Despite responding to the widening COVID-19 outbreak with an efficient and large-scale testing program and effective containment measures, South Korean President Moon Jae-in still faces public criticism for his handling of the outbreak.
The political risks from the outbreak are particularly salient for Moon, who faces national legislative elections in April.
The outbreak has reinforced public disapproval of Moon’s handling of a slowing economy, and undermined his efforts to improve relations with North Korea and Japan.
After Japan announced that it would impose new restrictions on South Korean visitors – including requesting that all South Korean arrivals be quarantined for two weeks – Seoul announced it would suspend a program allowing Japanese nationals to visit without a visa for up to 90 days, invalidate previously issued visas, and impose other restrictions on Japanese visitors.
The tit-for-tat imposition of new travel restrictions by Seoul and Tokyo marks a reversion to the tensions that characterized their relations in 2019 after several months of working-level talks. The haste with which South Korean President Moon Jae-in’s administration hit back at Japan hints at Moon’s vulnerability ahead of National Assembly elections on 15 April, in which Moon’s Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) is seeking to preserve its plurality if not win an outright majority. Moon has already been criticized for hesitating to impose travel restrictions on Chinese visitors and, if he were to hesitate to respond aggressively to Japan’s restrictions, it would gift his political opponents another line of attack ahead of the legislative elections.
The reality is that despite the plaudits the Moon administration has received for its implementation of an aggressive COVID-19 testing regime – nearly 160,000 people have been tested thus far – the president and the DPK are nevertheless vulnerable from the economic and social costs of the outbreak. The number of cases of COVID-19 has continued to rise in South Korea. The total number is now 6,593, with the largest concentration still in Daegu, the country’s fourth-largest city, and the majority of cases still related to the Shincheonji religious group based in the city. Thus far, Moon’s self-described “war” on the outbreak has largely contained the virus in and around Daegu, with only a small number of cases in Seoul.
However, even if his administration has handled the outbreak better than other governments, Moon has nevertheless still been criticized for not taking a more aggressive approach in the early stages of the outbreak, particularly when it came to restrictions on Chinese visitors. In fact, recent opinion polls suggest that Moon’s approval ratings have barely shifted from their record lows and largely remain below 50%.
Moon’s biggest problem is the economy. The South Korean economy had already been sluggish before the outbreak and Moon’s standing was weaker in large part because of perceived economic policy failings. South Korea’s manufacturers were among the earliest to have been affected by supply chain disruptions due to the COVID-19 outbreak in China, but they now face not only supply shortages but also weak export demand in China and sluggish household demand. The impact of the outbreak on the economy is real and every South Korean has experienced disruptions to daily life. The Moon administration will submit a KRW 11.7tn (USD 9.9bn) supplemental budget to the National Assembly next week, which will focus on expanding Korea’s quarantine facilities, supporting medical institutions, and providing subsidies to small businesses and quarantined individuals. Nevertheless, despite concerns about South Korea’s growth outlook, the Bank of Korea (BOK) kept its benchmark rate at 1.25% on 4 March, although it too has extended funds to small businesses. However, these initiatives may do little to ease public dissatisfaction before the legislative elections.
At the same time, Moon has also been frustrated in his attempts to use the outbreak to strengthen ties with Pyongyang. North Korea has continued to deny it has any COVID-19 cases but has continued to impose increasingly stringent restrictions in an effort to prevent an outbreak. These measures may be leading to economic turbulence. North Korea has effectively closed its border with China, leading to severe shortages of commodities and skyrocketing prices. With the United Nations Security Council’s 1718 Sanctions Committee granting exemptions for humanitarian relief related to the COVID-19 outbreak, the most immediate challenge for Moon and the international community is convincing North Korea to accept testing kits and other medical supplies. Despite North Korean leader Kim Jong Un’s sending a letter to Moon wishing him well as South Korea fights the outbreak, the Moon administration denied reports that Kim requested medical assistance.
The upshot is that Moon is hemmed in on all sides with little more than a month until legislative elections. His government’s highly transparent and dynamic response to the outbreak has been underappreciated at home, while the scale of economic disruption grows. Moon’s hopes to use the outbreak to mend fences with Japan and strengthen ties with North Korea have been frustrated. Meanwhile, an increasingly unified conservative opposition is preparing to use Moon’s troubles to make gains in the National Assembly that would render him a lame duck with two years remaining in his term.