MS Risk Blog

Evaluating President Moon’s electoral “success” in South Korea

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South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, and his left-of-centre Democratic Party, in tandem with an affiliate Party created for the elections, gave the Conservative opposition United Future Party – a shellacking in the April 15thParliamentary Elections, winning three-fifths of the 300 House of Assembly seats. The stellar performance of the Progressives gained it 51 seats, and a super-majority to potentially grant President Moon’s reform agenda an easier ride through legislature. This was the largest legislative election victory by any party since South Korea’s Democratic dispensation in 1987.

The new reality for leaders and governments across the globe, seems that Citizenry judge them writ large through the lens of Public Health Policy – in the face of the scourge and terror that Covid-19 has unleashed. The question was how President Moon’s government and Health officials were dealing with the Virus? The Election results seems to have justified his handling of the Health crisis.

“The challenge for us has been how to protect the suffrage of the people and at the same time install safeguards to minimize the danger of infection that could happen during the election,” said Kim Gang-lip, a vice health minister and senior coordinator for the government’s war against the coronavirus.

Mr Gang-lip’s comments puts matters into some perspective. Luminaries in the practice of Democracy like Britain and France postponed elections; and America is in the grip of a political feud over mail-in voting versus in-person voting during the up coming Presidential elections in November. It sounds like Democracy is in perilous times – at risk as the Coronavirus lets reap.

In February, South Korea was second to China in the number of Covid-19 infections recorded. But through the policy of widespread testing, isolation, and treatment, managed to significantly flatten its curve. It turns out President Moon’s government’s handling of the pandemic imbued the electorate with confidence in his leadership, and rewarded his Democratic Party, and its affiliate. The elections against this backdrop, took on added significance – to preserve Democracy, and to keep the public safe.

Strict safety measures were put in place to forestall any potential spread of the Virus. Voting officials screened Voters for high temperature, and requested them to stand at three-foot distance from one another, wear face masks, use hand sanitizer and wear disposable gloves before casting their ballots. The New York Times reported that more than 13,000 South Koreans serving the mandatory 14-day quarantine who wanted to cast their ballots were escorted by officials to do so after polling stations closed officially at 6pm, and many others with mild symptoms used mail voting. Voter turn-out was 66.2 percent – the highest it’s been since 1992.

Observers of Politics in the Korean peninsula would concur that President Moon’s Legislative election victory, and the laudatory assessment his public health policies have both received – is the easier part of the equation.

The next set of hurdles ostensibly are steeper, and the question is how President Moon Jae-in would parlay his increased political capital from the election towards improving security and economic ties with North Korea. President Moon has been an unwavering crusader and instigator of diplomatic rapprochement between Washington and Pyongyang. The dichotomy in South Korea over relations with North Korea runs along party lines, and was at play in the elections. Mr Moon’s liberal party favouring a détente, while the Conservatives prefer the status quo – with South Korea’s security enmeshed in its bilateral security cooperation with Washington.

President Moon’s hand is strengthened by this crushing electoral victory of the Conservative alliance. His hankering for North Korea’s leader Kim Jung-un and President Trump to reach a denuclearization deal feeds into his vision for a Joint Inter-Korean economic venture – believing that South Korea’s security is best served under the aegis of a bilateral economic cooperation between both sides of the peninsula.

“South Korean conservatives will intensify their criticism of President Moon’s engagement policies for going too far, too fast with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor of international studies at Ewha Womans University in Seoul.

To make matters fraught for President Moon, his détente strategy is substantially dependent on President Trump and Kim Jung-un of North Korea reaching an agreement – two leaders with capricious characteristics. Commentators see that as walking on eggshells.

The economy is expected to face critical head winds from Covid-19 induced global recession. Bloomberg reports a 1.4% contraction of GDP on last Quarter, and there is more bad news to come from the Labour market.  How does the President address the misstep of a controversial close cabinet member Cho Kuk, who was dogged by ethical and financial malfeasance that sparked rallies demanding the resignation of the Justice Minister late in 2019?

Former Governor of New York State, Mario Cuomo once said: “We campaign in Poetry, and govern in prose”. That aphorism well applies in the aftermath of President Moon’s electoral success. Despite a sequence of wins in Presidential, Local, and Legislative elections, failure to take a pragmatic approach governing domestic and International affairs, throw-in the mix a potential for the resurgence of Covid-19 infections, and a perfect storm emerges. That could come at a heavy political price. South Korea’s political climate can be that volatile.