President Moon Jae-in entered the fourth year of his five-year tenure Sunday with ample political capital, something his predecessors never enjoyed at the same point in their presidencies.
A survey of about 1,000 adult South Koreans last week showed that his approval rating stood at 71 percent, exceeding the figure for all former presidents as they finished a third year in office.
His popularity helped the liberal ruling Democratic Party of Korea and its sister party secure a combined 180 seats in the 300-member unicameral parliament. Such a strong majority means the ruling party could ram through any legislation except for a constitutional revision, which requires approval from at least two-thirds of lawmakers.
Moon now finds himself in a position to push his policy agenda in any direction he wants during the remainder of his term.
Moon’s current popularity is attributable largely to his administration’s relative success in handling the novel coronavirus outbreak.
He is now facing the tougher task of navigating a host of challenges as the nation heads into the post-coronavirus era.
The question is whether he will be able to go beyond basking in plaudits for his government’s effective handling of the pandemic crisis and make tangible accomplishments in the areas of economics and security.
With the ruling party set to dominate the next parliament, which begins its four-year term late this month, Moon can no longer blame conservative opposition parties for blocking reform measures needed to move the nation forward.
At this point, Moon needs to recognize that his high approval rating does not necessarily mean the public supports the full range of policies his government has pushed over the past three years.
It should be noted that more than 50 percent of respondents to last week’s poll cited the government’s handling of the COVID-19 outbreak as the main reason for their approval of Moon’s performance. A failure to cope with the long-term impact from the pandemic crisis would reveal that his popularity stemmed mainly from the “rally-round-the-flag effect.”
His consolidated political position now provides him with the best and last opportunity to redress a set of policy approaches that many experts say have proven wrong.
In a speech marking the third anniversary of his inauguration Sunday, Moon presented an ambitious vision for South Korea to take the initiative in the post-coronavirus global economy on the basis of its strength in information and communication technology and bio-health.
He reiterated that his government would push for what he described as the Korean version of the New Deal by focusing on future-oriented “preemptive investment” designed to establish digital infrastructure and create more jobs.
He fell short of committing himself to taking the measures that many pundits say are needed to revitalize the economy.
It is necessary to accelerate regulatory and labor reforms to enhance corporate activity, which is essential for South Korea to ride on the wave of transformative changes in the wake of the pandemic crisis.
In step with these efforts, the Moon government needs to discard or readjust its income-led growth policy, which has imposed heavier burdens on companies.
Consideration should also be given to stopping the push to phase out nuclear power generation, which is set to undermine the country’s industrial competitiveness and goes against global efforts to reduce climate change.
The policy shift should be quick, as South Korea’s economy, which was already slumping before the coronavirus outbreak, has yet to feel the full impact of the crisis in the coming months and beyond.
Moon needs to use his political capital to carry through thorny reforms for the sake of the whole nation. He should be determined to confront resistance from vested interests and his political support base, if necessary.
Answering a question from a reporter after giving his speech Sunday, Moon said inter-Korean projects should be pursued regardless of the prolonged stalemate in denuclearization talks between the US and North Korea.
He said Seoul would keep trying to persuade Pyongyang to accept its proposals for cross-border cooperation such as the reconnection of inter-Korean railways and individual tours to the North.
Pyongyang seems reluctant to respond to Seoul’s offers before succeeding in drawing significant concessions from Washington.
Under the circumstances, the Moon government needs to ensure that its eagerness to promote inter-Korean cooperation remains in step with progress in denuclearizing the North.
During his remaining years in office, Moon also needs to exert more efforts to ease the deepening social, political and ideological divisions in the country.
He will leave office as a truly successful president if he succeeds in translating his current political capital into more flexible and practical measures to serve the interests of the entire nation.