Speaking to the press on his 100th day in office, on August 17th, Yoon Suk-yeol could hardly have been less charismatic had he tried. Rattling at breakneck speed through obvious policy ambitions (denuclearising North Korea, mending ties with Japan) and minor accomplishments (attending a nato meeting in Spain), South Korea’s president at least upheld his campaign promise not to “put on a show”.
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That is in keeping with the anti-politician schtick that he deployed to win office in March. His predecessor, Moon Jae-in, was a smooth operator with a long political career. Mr Yoon is a gruff prosecutor who entered politics less than a year before he was elected. Yet as president, the schtick has been exposed as reality: his lack of political skill has become a liability.
Less than a third of South Koreans view him favourably. Though many dislike his policies, especially on education and the economy, they loathe the imperious way he presents them. His attempts to look open by allowing journalists to fire questions at him as he comes to work have instead made him look unprepared. Mr Yoon is, to mangle a handy Korean phrase, getting his clothes soaked in a drizzle of unforced errors.
This unpopularity could undermine his agenda. A perception of incompetence and arrogance makes the people—and the press—predisposed to think the worst of him. Another Korean expression may apply: Mr Yoon has begun doing up his shirt with the wrong button.
What Mr Yoon needs is someone like Tak Hyun-min, the previous president’s spin doctor. Mr Tak controlled every aspect of Mr Moon’s public persona, ensuring every photo-op sent the right message and that his words and actions always met the moment. Mr Yoon has belatedly recognised this. On August 21st he hired as his senior public-relations secretary Kim Eun-hye, a politician who used to be a news anchor. Banyan wonders what advice Ms Kim might give Mr Yoon to get his presidency back on track.
One tip is obvious. Politicians are judged not just on what they do, but how they do it. Several of Mr Yoon’s appointments to his cabinet and personal staff have had a whiff of impropriety about them. A fair share of them came from the prosecutor’s office, his previous fief. Four of his cabinet nominees withdrew from the process over accusations of nepotism, graft or sexual harassment. On many occasions Mr Yoon has skipped conventional vetting procedures. His defence is that the appointments are perfectly legal. That is a prosecutor’s answer. A politician knows that the appearance of propriety counts just as much as the thing itself.
Since his dip in the polls, Mr Yoon has repeated his victory promise to “follow the people’s will”. A second thing Ms Kim could impress upon him is that presidents should lead, not follow. His job is to make hard choices and explain his decisions clearly, something he failed to do when moving his office across the capital at great cost to the taxpayer. Mr Yoon has yet to learn even the basic political trick of presenting every popular policy as his own idea, let alone master the much harder task of selling unpopular ones.
Ms Kim might also tell South Korea’s president that, while rushing in headlong looks unprofessional and backtracking appears inept, to do both is the hallmark of an amateur. Mr Yoon could have explained away not meeting Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of America’s House of Representatives, when she visited Seoul after a trip to Taiwan earlier this month. Instead he dealt with criticism by making a last-minute phone call to her. Similarly, an announcement in July that children would start school a year earlier was so unpopular that the minister responsible, Park Soon-ae, was forced to resign. The briefest of consultations would have predicted the backlash.
Mr Yoon has had a bad start. He is not just unpopular. He also faces an opposition-controlled parliament and does not completely control his own party. He has already reshuffled his personal office, and still needs to fill the important positions of health and education ministers. He would do well to bring in not just competent and scandal-free people, but those from beyond his immediate circle, which would help widen his support. And he will need to act fast to win over the public. With just a single five-year term allowed by the constitution, South Korean presidents have little time to build a legacy. Hence the last and most important bit of advice, which takes in all the previous ones: learn the rules before you break them.
Read more from Banyan, our columnist on Asia:
The rising prominence of the Indian Ocean worries the countries in it (Aug 18th)
How not to administer justice after a brutal civil war (Aug 13th)
Is Bongbong Marcos’s early pragmatism a paradox or an illusion? (Aug 4th)
This article appeared in the Asia section of the print edition under the headline “Panic button”
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