SEOUL, May 9 (Reuters) - South Korean President Yoon Suk Yeol said on Thursday his government's efforts to improve people's lives had fallen short, conceding a crushing election defeat for his ruling party last month reflected voters' assessment 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 of flagging birth rates over the three years he has left in office.

"I think the important thing going forward is indeed the economy. Corporate growth and job creation are important too but what I think is more important is to try harder to look for what is inconvenient in the life of each and every person and to resolve them," he said.

South Korea's economy beat most forecasts to grow 1.3% in the first three months of this year, though living costs have remained stubbornly high despite some progress tackling inflation.

As part of a new policy push, a government ministry would be created to address the record low birth rate and fast-ageing population, Yoon said in opening remarks from his office, behind a plaque which reads "The Buck Stops Here."

"This is not a matter we can take time to work on," he said.

South Korea's fertility rate, already the world's lowest, continued its dramatic decline in 2023, as women cited concerns about bearing most of the burden for raising children, lost career opportunities, and the financial cost of raising children as reasons to delay childbirth or to not have babies.

Yoon fronted the media after the heavy defeat of his People Power Party in an April 10 vote, which prompted calls for a change in his leadership style and policy direction to salvage a presidency not yet at the halfway point.

"I think it reflects the public's evaluation of my administration's work is far short of what is needed," Yoon said when asked about his party's election defeat.

He apologised for the first time for a controversy surrounding his wife accepting a pricey gift. The issue is likely to weigh heavily on his attempts to win cooperation from the opposition-controlled parliament on policy priorities.

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

He has pledged to communicate better with the public and parliament, as some analysts warn that he had already slipped into lame-duck status.

Photo from Reuters