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S. Korean president vows to focus on economy after election shock

SEOUL, South Korea — South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said Thursday that his government’s efforts to improve people’s lives have failed, admitting that his ruling party’s crushing defeat in last month’s elections reflected the voters’ evaluation of his two years in office.

In his first news conference in 21 months, Yoon pledged to focus on improving the economy and tackling what he called the national emergency over falling interest rates. birth rate during the three years he remains in power.

“I think what is important for the future is indeed the economy,” he said.

“Business growth and job creation are also important, but what I think is more important is putting more effort into finding out what’s getting in the way of people’s lives and solving them.”

South Korea’s economy has outperformed most forecasts, growing 1.3 percent in the first three months of this year, although the cost of living has remained stubbornly high despite some progress in combating inflation.

Under a new policy initiative, a ministry will be created to combat record birth rates and a rapidly aging population, Yoon said in his opening speech from his office, behind a plaque reading “Responsibility stops here.”

“It’s not an issue we can take the time to work on,” he said.

South Korea’s fertility rate, already the lowest in the world, continued its dramatic decline in 2023, as women cited concerns about shouldering the bulk of the burden of raising children, lost career opportunities and the financial cost of raising children as reasons for delaying childbirth or not. have children at all.

Yoon’s People Power Party suffered a heavy loss in the April 10 vote, prompting calls for a change in his leadership style and policy direction to save a presidency that is not yet halfway through. -course.

“I think this reflects the public’s view that my administration’s work falls far short of what is necessary,” Yoon said when asked about his party’s electoral defeat.

He apologized for the first time over controversy surrounding his wife’s acceptance of an expensive Dior handbag. The issue will likely weigh heavily on his attempts to gain cooperation from the opposition-controlled parliament on policy priorities.

Yoon, who won the presidency in 2022 by a margin of less than a percentage point, saw his support ratings plunge to a low of 21% in a public opinion poll.

Rep. Park Chan-dae, the new leader of the main opposition Democratic Party, called Yoon’s press conference and speech “bitterly disappointing.”

He said it reaffirmed that the president had “neither the heart nor the will to protect the lives of the people.”

Kim Hyung-joon, a professor at Pai Chai University in the capital Seoul, said Yoon’s comments suggested he might focus on more bipartisan issues such as boosting the birth rate, rather than changing radically its program.

“He seemed to feel no urgency, even after such a crushing election defeat – no new policy initiatives, or virtually no signs of a radical change in the way he does things,” he said.

On foreign policy, Yoon said South Korea would maintain its stance of not providing lethal weapons to any country in active conflict, when asked whether Seoul would consider helping Ukraine defend itself against Russia.

Despite its emergence as a major arms exporter, South Korea has resisted pressure from Washington and kyiv to supply arms to Ukraine, keen to avoid antagonizing Russia.

Although Russia has been a good partner for some time, the war with Ukraine and Moscow’s use of North Korean weapons have made relations “uncomfortable,” Yoon said.

The United States and its allies have condemned what they call significant shipments of North Korean weapons to Russia to support its war effort, including missiles that U.N. sanctions monitors say have hit a Ukrainian city.

Russia and North Korea have denied any arms deal, but have pledged to deepen cooperation on military issues, among other things.