President Moon Jae-in of South Korea is on cloud nine. He has garnered wide-spread praise for his role in bringing together the historic U.S.-North Korea summit in Singapore, held two of his own historic summits with North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, seen his Democratic Party nearly sweep all gubernatorial and mayoral elections in South Korea’s local elections on June 13, and enjoys an approval rating well north of 70 percent. Few politicians in any democracy have ever enjoyed the advantageous position in which Moon now sits. Now the question is: Where does he go from here?
On top of his to-do list will be continuing to push forward the peace process with North Korea. The main goal in the mid-term will be some sort of declaration to officially end the Korean War, and South Korea will continue its shuttle diplomacy, especially between Washington and Beijing, to make this a reality. In the short term, South Korea will continue to meet bilaterally with North Korea to devise trust-building projects to deepen the atmosphere of détente on the Peninsula. So far these have included military talks that may eventually lead to the pulling back of artillery from the DMZ and talks on cultural exchanges, most notably continuing cooperation in international sporting competitions.
Yet a storm may be on the horizon. Thus far statements from Seoul and Washington have echoed one another about refusing to lighten sanctions on North Korea until progress has been made on denuclearization. Such words strengthen the alliance, but they stand in sharp contrast to those in South Korea looking toward North Korea for economic opportunity. One report notes how positive perceptions of the economy in South Korea at the moment are linked to the prospects of increased economic activity due to the opening of North Korea. But if sanctions relief for North Korea is not forthcoming, any economic benefits for the South Korean people will be delayed as well. The Moon administration should continue to drive this point home so that the people of South Korea do not get ahead of themselves and end up disappointed with the administration later on down the road.
Opposition parties sought to put the Moon administration on trial for its economic performance in the local election. While this strategy obviously failed, given the Democratic Party’s romp, questions remain about J-nomics, the Moon administration’s economic policies. One hot issue during the local elections was the Moon administration’s minimum raise hike and its failure to improve the lot of low income households in Korea. (For a more in-depth look at Moon’s J-nomics policies and their impact see this The Diplomat article.)
Despite questions about J-nomics’ accomplishments, the local elections provide Moon with the leeway to push forward with J-nomics with little course correction. This may be dangerous given Moon’s approval rating based solely on his economic policy is already a worrying 47 percent. The outlook becomes even gloomier if we consider that youth unemployment is continuing to rise in South Korea, and the young generation has been a strong base for Moon and the left. Moon will need to find domestic answers to the questions on the economy or face political backlash if economic cooperation with North Korea and the “bonanza” it may provide fail to materialize due to the continuation of sanctions. The common quip “It’s the economy, stupid!” may eventually catch up with Moon if the focus remains solely on the North Korean peace process.
A host of other issues will command Moon’s attention in the coming days as well. Proposals submitted by the administration to the South Korean National Assembly to amend the constitution were drowned out by talks of summits earlier this year. Moon’s proposed amendment most notably sought to allow the president to seek re-election once while shortening the term to four years, a change from the current limit of a single five year term. Despite a constitutional amendment being a major agenda item for most Korean presidents regardless of ideological leaning, the opposition Liberal Korea Party thwarted the plan, leaving the issue dead for the time being. Yet the idea of amending the constitution is fairly popular in South Korea and with Moon having received a strong mandate from the people in the recent election, pressure may mount to use that mandate effectively. It will be interesting to see if the administration renews its efforts at amending the constitution and is successful this time in putting out a referendum on which the people may vote.
Moon may also have a party discipline problem lurking; not in the political science sense of the term, but the parental sense. A popular blogger writing under the nickname “Dru_king” has been indicted for artificially inflating the number of comment likes on news stories on Korea’s most popular web portal Naver. The blogger was promoting anti-Moon comments, but this was allegedly in retribution for members of the Democratic Party refusing to agree to contract the blogger to assist the ruling party ahead of the local elections. Opposition lawmakers allege that Dru_king promoted pro-Moon comments during the 2017 presidential election, but no connection between the blogger and the party has yet to be publicly established for such incidents. The scandal does not directly involve the president at this point, but Moon has bowed to demands to appoint a special investigator to the case.
Add this to Ahn Hee-jung, disgraced Democratic Party politician who some had seen as a Moon successor, resigning and being indicted for raping his assistant and another recently elected ruling Democratic Party politician, Lee Jae-myung, being embroiled in a scandal over infidelity and you have a ruling party that is vulnerable to political attack should the negotiations with North Korea take a turn for the worse. During the June 13 local elections the Democratic Party won 11 of 12 parliamentary by-elections, increasing their majority in the National Assembly. This gives Moon an avenue through which to enact his policies, but he will need the party rank-and-file to behave if they are to continue to receive the support of the people.
In short, Moon is riding high from the talks with North Korea and the atmosphere of peace that has emerged on the Korean Peninsula. But holes exist around this strong façade, especially regarding the state of the economy and the ruling Democratic Party. Moon will need cooperation from North Korea in the form of process on denuclearization and help from the United States and China on a peace treaty if his momentum is to be maintained. The conservative opposition party may be on its knees after being decimated in the local elections, but it will not stay down forever. Moon will have to start addressing some of these questions at home soon; if not, some of these holes, which appear small now, may tear open wider.
Benjamin A. Engel is a Researcher at the Institute for Peace and Unification Studies at Seoul National University. He is also a Ph.D. candidate in East Asian Studies at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of International Studies and holds an MA in Korean Studies from the same school. His research interests include modern Korean history, democratization in East Asia, and U.S. foreign policy.