KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 11/05/2020
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
President Moon Jae-in gave a speech on May 10th, on the occasion of the third anniversary since his inauguration. With two years in his non-renewable five-year presidency to go and South Korea recovering from the first wave of the COVID-19 pandemic, Moon sought to set his government’s priorities for a post-pandemic world. Inevitably, the address was dominated by South Korea’s response to the economic consequences of the pandemic. But Moon also referred to how his government plans to make use of the international ramifications of the pandemic to press its foreign policy agenda.
What were Moon’s key messages on domestic economic affairs?
South Korea’s economy is being hit by the COVID-19 pandemic, as is the rest of the world. The government expects the country’s trade-dependent to continue to suffer as international commerce suffers from disruptions to supply chains and lower consumption due to lockdowns. Moon announced that Seoul plans to address this situation in two ways. Firstly, by launching a ‘New Deal’ with spending in infrastructure and new technologies. This is meant to make spending beneficial to the South Korean economy in the long run. Secondly, the Moon government plans to expand the country’s welfare safety net to cover all workers, including the self-employed and non-permanent workers who are currently not covered. This has been a long-term goal of the Democratic Party of Korea. The government is making use of the pandemic to implement it.
In addition, Moon announced that his government wants to make South Korea a “world factory of high-tech industries”. Essentially, Seoul plans to facilitate the onshoring of South Korean industry and to try to attract overseas manufacturers looking for a production base in East Asia. The thinking is that high-tech industries might be willing to pay the higher salaries that South Korean labour commands in exchange for skilled workers, safe supply chains, and access to East Asian markets. The latter should be facilitated by South Korea’s existing free trade agreements with China, ASEAN and, if the Regional Comprehensive Partnership is signed later this year, Japan as well.
What were Moon’s key messages on foreign affairs?
Moon’s key message on foreign affairs is that he wants South Korea to take a leading role in multilateral cooperation to promote human security. Moon stressed that, in his view, South Korea is seen as an example of how to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. He wants to take advantage of this perception of South Korea for Seoul to use platforms such as the G20 and ASEAN+3 to lead on human security issues, such as environmental degradation and pandemics. This ties in with South Korea’s long-term goal to be defined by an active role in global affairs and not only through the prism of inter-Korean relations. Successive South Korean presidents have been pushing this agenda.
The address barely touched on North Korea. But Moon did stress that he wants human security to define inter-Korean relations for the time being. Seoul has been calling on Pyongyang to cooperate to deal with the COVID-19 pandemic. The Kim Jong-un regime has not given an official response. But Moon revealed in the Q&A following his address that the two Koreas continue to communicate. And North Korea has requested and is receiving international aid to deal with the pandemic. Seoul therefore sees this as an avenue for cooperation in the short term.