President Moon Jae-in is entering the twilight of his presidency in the new year.
The coronavirus pandemic and prosecution reform dominated the headlines last year.
South Korea once boasted of its response to COVID-19, but late last year the number of cumulative confirmed cases exceeded 60,000 and the death toll reached 900. Korea tightened its social distancing rules to slow the spread of the virus, but it is difficult to predict when everyday life will resume.
The Moon regime put up a hell of a fight to kick out the prosecutor general, who had pushed to investigate allegations that might taint the president and Cheong Wa Dae. Now it is rushing to launch the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, expecting the mighty agency to suppress the investigations.
The Moon administration performed poorly on issues involving job creation, real estate and North Korea. Moon’s approval rating rose to 71 percent in May, but was only at the mid-30 percent level in December, according to Gallup Korea polls. Moderate, centrist voters are deserting him.
The presidential election will be held in March 2022, and competition among candidates will heat up this year. Mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan in April are expected to be a barometer for the presidential election.
Polls show Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl leading presidential hopefuls, though he has said he wanted his name off the list. All eyes will be on him to see if he runs for president.
Provide precise info
Probably the biggest task for the Moon administration in 2021 is to get the nation out of the pandemic as early as possible.
COVID-19 infections resurged this winter despite tougher curbs. The first cases of a new and possibly more contagious coronavirus variant from the UK have appeared in Korea as well.
Moon and his government face criticism for failing to secure vaccines as soon as other countries. The administration did not take vaccines seriously, but focused on containing the pandemic with quick testing and contact tracing.
Initially, the government said that safety rather than speed was its top priority. Then the third wave of infections swept the country in mid-November, and news media reported that dozens of countries had preordered vaccines.
The government claimed to have secured early access to vaccines developed by four drugmakers and vaccines from a global vaccine project. When it first made the claim, it was not found to have signed contracts with any of the pharmas except for AstraZeneca. It is said to have managed to conclude contracts with the three drug companies as well by the end of last year.
Cheong Wa Dae announced late last year that Moderna had agreed to supply its vaccine to Korea. The presidential office released a photo of Moon holding a videoconference with the chief executive of the US biotech firm. It is fortunate to secure more vaccines, but people want the government to focus more on substance than publicity and propaganda.
People want to know exactly what vaccines they can get, and when. The government must provide accurate information above all else.
Neutralizing the prosecution
Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae tried almost all year, but she failed to expel Yoon. But ardent Moon supporters won’t give up, with some ruling party lawmakers calling for Yoon’s impeachment. The Democratic Party of Korea kicked off “Season 2 of prosecution reform” in its efforts to neutralize the prosecution.
Late last year, Moon nominated a former judge to head the inaugural CIO and is expected to launch the agency as quickly as possible.
Moon and the ruling party speak of the office’s political neutrality, but that sounds like lip service. The party said its neutrality was guaranteed because the opposition party could veto candidates for CIO chief. But when a veto stalled the candidate recommendation procedure, the ruling party unilaterally revised the law and effectively abolished the veto power. This is evidence that the Democratic Party of Korea intends to put the new agency in place under its control.
If the CIO’s neutrality is undermined, investigations involving Moon and his aides will likely be buried.
Some Democratic Party lawmakers propose that the prosecution be stripped of its investigation function altogether and left only with the job of indicting criminal suspects. They argue that police should investigate all allegations. There are concerns that police would then become too powerful.
Under the revised police agency law, effective Jan. 1, police are free to close cases on their own judgment without forwarding them to prosecutors. Police were belatedly found to have closed an assault case against Vice Justice Minister Lee Yong-gu on their own judgment. Experts say they should have booked Lee for assaulting a taxi driver. Complementary measures are needed to prevent police from abusing the right to close cases on their own.
By-elections for the Seoul and Busan mayoral seats, slated for April 7, will offer a chance to gauge voter sentiment about the Moon regime.
If ruling party candidates win the elections, Moon’s reform agenda will gain traction. If not, his control over state affairs will likely lose steam.
The by-elections were called because two ruling party-affiliated mayors were accused of sexual misconduct against their secretaries. In this light, the ruling party appears to be at a disadvantage.
But for now, it is hard to soothsay the election outcomes. Though the main opposition People Power Party led the ruling party in recent polls, the conservative camp needs to unify its candidates to stand a chance in the by-elections.
Ahead of the next presidential election in March next year, this year will see presidential candidates come to the surface and start their campaigns. Ruling party candidates will likely emphasize their differences from Moon if the lame-duck phenomenon becomes prominent. The first thing for the People Power Party to do is find a strong candidate. Then it will have to cooperate with other conservative forces to field a unified candidate.
When Moon was elected president, former democracy activists came to power, raising expectations for the further progress of democracy. But liberal intellectuals say Korea’s democracy has retreated.
Something began to go awry after the general election on April 15 last year. After its landslide election victory, the ruling party embraced totalitarianism. It proposed and passed bills without listening to the other side, triggering protests from opposition parties. But the opposition could do nothing more than protest. Even if all of them joined forces, they could not outvote the Democratic Party.
Furthermore, the Moon regime appears to have no mind to compromise with opposition parties or to change its failed populist policies. Elections are becoming more and more important.