When South Korea’s president, Moon Jae-in, took office in June 2017 he did so with record-breaking approval rates above 80 percent. But as his presidency has continued there has been a steady decline, falling to 45 percent in a late April survey by Gallup Korea. This decline has sparked hand-wringing among many Korea watchers. A common refrain is that his support has collapsed, and his presidency may be near crisis. A second refrain is that his North Korea policy has proven unpopular and he is now taking the hit for his engagement policy. Just one problem: none of those things are supported by the data.
First, in the most recent polling data available, President Moon’s approval rates have indeed declined, but his approval rates do not differ significantly from previous presidents at the same points in their respective terms. While he started out higher than most previous presidents, he is now in the middle-of-the-pack in terms of historical approval rates.
Second, the reason for that decline does not appear to be tied to his North Korea policy. In the survey, respondents were asked whether they approve or disapprove of President Moon’s handling of several issues facing the country. While the public is evenly divided on his North Korea policy, with 45 percent approval and 43 percent disapproval, they are much more disappointed with his handling of the economy, employment, and personnel affairs. Half or more disapprove of his management on each of these issues, especially on the economy.
Moreover, North Korea is not as high on the list of priorities for the South Korean public as is often imagined. Like publics around the world, there is far more interest on more clearly defined domestic issues. In a late 2018 poll, 59 percent said they wanted the president to focus on the economy (54%) or welfare (5%). Just 12 percent said the focus should be on peace on the Korean Peninsula (9%) or diplomacy with neighboring countries (3%).
President Moon’s approval rates are indeed sliding, but the reasons for this slide are knowable. It does not appear to be driven by his handling of North Korea. Instead, the South Korean public wants Moon to focus his efforts on the fragile economy. Recent North Korean missile launches are unlikely to change that desire.