SEOUL — The thumping win by President Moon Jae-in’s left-leaning Democratic Party in Wednesday’s National Assembly election puts the government in a strong position to push ahead on key policy objectives.
The ruling party’s decisive victory could pave the way to pass legislation to accomplish those goals, which include fairer income distribution, North Korea rapprochement and reform of the prosecution system.
“With 180 seats [out of 300] in the National Assembly, the ruling party can do pretty much anything except revise the Constitution,” wrote Kang Young-hwan, a columnist for Sisa News.
“That means it is now up to the ruling party to administer state affairs for the next two years until the next presidential election,” Kang wrote. “They won’t be able to use the opposition party as an excuse for any shortcomings.”
The victory stemmed from both the Moon administration’s deft handling of the COVID-19 outbreak — infections are down to less than 30 a day — and opposition ineptitude.
“Though the ruling party’s failures were large, the United Future Party did not appeal to the public,” the right-wing Chosun Ilbo newspaper wrote in an editorial Thursday morning.
Chosun pointed to a series of slips that made the UFP seem out of touch.
Among them was the party’s selection of Hwang Kyo-ahn as leader. Hwang was prime minister when previous President Park Geun-hye was impeached over a sprawling corruption scandal, and his ties with the former president made it hard for the party to present itself as a fresh alternative.
Hwang made matters worse when he commented on a major scandal, saying that members of an online chat room where sexual abuse images involving minors were shared ought to be treated leniently if they were only motivated by “curiosity.”
While the government has been praised for the response to the new coronavirus — in many ways the election was a referendum on its performance — the pandemic now threatens to further damage an economy already mired in slow growth under Moon’s watch.
After being elected on pledges to redistribute wealth through a policy Moon called “income-led growth,” rising unemployment and issues such as soaring property prices had made the economy the president’s weak spot.
This week, the International Monetary Fund projected South Korea’s economy to contract by 1.2% this year.
The government is pushing aggressive stimulus to minimize the damage. In March, Moon announced a spending package worth $39 billion aimed at supporting to aid exporters and small businesses. On Thursday, the finance ministry proposed additional stimulus worth more than $6 billion, focused on direct payments to low- and middle-income households.
The Korea Development Institute, a think tank, issued a report on Thursday saying that Moon will have to grapple with falling demand for South Korean exports as COVID-19 has severely hit economies in the US and Europe. At home, the outbreak has ravaged the service industry, in particular tourism and retail.
While the pandemic and economy may have been the most important issues in the election, South Korea can never take its eyes off its neighbor to the north.
The day before the election, North Korea fired several short-range projectiles off its east coast — the latest in a series of recent weapons tests.
Rapprochement with Pyongyang was a pillar of Moon’s first two years in office, but inter-Korean relations have been sidelined in recent months. After holding three summits in 2018, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un declined an invitation to visit the South for a regional summit October, and also refused an offer to hold meetings on South Korean assets at a dormant tourist facility in North Korea.
With a firm majority in place, the administration may feel emboldened to attempt to restart dialogue.
“The Moon administration may double down on engagement, but North Korea is unlikely to take a friendlier approach toward the South,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University in Seoul.
Easley added that South Korean progressives may look to enshrine their North Korea policy in law to empower future pro-engagement administrations and constrain future hawkish governments.
International sanctions also limit what Moon’s government can do in terms of trade with and assistance for North Korea.
“If Moon gets more aggressive in seeking cooperation with the North, he can run into the redline presented by the United States, meaning he could violate sanctions. I don’t think Moon will go that far,” said Go Myong-hyun, a Research Fellow at the Asan Institute for Policy Studies.
“Moon has already been quite aggressive, and North Korea’s responses have been lukewarm, at best.”
Another key objective of Moon is reform of the country’s prosecution system — a longstanding goal of South Korean liberals, who have accused the prosecution of being deployed by right-wing administrations to squash critics such as unions and left-wing media.
Moon intends to weaken the prosecution’s investigative clout by reducing the number of departments with the authority to carry out investigations on their own.
He is also seeking to set up an independent body that can investigate allegations of political corruption by politicians, but critics say that could be used to to dig up dirt on the ruling party’s political opponents.