Imagine the leader of a nation with an approval rating of more than 80 percent. We might rationally expect the leader to promote policies at will. Now imagine a leader inaugurated with less than 40 percent approval, which drops to the 30 percent, and sometimes 20 percent, range. One can hardly expect that leader to articulate any political idea effectively. The former refers to President Moon Jae-In of South Korea (2017-2022); the latter is his successor, President Yoon Suk-Yeol (2022-present).
In politics, there is a seemingly obvious, intuitive phenomenon: the higher a leader’s approval rating, the more he or she can do in politics. The lower the rating, the less a leader can do. Nonetheless, South Korean politics is reversing that common wisdom. Moon, a highly popular leader, did not resolve controversial issues and push reforms that the nation had been waiting for, but his largely unpopular successor is wading into these issues.
Moon’s approval rating hit a record high in 2018, his second year in office. Yet in stark contrast to his self-driven diplomatic approach to North Korea and the United States, which grabbed the attention of the entire international community, Moon was passive in dealing with important issues at home.
South Korea’s Three Reform Tasks: National Pension, Public Health, Education
There are three critical yet sensitive issues in South Korea, which only strong leadership can address: national pension, public health, and education reforms.
Looking at the national pension system, due to the country’s steeply declining birth rate and population growth, there is a growing concern that future generations will not receive the promised amounts in the end. Pension funds for certain professions are separately managed, including the army officials, teachers, and public officials, and exacerbate the quality of the national pension.
While South Korea is known to have the best services in profitable medical treatments like dermatology and plastic surgery, the public health sector, including orthopedics, gynecology, and pediatrics, is crowded out. Although the COVID-19 pandemic in South Korea was managed quite well, medical disruptions were common due to lack of medical supplies in public health. These days, kids in the Seoul Metropolitan area are dying from the lack of pediatricians. The low number of physicians in South Korea has the country’s healthcare sector on the brink of a crisis.
Finally, there is an urgent need to reform the education sector. Although South Korea is known to have the highest level of human development and invests heavily in research and development, South Korean teenagers are also known to have the highest level of stress and tension, scoring the lowest in children’s life satisfaction among OECD members. Most Koreans would agree that this is due to the system of education focusing solely on the entrance for colleges and universities.
Six years of secondary school curriculum in South Korea is targeted for Suneung, a college entrance exam which is held only once a year. Because scores are evaluated relatively, questions are phrased in extremely difficult language. To learn the tricks necessary to pass the test, almost all the students rely on extra lessons from private cram schools.
These three issues have something in common: Old systems are not being reformed to keep up with changing times. Contributions to the pension fund need to be raised as economic growth slows down and the birthrate drops, and professional pensions were supposed to integrate into the national pension fund since the latter’s inception in 1986. The university quota for medical doctors needs to be increased from the 2000 agreement, with reforms in medical fees for public health. And the college entrance exam, which was put in place in 1994, needs to be re-imagined from scratch in the era of the fourth industrial revolution.
Political Obstacles to Reform
These issues are obvious social problems. Yet, like in many countries, these glaring issues are neither addressed nor resolved, because the political costs are high for leaders to even approach these topics. Nobody wants to raise their pension contribution or see their eventual pension pay-out lowered. Increasing quotas and medical fees can aggravate both doctors and patients. Reforming the Suneung can upset various stakeholders, including students, teachers, parents, and private education businesses already invested in the system as it is now.
To sum up, these issues are both the most urgent political topics, and the least attractive at the same time. Therefore, the best strategy for any South Korean politician is to keep the status quo and pretend as if everything is fine.
Moon was capable of providing a breakthrough. As he was overwhelmingly popular in his first and second years in office, and enjoyed a majority in the South Korean legislature to boot, he did not even need bipartisan support to make changes. Any opposition to his reforms could be deemed irrational. However, Moon chose to play it safe instead.
In late 2019 Moon sought to raise the pension contribution from 9 to 12 percent, but he retracted that eventually, stating that it is “too burdensome for people.” It was not until late 2020 that Moon sought to increase the quota for medical doctors, which he failed to do after doctors went on strike in protest. Rather than reforming education from the ground up, Moon advocated reviewing the Suneung for “fairness.”
Ironically, Moon’s unpopular successor, Yoon, is tackling these sensitive issues without hesitation. Yoon proposed raising the pension contribution, though exact numbers are now tossed to the National Assembly – where the opposition party holds a majority – to resolve.
Yoon has also unilaterally announced increasing the medical school enrollment quota from 3,058 to 3,558, in effect from 2025, and is considering bumping the quota by an additional 1,000.
Meanwhile, although his specific reform approach remains uncertain, Yoon heavily criticized the “cartel” between the Ministry of Education and the private education industry, arguing that tricky questions phrased by the ministry serve the interests of these enterprises at the expense of public education and students. This suggests that the college entrance exam may be in his crosshairs.
Will an Unpopular Leader Push Further Reforms?
Considering the (un)popularity of Yoon, the administration is not in a favorable political position to address these issues. A rational politician in Yoon’s situation would choose to promote policies that serve the best interests of core supporters or main stakeholders and prepare for elections. Instead, Yoon chose to tackle hot-button reforms at the risk of endangering his remaining approval rate. Yoon’s leadership can be best characterized as high-risk, high-reward: He is acting as if he has nothing to lose and risking himself on the political stage for a chance to hit the jackpot.
In a pessimistic viewpoint, it’s possible that the unfolding of Yoon’s agenda on these three areas will follow the path of Moon’s own failed attempts. Yoon will face opposition from interest groups and civil society as well as opposition parties who hold the majority of seats in the National Assembly. For instance, the Democratic Party, the main opposition party, maintains that Yoon’s national pension reform is no different from that of Moon.
Instead of approving Yoon’s reform packages, the opposition party is likely to dismiss them due to incorrigible political polarization and confrontation between the ruling and the opposition party, a political culture which has also led to downgraded assessments of South Korea’s democracy. Corruption probes into Democratic Party leader Lee Jae-myung have further divided the political landscape, with DP supporters decrying the cases as politically motivated and Yoon’s supporters seeing a needed investigation into credible allegations of corruption.
Observers are curious to see whether Yoon’s reforms can signal a willingness to pursue governance with opponents, and possibly upgrade the level of democracy of the country. Interestingly, Yoon recently met with Lee for the first time since the president’s inauguration in May 2022. Can the political rivals compromise to pursue badly needed reforms, or will South Korean politics be further compromised?