By Juni Kim
Despite a boost in approval ratings from the third inter-Korean summit in mid-September, South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have dropped to levels similar to before the summit according to recent polling data. A Gallup Korea poll conducted last week with 1,004 respondents showed that Moon’s rating had fallen to 55 percent, and a poll conducted by Realmeter showed near-identical results at 55.6 percent. Moon had previously seen his ratings drop steadily throughout 2018 to a low of 49 percent during the first week of September.
The recent results reveal two trends of how South Koreans view the current president’s performance. The first is that South Koreans generally approve of the president’s diplomatic outreach to North Korea, and the summits are viewed as important signs of progress in thawing tense inter-Korean relations. Each summit has been followed by a bump in approval ratings for President Moon, as can be seen in the graph below.
The second trend is that South Koreans have grown to increasingly disapprove of the president’s handling of the economy. A Gallup Korea survey conducted on October 10th and 11th showed that South Koreans remain pessimistic on the state of the economy. The survey found that 54 percent of respondents believed the unemployment rate would increase over the next year and 46 percent indicated that the economy will get worse, compared to only 20 percent of respondents that said the economy will get better. The numbers are similar to poll results in early August, which show that the Moon administration’s efforts to reassure the public since then have not effectively swayed public opinion.
President Moon’s recent approval ratings struggles also bring to mind the shared difficulty of past South Korean presidents in maintaining favorable ratings. Every elected president since 1988 has seen their ratings fall over the first year and a half in office. The one exception was Moon’s predecessor Park Geun-hye, though even her ratings trended downwards after an early boost. History does not paint a rosy picture for the rest of Moon’s tenure, with every other South Korean president seeing their ratings continue to fall as their term continues. On the half-glass-full side, President Moon entered office with historically high approval ratings and has also fared better than prior presidents at the current point in a presidential term.
There is a wider (and much more academic) discussion to be had of why every elected South Korean president struggles with falling ratings throughout each of their terms. South Korean presidents are limited to one five-year term, and this may be a contributing factor since current presidents do not have to worry about campaigning for a second term. Using the U.S. as an example, the past five U.S. presidents have seen their approval ratings increase in the lead up to their second election. History has also not been kind to South Korean presidents once they leave office, with many of them mired in scandal and corruption charges afterwards. In contrast, approval for U.S. presidents tends to improve once they leave office.
Looking to the future, Moon has a tall task ahead of him to gain back lost ground on his public approval. The public’s economic concerns are unlikely to disappear easily, but a major breakthrough in inter-Korean relations may win back a large share of Moon’s supporters. However, if the peace process appears to stall or even take steps backward, we may see history repeat itself again.
Juni Kim is the Program Manager and Executive Assistant at the Korea Economic Institute of America (KEI). The views expressed here are the author’s alone. Graphics by Juni Kim.
Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.