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South Korea president admits ‘shortcomings’ in rare address

His party’s defeat in the April 10 parliamentary elections prompted calls for Yoon to change his policy direction and leadership style.

Screenshot 2024 05 10 082648SEOUL: South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol held a rare press conference Thursday, admitting “shortcomings” after his party’s recent electoral defeat, and laying out policies on issues from the country’s low birthrate to Russia’s war in Ukraine.

The press conference was the president’s first in nearly two years, and comes after his party suffered a drubbing in legislative elections last month.

On Ukraine, Yoon vowed to keep strong ties with Kyiv while maintaining a smooth relationship with Russia, ruling out direct weapons shipments and telling reporters that it was his “firm stance” not to send lethal arms to countries at war.

On South Korea’s birthrate, one of the world’s lowest, he unveiled plans to create a ministry to tackle the issue, which he described as “a national emergency”.

His party’s defeat in the April 10 parliamentary elections prompted calls for Yoon to change his policy direction and leadership style, as his approval ratings languish less than halfway through his five-year term.

Yoon said he has “pondered a lot over what have been the shortcomings” of his administration.

“Communication to explain policy drives and the extent of change people have felt has fallen short,” he said.

Birthrate ministry

Yoon won the 2022 presidential election by the narrowest margin in South Korean history, and his term has been hampered by a series of scandals and his party’s lack of a parliamentary majority.

The president also issued an apology for what he called the “unwise conduct” of his wife, first lady Kim Keon Hee, after hidden camera footage last year appeared to show her accepting a luxury handbag in violation of government ethics rules.

But Yoon said the opposition’s call for a special probe into the first lady was “politically motivated”.

His plan to fix the country’s woeful birthrate comes after it hit a record low in 2023, despite the government pouring billions of dollars into efforts to encourage women to have more children and maintain population stability.

Yoon said he would ask lawmakers to cooperate “to set up the Ministry of Low Birth Rate Counter Planning”,

“We will be creating a low-birth planning department in order to establish a more aggressive and powerful control tower,” he said.

“In order to overcome the low birth rate, which can be considered a national emergency, we will fully mobilise all of the state’s capabilities,” he added.

The country’s fertility rate -– the number of children a woman is expected to have in her lifetime -– dropped to 0.72 in 2023, down nearly eight percent from 2022, according to preliminary data from Statistics Korea in February.

That is far below the 2.1 children needed to maintain the current population of 51 million, which at these rates will nearly halve by the year 2100, experts estimate.

Arms policy

Yoon, who has taken a tough line with the nuclear-armed North, said his country’s ties with Moscow had been strained by what Seoul and ally Washington say are arms shipments from North Korea to Russia.

“North Korea’s export of offensive weapons not only supports the illegal waging of war in relation to Ukraine, but also clearly violates UN Security Council sanctions resolutions related to North Korea’s nuclear weapons,” Yoon said.

Despite tensions with Moscow over the purported arms shipments, Yoon said he aims to “manage our relationship with Russia as smoothly as possible”.

But he said Seoul would not be revising its longstanding policy of not selling arms into active conflicts, which has prevented it from providing military aid to Ukraine.

Seoul has long sought to join the ranks of the world’s top arms exporters — aiming to be the fourth largest, behind the United States, Russia and France — something that is now possible, industry research indicates.

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