The year 2021 began with great hope that vaccines would end the COVID-19 pandemic; it ends in fear as the omicron variant spreads at a torrid pace. As the world welcomes 2022, leaders are running short of political capital to rally weary citizens to cooperate with burdensome public health measures.
Amid the dashed hopes of 2021, South Korea pulled through again, much as it did in 2020. The nation did far better than most other advanced democracies in limiting the impact of the pandemic on society. The figures speak for themselves. In 2021 (Jan. 1 to Dec. 27), for example, South Korea had a total of 552,939 cases and 4,404 deaths. Spain, with a population of 47 million, had 4 million cases and 38,302 deaths. Per capita cases and deaths remain low compared to Europe and North America.
Not all has gone smoothly. After a slow start during the first half of the year, South Korea now has one of the highest vaccination rates in the world and is rolling out boosters. The surge in cases at the end of the year after public health measures were relaxed has pressured the health care system, but newly imposed restrictions and booster shots are bringing the number of cases down again. Strong public support for public health measures in 2020 has weakened, but the country has avoided divisive conflicts found in parts of Europe and North America.
The South Korean economy has recovered from a slight dip in 2020. The IMF projects a 4.3 percent growth for 2021, with the economy ranking 10th in the world for the second year in a row. The lengthy pandemic is beginning to wear on the economy, forcing many small businesses to close. Inflation has been creeping up this year and reached a 10-year high in November. Rising inflation and a weakening global economy could dampen economic prospects in the first half of 2022.
In foreign relations, US President Joe Biden kept his promise of bringing stability to US diplomacy. He worked to strengthen relations with long-standing allies South Korea and Japan while opening a dialogue with China. This return to pre-Trump normalcy had a calming effect on the region as nations focused on dealing with the pandemic at home. North Korea was unusually quiet, because of an economic slump resulting from border closures in 2020.
South Korea continued to build on its pop-culture accomplishments from 2020. In April, Youn Yuh-jung won the Academy Award for best supporting actress, becoming the first Korean actor to win an Academy Award and the first Asian actor to do so since 1958. BTS continued to reign supreme, coming in third on Spotify’s list of the most-streamed artists in the world for 2021. The biggest surprise is the popularity of the TV drama “Squid Game,” which debuted on Netflix in September and quickly became the most-watched show in the platform’s history.
President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating has remained in the mid-30 to low 40 percent range for most of the year, which is high compared to previous presidents, all of whom left office under a 30 percent approval. He has also avoided scandals that have damaged his predecessors. Barring any negative shocks, he will leave office next May with the highest approval rating of any leader in South Korean history.
Much of South Korea’s ability to pull through two years of a global pandemic and economic turmoil comes from President Moon’s sense of balance. This helped South Korea to deal successfully with the pandemic while minimizing its effects on the economy. During the chaotic Trump years, it helped to defuse tensions between the US and North Korea that could have led to war.
2022 will be different. The pandemic will wane from immunity and continued vaccination. By year’s end, the virus will simply have run out of people to infect, and it will become a treatable endemic disease.
Moon Jae-in will leave office in early May. The election will be held in early March, and polls show a close race between Lee Jae-myung of the Democratic Party and Yoon Suk-yeol of the People Power Party. Both candidates have their ardent supporters, but much of the public worries that neither man is up to the job. Compared to Moon, they seem unpredictable and terribly small.
How a President Lee or a President Yoon deals the wind-down of the pandemic will affect how well South Korea pulls through 2022. Will they find a sense of balance and offer steady leadership? That is the big question.
Robert J. Fouser
Robert J. Fouser, a former associate professor of Korean language education at Seoul National University, writes on Korea from Pawtucket, Rhode Island. He can be reached at email@example.com. -- Ed.