The year of 2022 has started on a mix of hope and worries. In a third year of COVID-19, the list of troubling challenges and thorny issues outnumbers that of reasons to be hopeful for by a wide margin.
But things could change in a positive way -- if the country will make the right choices and pull off concerted efforts to navigate a difficult path filled with roadblocks, potholes and traps.
The first -- and perhaps the biggest -- choice is the forthcoming presidential election. Korean citizens are set to make a choice between Lee Jae-myung of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea and Yoon Suk-yeol of the main opposition People Power Party.
But it is truly hard to choose between the two candidates, not because they are equally competent and visionary but because they are similarly entangled in a string of scandals and disputes amid the deepening concerns over whether they are qualified for the job.
Lee and Yoon are engaged in an unending cycle of wasteful political attacks on each other that purportedly increase the chance of winning more votes from their bases. For Korean voters, the continued wrangling is adding to confusion and doubt at a time when more opportunities are required to examine their policies and vision in detail.
The stakes could not be higher. First and foremost, COVID-19, which resurged late last year due largely to the misguided decisions by the Moon Jae-in administration, is widely expected to put more political, economic and social pressure on the country already beset by a slew of big challenges.
Around the world, the coronavirus is generating great problems for policymakers and citizens alike, as new variants like omicron threaten overburdened health systems.
Korea’s health authorities are trying hard to get people to go for full vaccinations, including booster shots, but the public remains concerned about vaccines’ potential side effects, and the lack of hospital beds and medical workers amid signs of more breakthrough cases.
Social distancing rules, recently toughened, are expected to limit the spread of the virus for a while, but there is no time to be optimistic. Policymakers, including the next president, should come up with long-term measures at all levels of society to battle the virus and get the nation back to normal step by step.
With the virus threat showing no signs of abating, Korea is likely to face a serious slump in consumption and production. The government aims to achieve an economic growth of 3.1 percent this year, but private research institutes forecast less than 3 percent, perhaps near 2.5 percent.
Consumer prices, which set a record high last year, spell more troubles as supply chain disruptions worldwide and soaring energy prices together will put more upward pressure this year.
Korea’s household credit is already at a precarious level, with many homebuyers worried about the outlook of a higher interest rate. If the Bank of Korea raises the benchmark rates at a fast clip, economic uncertainty will sharply increase, especially over the much-dreaded bursting of housing and asset bubbles.
A number of small businesses and self-employed people have been hit hard by the strict social distancing restrictions following the resurgence of COVID-19. Mapping out plans to provide timely countermeasures and compensations is no easy task, but necessary to shore up the basic social and economic fabric of the country, which is riddled with widening disparity in wealth and the deepening virus fatigue.
Tackling the frosty inter-Korean relations involving North Korea, as well as tricky diplomatic challenges in connection with the United States and China -- the two superpowers clashing with each other on many fronts -- is one of the key issues that calls for wise decisions.
What is troubling, however, is the possibility that candidates will take more political risks ahead of the presidential election in March and the local elections in June. The two presidential candidates are already putting out questionable policy ideas in their populist attempt without considering the harsh reality of the country.
Against this backdrop, Korea urgently needs new, competent leadership -- a president who can spearhead painful but essential reforms, and help the nation overcome a wide arrange of challenges by drawing solid support from the public amid the extended COVID-19 threats. The choice is up to the Korean voters.
By Korea Herald (firstname.lastname@example.org