As the US and global media speculate on the whereabouts and health of North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, South Koreans are enjoying a rare moment of national pride in the universal acclaim for their government’s extraordinary response to the coronavirus pandemic.
“Never in my life have I seen South Korea receive such praise from around the world,” Ahn Jae-seung, a veteran editorial writer at the progressive Hankyoreh, exulted after President Moon Jae-in’s ruling party scored a landslide victory in legislative elections conducted at the height of the outbreak, on April 15. The positive media coverage may be unprecedented “in the history of the Republic of Korea,” he said.
In that vote, Moon’s Democratic Party (DPK) and its allies won 180 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, giving them a commanding three-fifths majority. The election was a disaster for South Korea’s far-right opposition United Future Party (UFP), which, with the votes of a small conservative party, secured only 103 seats. Moon’s sweep is comparable to the Democrats’ capturing a veto-proof majority in both the House and Senate next November.
Now, with the virus in retreat and the election over, Koreans say they are ready for a renewed emphasis in the Assembly on two ideas close to the hearts of voters: making peace with North Korea and creating a greener future less dependent on fossil fuels. Both are highly popular in a country tired of confrontation and war and sick from the pollution choking Korean skies.
“For the first time in South Korea’s history, the center-left has formed a majority,” Simone Chun, a historian and commentator who teaches at Northeastern University in Boston, told The Nation. “With his new mandate, President Moon has an opportunity to leave behind important legacies, especially laying down the foundation for ending the Korean War and building a permanent peace regime on the Korean Peninsula.”
There is little doubt that Moon has the political momentum to do just that. In a poll released on April 23, 64.3 percent of Korean citizens supported the progressive president, who has made engagement with North Korea one of the pillars of his presidency.
“South Korea is now in a great position to act independently of the United States,” Kee Park, a lecturer on global health and social medicine at Harvard Medical School and director of the North Korea Program at the Korean American Medical Association, noted in a postelection briefing sponsored by Massachusetts Peace Action.
In that sense, the election can be seen as a referendum on Moon’s outreach to the North. During the campaign, the UFP, supported by conservative US commentators, relentlessly attacked Moon and at one point vowed to impeach him after the election for his handling of the coronavirus (the only bright spot for the party was the election of North Korean defector Thae Yong-ho, a former ambassador, to represent the affluent Gangnam district in Seoul).
Overall, the UFP “proved ineffective in taking issue with what it calls the government’s misplaced policies that have dampened economic vitality, failed to denuclearize North Korea and weakened the South Korea-US alliance,” The Korea Herald reported.
The Korea Times observed,“No doubt, the election results will bring about a seismic change to the country’s political landscape.” That first shift may be in the area of climate change. In March, the DPK unveiled a sweeping Green New Deal plan that could make South Korea the first country in East Asia to commit to deliver net-zero carbon emissions by 2050, a long-sought goal of the climate change movement. The party’s plans include a carbon tax, phasing out government financing for domestic and overseas coal projects, and investing heavily in renewable energy sources such as solar and water power.
“The majority win of the ruling party significantly increased the chance of the Green New Deal manifesto becoming law,” Kim Jiseok, a climate energy specialist at Greenpeace Korea in Seoul, told The Nation in an interview. He added, “The Covid-19 situation also presents an opportunity for the government to make major investments to restructure the economy and steer it in the right direction.”
But Kim warned that strong opposition from business, conservatives, and even some progressives could hamper implementation of the Green New Deal, particularly in the area of coal financing and production. According to the US-based Institute for Energy Economics and Financial Analysis, South Korea is the world’s seventh-largest emitter of greenhouse gases, “and one of the few developed countries whose [gas] emissions are increasing.”
Even so, Moon and his party will have strong public support if they move to reduce these levels. Last year, in a remarkable poll conducted by the Pew Research Center, more than 80 percent of South Koreans identified climate change as the most important issue, above cyberattacks and North Korea’s nuclear program, in a list of potential national threats. But as tensions with North Korea continue to mount, the importance of the peace process has come to the fore once again.
The importance of dealing with North Korea was underscored over the past few days when US media outlets, including CNN, began floating rumors that Kim Jong-un was being treated for a serious illness and may have even died, suggesting the possibility of another political transition in Pyongyang. After the unverified stories were promoted relentlessly on social media, the South Korea government tried to dampen the speculation with an official denial.
On Sunday, Moon Chung-In, President Moon’s top adviser on North Korea, went on Fox News to say that the North Korean leader had been located in the port city of Wonsan, where Kim and other members of his hereditary government spend their leisure time. The South Korean government’s position is “firm,” he said. “Kim Jong-un is alive and well.”
That seemed to corroborate an earlier story from The Dong-A Ilbo, one of South Korea’s oldest dailies, that Kim had been spotted “walking on his own” in Wonsan between April 15 and 20. It was attributed to a “US government official.” Trump, as usual, muddled the picture on Monday when he told reporters that he has a “very good idea” what’s going on with Kim but “I can’t talk about it now. I just wish him well. I’ve had a very good relationship with Kim.”
That may be true, but the biggest barrier to inter-Korean peace is the US administration. Trump’s refusal to consider changes in sanctions before the North’s total denuclearization was a critical factor in the collapse of Trump’s talks with Kim over the last year. As a result, North-South exchanges have almost disappeared—a situation that President Moon alluded to on Monday, when his government held ceremonies marking the second anniversary of the “Panmunjom Declaration,” signed during his first summit with Kim Jong-un in 2018.
“The reason we were unable to move forward with the implementation of the Panmunjom agreement was not because we lacked the will, but because we could not overcome the international limitations that realistically exist,” Moon said, in a reference to the US and UN sanctions that have prohibited projects, such as linking North and South Korean railways, from moving forward.
At the ceremony on Monday, Moon promised to press on with the peace process with Pyongyang. “We cannot just wait for conditions to improve; we have to find and realize all the things we can do under these realistic limitations, no matter how small,” he said, adding, “The Covid-19 crisis could be a new opportunity for inter-Korean cooperation. At present it is the most urgent and necessary cooperation task.”
For Moon, the key to establishing South Korea’s independence would be to convince Trump that reducing some of the sanctions imposed on the North would help the peace process. That’s the view of Ko You Kyoung of the Women’s International League for Peace and Freedom in Korea, who spoke at the same briefing as Kee Park. “Without US cooperation, South and North can’t move forward, because sanctions have obstructed all our efforts,” she said. Kyoung contended that US sanctions on Iran have also prevented South Korea from sending Covid-19 test kits to Iran.
Park, who has been to North Korea 18 times since 2007, recently joined Christine Ahn, founder and executive director of the peace group Women Cross DMZ, in urging Moon to move decisively on the issue of sanctions. “The brokenness of the U.S. approach in resolving the North Korean conflict begs for leadership,” they wrote last week in Responsible Statecraft.
But Moon’s priority, like that of leaders everywhere, is to stabilize his country’s economy after the shattering impact of the coronavirus. Last week, his government announced a “South Korean New Deal” that will provide nearly $70 billion in emergency funds to prevent mass unemployment. The plan, according to Hankyoreh, will provide aid to seven important industries, including aviation, shipping, shipbuilding, auto manufacturing, general machinery, power generation, and communications, and create 550,000 public-sector jobs.
But while that could boost South Korea’s beleaguered economy, some of the new policies may make the Green New Deal much more difficult to achieve, according to Greenpeace and other environmental groups.
For example, less than two weeks after the ruling party announced the Green New Deal, which included a pledge to end public financing for the coal industry, the Moon administration announced that the Korean Development Bank and the Export-Import Bank of Korea would provide over $800 million in emergency funds to Doosan Heavy Industries & Construction, one of the world’s largest exporters of coal.
“That’s a massive bailout with no oversight or consideration of what this would mean in terms of new coal power projects and emissions,” said Joojin Kim, the attorney and managing director of Solutions for Our Climate, a Seoul-based nonprofit that advocates stronger climate and air-pollution policies. “So already, we’re seeing a direct contradiction of the ruling party’s Green New Deal commitments.”
The DPK’s pledge for net-zero emissions by 2050, he added in an interview, “should only be applauded when the Democratic Party makes good on its Green New Deal commitments—which we must hold them accountable for.”
Kim Jiseok of Greenpeace Korea offered a similar take, noting that the opposition party “could continue to block progress, possibly in partnership with ruling party reps who are friendly with existing businesses.” Moreover, some government ministries “could be defiant” in opposing the Green New Deal plan, “as they have been working very closely with large corporations.”
“We want the South Korean government to make a right decision by ending overseas coal financing,” concluded Kim. “Until then, we will continue our campaign.”
Still, the elections—which were carried out with extraordinary precautions to protect the health of voters—demonstrated that South Korea has tremendous capacity to achieve its goals. According to Yonhap News, more than 29 million people voted, resulting in a “turnout of 66.2 percent, the highest in 28 years.” (Compare the conditions to Wisconsin, which held a primary vote on April 7 that forced thousands of voters to stand in packed lines; on Sunday, The New York Times reported that at least 19 people who worked or voted that day have tested positive for the virus.)
Other countries simply opted out: In recent months, 47 of them, including the UK and France, postponed elections because of the pandemic. After the vote, Moon declared, “Thanks to the citizens’ full cooperation and participation, we’ve become the only major country in the world to carry out a national election amid the coronavirus pandemic.”
Characteristically, he treated his party’s victory not as a personal triumph but as a tribute to the 304 people, almost all of them high school students, who died in the sinking of the Sewol ferry in 2014.
That disaster—captured in this gripping film nominated for an Academy Award—still burns in Korean memories as an epic failure of the previous government of Park Geun-hye, who was impeached and removed from office in 2017. Her failure with the Sewol contrasted sharply with the Moon government’s highly organized response to the coronavirus disaster and its protection of Korean voters. “In remembering the children who left with the legacy of social responsibility, I sincerely thank our fellow citizens” who participated in the elections, Moon wrote on social media in a graceful remembrance.
Correction: The source for a quote by the director of Solutions for Our Climate was misattributed and has been corrected.