As of this writing, polls are open in by-elections for mayor in Seoul and Busan. The election offers a chance to assess public opinion only 13 months before the next presidential election in May 2022. President Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings have dropped recently, suggesting that his ruling Democratic Party may face strong headwinds moving toward 2022.
Since 1987, presidents in South Korea have been elected for a single five-year term. The term limit came from a desire to check the power of the president after almost 40 years of authoritarian leaders. The desire to check the power of leaders has led to term limits in democracies around the world for executive and legislative offices.
The problem with South Korea’s single-term presidency is that the president loses influence in the last two years, but most severely in the last year. The Korean media borrowed the term “lame duck” from the US media to describe a weakened president near the end of his or her term. The lame-duck period often produces scandals that cause criminal investigations after leaving office. Of the six former presidents elected from 1987 to 2012, three were jailed and another committed suicide amid an investigation. Sons of the remaining two were found guilty of corruption.
The important question here is whether this is structural or personal. If it is structural, then President Moon may face a similar fate. If it is personal, then, he has a chance to change the direction of history in a positive direction.
South Korea of 2021 is not the same country of 1987. Over the last 34 years, South Korea has transformed itself into a prosperous democratic society. The country ranks near the top in the world in basic measures of success, such as life expectancy and educational attainment. Practices from previous eras that created opportunities for corruption have faded as the country has advanced and become more transparent.
To avoid the fate of his predecessors, President Moon needs to focus on the issues that matter most to voters. Barring a black swan event, two issues will define the rest of Moon’s term: the COVID-19 pandemic and the economy. The two are tied together because the economy can only fully recover when the pandemic ends.
South Korea has received wide praise for its handling of the pandemic and statistics bear this out. As of April 6, 106,898 cases have been reported and 1,756 persons have died out of a population of 51,700,000. Compare this to Rhode Island, the smallest state in the US, where I am now living. The state has 1,059,000 people but has had 139,549 case and 2,632 fatalities. If the goal of dealing with a pandemic is defined as preventing the spread and thereby preventing loss of life, South Korea has done an admirable job.
The situation has changed with the development of vaccines. Vaccines are now rolling out rapidly around the world, but the pace has been slow in South Korea where only 2 percent of the population has received at least one dose. By comparison, the rate in the UK is 46 percent and 32 percent in the US. Israel leads the world with 61 percent of the population vaccinated.
For countries where COVID-19 is widespread, vaccines are critical to stopping the spread and saving lives. With much lower cases counts and more effective public health measures, South Korea is in a much better position. The problem is that an explosion of cases in South Korea could change things quickly. In the initial stages of the pandemic, Daegu was hit hard, pushing the healthcare system to its limits. The fear of an explosion of cases nationwide is driving public impatience over the pace of vaccination.
South Korea’s response to the pandemic in 2020 helped the economic avoid the sharp downturns experienced around the world, but the economy still shrank by 1 percent. The IMF predicts that the South Korean economy will grow 3.6 percent in 2021 and 2.8 percent in 2022. This turnaround will help strengthen the labor market and improve conditions for small businesses that have been especially hard hit. A resurgence of COVID-19 would slow the economy again, risking prolonged economic damage.
In the end, everything in 2021 centers on vaccinating people as fast as possible to end the pandemic. If President Moon can do that, he can arrest the decline in his popularity and leave office with a good reputation. And by doing so, he can set a new standard of governance for his predecessors to follow.
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 firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.