SEOUL (Reuters) - When South Korean President Moon Jae-in arrived on Tuesday to begin his summit with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, the wildly enthusiastic welcome in the streets of Pyongyang was in stark contrast to his lackluster send-off from Seoul.
Moon began the three-day visit aimed at advancing faltering nuclear talks amid record-low public approval at home where he has faced a barrage of criticism over his government’s handling of the economy and failure to deliver on his promise to create jobs.
Government data showed last week South Korea’s unemployment rate hit the highest level in August since the global financial crisis, with mandatory minimum wage hikes leading to a sharp slowdown in hiring.
“I hope (President Moon) leads our economy well first than any other matters,” said Ryu Ho-jin, who runs a small business near Seoul, adding he could not remember a time when things were tougher.
“I think he is focusing too much on inter-Korean peace rather than the domestic economy,” the 39-year old said, adding he had second thoughts about his long support for the liberal leader.
Moon has taken on the role of mediating in a stalemate over a pledge by Kim Jong Un to denuclearize the Korean peninsula and the prospect of declaring a formal end of the 1950-53 Korean War.
News of the upcoming travel to Pyongyang did little to buoy Moon’s sagging approval.
A public opinion survey released on Monday by polling firm Realmeter of 2,504 respondents showed his support ratings slipped to the lowest of his term of 53.1 percent.
Support for the president had surged to more than 80 percent following his first historic summit with Kim in April and ahead of meeting between Kim and U.S. President Donald Trump in June.
Reflecting the indifference by many in the South, the only item among South Korea’s biggest web portal Naver’s top 10 news related to the summit was of a rap musician who was traveling with Moon to Pyongyang. Most of other stories were about K-pop artists and their love lives.
In Pyongyang, crowds mobilized by the North Korean regime waved flowers and cheered “Unification!” as Kim and Moon paraded through the capital.
South Koreans appetite for unification has fallen as the differences between the two countries grow and the expected costs of reunification rise.
“There is a direct relationship between the economic situation and the public support of administration’s policy towards North Korea,” said Shin Beom-chul, Director at Center for Security and Unification at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“If the economic situation is bad, people will be psychologically less willing to support the initial costs of cooperating with North Korea.”
Moon’s first meeting with Kim at the Panmunjom truce border village had engrossed even the most skeptical of the South Koreans.
On April 27, the day of the first summit, Kim Jong Un, his age, his wife and sister were the most searched items on Naver.
At Seoul Station in the center of the South Korean capital, few commuters stopped to glance at the images being streamed from Pyongyang of the smiling leaders. In April, school classes had watched the summit live on TV, which also halted traffic.
Na Minhee, who is studying for her Certified Public Accountant (CPA) exam, said while she had known about the first two summit meetings, the news of Tuesday’s third hit her by surprise.
“I was too busy studying for CPA, I did not know.”
(The story was refiled to remove an extraneous word in the first paragraph)
Writing by Jack Kim. Editing by Lincoln Feast.