SEOUL (BLOOMBERG) – After US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi captivated the world’s attention with a groundbreaking trip to Taiwan, she received far less fanfare on her next stop. South Korean President Yoon Suk-yeol, who has seen his approval rating drop to near historic depths just three months after taking office, didn’t see it necessary to greet Mrs Pelosi in person – opting for a phone call instead.

“President Yoon’s vacation schedule and Speaker Pelosi’s visit to the Republic of Korea overlapped, and we did not rearrange our schedule,” his office said in a statement.

Mr Yoon was the only leader not to meet Mrs Pelosi in person during her high-stakes Asia trip, which included becoming the highest-level US official to visit Taiwan in 25 years, as well as the first sitting House speaker to visit South Korea in about 20 years.

Although Mr Yoon has pledged to rebuild security ties with the country’s long-standing American ally and take a tough line with China, his popularity has swiftly fallen in recent weeks over numerous missteps. Putting off a meeting with one of the most powerful US politicians risks adding to the self-inflicted damage that has dogged his government since it took power in May.

“The optics look very bad,” said Duyeon Kim, an adjunct senior fellow in Seoul at the Center for a New American Security. “It could raise serious questions in Washington about Yoon’s ability to walk the talk about being a self-proclaimed globally pivotal state, a strong team player on Team Democracy, and being able to stand up to China to protect its own national interest.”

Every other South Korean president has met Mrs Pelosi since she first became speaker in 2007, and President Roh Moo-hyun met her in 2006 during a visit to Washington. She is the first sitting House speaker to arrive in South Korea since Dennis Hastert in 2002.

Mrs Pelosi met Japanese Prime Minister Fumio Kishida on Friday in Tokyo in the final leg on her trip. During her brief stop in South Korea, Mrs Pelosi and her congressional delegation met lawmakers at parliament in Seoul, where they agreed to work to end North Korea’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. The US and South Korea have warned that Kim Jong Un’s regime may soon conduct its first nuclear test since 2017, as he modernises an arsenal of weapons designed to deliver atomic warheads to the US mainland and its allies in Asia.

Mrs Pelosi also went to the Panmunjom truce village in the Demilitarised Zone that divides the Koreas. The place where soldiers from the two sides stare down each other is a symbol of military tensions that have simmered since the US came to South Korea’s defence in 1950 after North Korea invaded and started the Korean War.