South Korea’s political stability in doubt as failed Yoon-opposition meet risks ‘igniting partisan strife’

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Hopes were high on Monday that Yoon’s first meeting with opposition leader Lee Jae-myung would bring a measure of stability to the country’s turbulent politics, but the encounter only underscored the gridlock between the ruling conservative People Power Party and the liberal opposition Democratic Party of Korea.

If he attempts to delay legal proceedings against himself until after the next presidential election in 2027 by clogging up the wheels of justice with a backlog of witnesses – or leverages the opposition’s new-found strength to pursue Yoon’s impeachment – he could “ignite a new cycle of partisan strife, further polarising the country’s political landscape”, Kim said.

Lee had repeatedly called for a meeting with the president, arguing that the country was in the midst of a crisis not seen in decades, with economic stagnation, mounting geopolitical tensions and a perceived erosion of democracy.

Yoon (right) meets opposition leader Lee for talks at the presidential office in Seoul on Monday. Photo: Reuters

Yoon, whose approval rating hit at an all-time low of just 23 per cent last month according to a Gallup Korea poll, saw his party suffer a devastating defeat at the hands of the opposition, comprising Lee’s bloc and other splinter groups.

The ruling party only managed to secure 108 of the assembly’s 300 seats in the April 10 National Assembly elections, with the opposition scooping up the remaining 192 – just eight seats short of the number required to pursue impeachment proceedings against a sitting president.

The vote was seen as a midterm referendum on Yoon’s performance two years into his five-year tenure, with the Lee meeting reflecting the president’s reluctant acknowledgement of the need for dialogue.

Yoon and Lee’s meeting over tea at the presidential office lasted more than two hours. The president had reportedly promised to “communicate humbly and flexibly” with the opposition after his party’s electoral drubbing.

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The conservative JoongAng newspaper said in an opinion piece the following day: “Rhetoric doesn’t count any more. If the president thinks that people gave him a whipping, he should show behavioural change”.

After the meeting, the president’s office emphasised the importance of initiating dialogue with the opposition. But Lee’s party expressed disappointment, saying the president did not exhibit the desired level of willingness to alter his course of action or policies.

Lee highlighted a number of economic woes during the meeting, from high interest rates to the won’s poor performance against the US dollar. He also broached the issue of press freedom, accusing the government of targeting broadcasters like MBC for their critical reporting, including corruption allegations involving Yoon’s wife Kim Keon-hee.
Mounting tensions with North Korea were also discussed, with Lee urging Yoon to explore strategies for de-escalation. “Value-based, biased diplomacy alone cannot protect national interests”, Lee said, as he called for a “pragmatic diplomacy centred on national interests”.

The government should reconsider its biased diplomacy, putting all its eggs in one basket

Jhee Byong-kuen, political-science professor
Yoon’s foreign-policy agenda has focused on strengthening alliances with the United States and fostering closer ties with Japan, after he and his conservative allies criticised the previous liberal government for going easy on Pyongyang and showing excessive deference to China.

“Concerns are growing over the absence of diplomatic efforts as global geopolitical crises, including tensions in the Taiwan Strait and the war in Ukraine, could spill over onto the Korean peninsula at a time when inter-Korean relations are at their worst level in decades,” said Jhee Byong-kuen, a political-science professor at Chosun University in Gwangju.

“The government should reconsider its biased diplomacy, putting all its eggs in one basket.”

How a modern-day Korean war may unfold, if Kim follows through on his threats …

In the meeting, Lee also urged Yoon to allow special prosecutorial investigations into several contentious issues, such as the 2022 Halloween crowd crush that claimed 159 lives and a suspected cover-up surrounding the death of a Marine during a controversial search operation last year.

Paichai University’s Kim expressed doubt that Yoon would modify his approach.

“However, there is some possibility of Yoon reaching out to Chinese President Xi Jinping”, he said, adding that South Korean Foreign Minister Cho Tae-yul was seeking to visit China ahead of a planned summit between the two countries and Japan reportedly set for later this month.

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