-dae, the new floor leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, called Yoon’s news conference and address “bitterly disappointing.”

He said it reaffirmed that the president had “neither the heart nor the will to protect the lives of the people.”

Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Pai Chai University in the capital, Seoul, said Yoon’s comments suggested he might focus on more bipartisan issues such as spurring the birthrate, rather than sweeping changes to his agenda.

“He didn’t seem to have a sense of urgency even after such a crushing election defeat — no new policy initiative, or hardly any sign of drastic change in his way of doing things,” he said.

On foreign policy, Yoon said South Korea would maintain its stance to not supply lethal weapons to any country in active conflict, when asked whether Seoul would consider helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia.

Despite its emergence as a major arms exporter, South Korea has resisted pressure from Washington and Kyiv to provide weapons to Ukraine, as it is keen to avoid antagonizing Russia.

While Russia had been a good partner for quite some time, the war with Ukraine and Moscow’s use of weapons from North Korea have made ties “uncomfortable,” Yoon said.

The United States and its allies have condemned what they called significant deliveries of North Korean weapons to Russia to help its war effort, including missiles that United Nations sanctions monitors said struck a Ukrainian city.

Russia and North Korea have denied arms deals, but have vowed to deepen cooperation on military matters, among others.