All Politics Are Local: Yoon's Newfound Popularity

President Yoon Suk Yeol has found a new political momentum at home. According to the latest opinion poll conducted by Gallup Korea on February 27–29, 2024, Yoon’s approval rating reached 39 percent, the first time it is near the 40 percent range since his approval rating plunged to 32 percent in the third month into his presidency in July 2022 (see Yoon’s monthly approval rating below). In another opinion poll, Realmeter, Yoon’s approval rating was 41.9 percent.

Ellen Kim
Deputy Director and Senior Fellow, Korea Chair
Remote Visualization

Yoon’s rising popularity stands in stark contrast with U.S. president Joe Biden and Japanese prime minister Fumio Kishida, who are experiencing declining levels of domestic support. All three leaders are facing major elections this year. Biden’s job approval rating, 37 percent, at the end of February, was approaching the lowest in his presidency, according to Reuters. In the same month, Kishida cabinet’s approval rating dropped to 14 percent, a record low since he assumed leadership in October 2021, over the slush fund scandal. What is the reason behind Yoon’s newfound popularity?

While all politics is local, there appear to be three major reasons. One is the Yoon government’s push to increase the number of medical school enrollments to address the shortage of doctors in the critical medical service areas; 21 percent of the respondents in the Gallup Korea survey cited the government medical school recruitment plan as their reason for Yoon’s job approval. However, the government plan has met strong resistance from medical students and trainee doctors. Nearly 9,000 junior doctors have gone on strike for nearly 10 days, arguing that the government’s plan to increase the number of doctors is not realistic and does not address the fundamental issues.

Another reason is the Yoon government’s diplomacy, as indicated by 12 percent of the respondents in the same survey. Indeed, Yoon’s presidency has been characterized by major foreign policy successes. This ranges from his successful state visit to the United States in April 2023 to the restoration of South Korea’s relations with Japan, which culminated in the Camp David Summit in August 2023. Under the slogan of “global pivotal state,” the Yoon government has also raised South Korea’s global profile by actively participating in multilateral fora such as the G7 and NATO summits.

Finally, the Yoon government’s recent decision to lift “greenbelt” restrictions in provincial areas to boost regional economic development is also a factor, according to Realmeter. This is the first time in nearly two decades that the Korean government has decided to ease regulations on the greenbelt zones, which were imposed to preserve the environment, to build these areas into strategic industrial zones. 

Yoon’s rising popularity would undoubtedly be welcome news for the ruling party, the People Power Party (PPP). If the current trend continues, this could put the PPP in a good position in the run-up to the National Assembly general election in April, where the ruling party seeks to win the majority seats in the National Assembly. The main opposition Democratic Party of Korea (DP) currently holds 158 of 297 seats (53 percent), while the PPP trails behind with 114 seats (38 percent). The latest polls show that the gap between these two parties has begun to grow; for instance, according to Realmeter, the support rate for the DP fell by 0.7 percentage points to 39.5 percent in the fourth week of February. During the same period, the PPP support rate increased to 43.5 percent, up by 4.4 percentage points from the previous week.

But it is too early to predict the election outcome. Although the main opposition party is in disarray over the internal disagreements over the party nomination of candidates, the general election often tends to be about making a judgment on the sitting president and ruling party. In addition, the political impact of North Korea’s possible military provocation cannot be dismissed. In particular, as the United States and South Korea began their Freedom Shield joint military drills for 11 days starting on March 4, the odds of North Korea’s military actions to disrupt the South Korean general election are high. In the end, domestic politics are fickle in South Korea, and these poll numbers could change or plummet just as quickly as they could go up.

Ellen Kim is deputy director and senior fellow of the Korea Chair at the Center for Strategic and International Studies in Washington, D.C.