The Koreas | Politics | East Asia

Public Anger Swells in South Korea Over Coronavirus Outbreak

South Koreans are growing increasingly irate toward President Moon’s handling of the epidemic.

Tae-jun Kang
This article is free

The Diplomat has removed paywall restrictions on our coverage of the COVID–19 crisis.

Public Anger Swells in South Korea Over Coronavirus Outbreak

Workers wearing protective gears spray disinfectant as a precaution against the new coronavirus at a subway station in Seoul, South Korea, Feb. 28, 2020.

Credit: AP Photo/Ahn Young-joon

Public anger is rapidly growing in South Korea toward President Moon Jae-in over the outbreak of the new coronavirus (officially known as COVID-19). As of February 28, the country’s official online petition platform saw more than 1 million signatures on a petition demanding that Moon be removed from office.

The platform, which is operated by the Presidential Blue House, acts as a communication channel between the South Korean government and the public. The government is required to provide comments on any petition that gains more than 200,000 signatures in 30 days.

The petition demanding Moon’s impeachment garnered 200,000 votes on February 25, 21 days after it was first posted. But signatures swelled from there, surpassing 800,000 on the 26th and reaching 1 million on the 27th. As of February 28, the number had grown to over 1.3 million. That’s the third largest total among all petitions submitted since 2017, when the platform was first launched. It could still set a record high, since there is still almost a week before the petition’s signature window is closed on March 5.

The uptick in signatures closely followed a massive spike in the number of COVID-19 cases in South Korea. As of February 20, South Korea had just over 100 confirmed cases; that ballooned to over 1,700 a week later.

This viral popularity of the petition is a sign that public anger toward Moon and the government is deep-rooted across the country. As a whole, Koreans are not satisfied with how the government has managed the outbreak of the novel coronavirus that first appeared in Wuhan, China, last December.

The citizen who originally submitted the petition accused Moon and the government of putting ties with China ahead of the safety of South Koreans.

“I feel like I am looking at Chinese President when I see President Moon. Despite the shortage of masks in South Korea, President Moon sent 3 million masks to China, while failing to come up with any measures to deal with soaring domestic mask prices,” the petitioner said.

The petitioner also criticized the government’s decision not to ban the entry of all people from China.

“There are already more than 5 million Chinese who escaped just before the shutdown of Wuhan, but South Korea only bans people who visited Hubei Province from entering the country. It is no different from opening the door of the country to all Chinese,” the petitioner added.

“The most important thing as a president of the Republic of Korea is protecting its citizens… the government has come up with only shameless measures and failed to come up with any practical measures,” the petitioner lamented.

In fact, the Korean Medical Association called for a stronger government response in a total of six statements between January 20, when the nation’s first confirmed case occurred, and February 18. Shortly after that, the number of confirmed cases soared rapidly in the city of Daegu and neighboring areas.

In the very first statement, the association called for active and preemptive responses, suggesting that the government should suspend general medical care for suspected patients and instead promote designated medical institutions that are able to track, manage, and screen the cases.

The association also proposed that the government conduct phased restrictions and suspensions of domestic flights from China to prevent the possible inflow of the virus.

In addition, citing the lack of face masks and hand sanitizers, the association urged the government to maintain a proper supply of masks and keep prices stable, along with offering financial support measures for medical institutions.

Unfortunately, none of the suggestions made by the Korean Medical Association were able to catch the government’s attention. Critics say that the government should have listened to such suggestions more carefully.

Not everyone agrees, however. Following the surge of signatures demanding Moon’s impeachment, many others have flocked to the petition platform to show their support.

Another petition that contains a message supporting Moon had garnered more than 1 million signatures in just two days. The petitioner said that Moon and the government are putting their utmost efforts toward containing the outbreak of the virus.

This will not be the first time that the government is required to respond to a public petition demanding Moon’s impeachment.

In April last year, a petition emerged on the platform calling for Moon to be removed from office on the grounds of having neglected and acquiesced to North Korea’s nuclear development.

The petition garnered more than 200,000 supporters, which required a response and comment from the government. At that time, the Presidential Blue House said it was difficult for the government to respond to the petition due to the principle of separation of powers, but added that the government had been working hard and was determined to do better.