SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol was already struggling with surging inflation, rising Covid-19 cases and historically low approval numbers.
Then, he launched into a potentially explosive feud with the nation’s police force.
Mr Yoon spent Tuesday (July 26) defending his proposal to create a “police bureau” and assume greater control over the powerful law enforcement agency, a move that has prompted protests by senior officers.
As his interior minister attempted to walk back comments comparing the demonstration to a “military coup,” Mr Yoon accused the officers of a lesser offence, saying they may have displayed a “serious breach” of discipline.
The dust-up with the police is just the latest controversy to consume Mr Yoon’s administration since his narrow election victory in March.
After his struggles to relocate the presidential offices and follow through on a pledge to close the Gender Equality Ministry, the conservative-backed administration has seen its approval rating sink below 40 per cent after two months in office – the first time that has happened for an elected South Korean president in a tracking poll by Realmeter.
The poll numbers, which have fallen more since then, have raised doubts about whether Mr Yoon can recover.
While he spends precious political capital over reforms, he’s facing increasing public anger over inflation and runaway urban real estate prices.
“Yoon’s government is fighting needless battles as opposed to fighting some of the real problems of the country, such as the surges in the inflation rate and coronavirus cases,” said Dr Lee Junhan, a political science professor at the Incheon National University.
South Korea’s Cabinet passed a measure Tuesday endorsing the establishment of what would be known as a police bureau, in which the government’s Interior Ministry would oversee aspects of the law enforcement agency.
Scores of senior police officers have protested the move, claiming it would compromise their neutrality and hearkens back to the days of dictators.
The move hits on a sensitive subject for a country that last saw a coup in 1979 and restructured its government in the late 1980s to remove vestiges of authoritarian rule.
Interior Minister Lee Sang-min on Monday compared the police protest to the 1979 coup, only to later clarify that he “wouldn’t call the move a rebellion.”
The next day, Mr Yoon reiterated criticism of the police, saying any breaches of discipline would be dealt with accordingly.
“Like many, I am also deeply concerned about the collective protest of the police chiefs,” he told reporters.