KOREA CHAIR EXPLAINS • 01/2022
By Ramon Pacheco Pardo
Moon Jae-in has entered his last few weeks as South Korean president. A new president will be elected on March 9th and take office in May. Differently to previous South Korean presidents, Moon has not had a real lame-duck period. This has been the result of his Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) holding a supermajority in the National Assembly, as well as the need for active government intervention to manage the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic. Indeed, the pandemic is set to define Moon’s legacy as much as the policies that his government enacted during its first three years in office.
What are the key domestic legacies of the Moon Jae-in presidency?
Moon is likely to leave office with an approval rating of around 40-45 percent—at least 20 points higher than any previous president. Furthermore, the V-Dem and EUI Democracy indexes indicate that South Korean democracy has become stronger since Moon took office in 2017. And according to OECD and Pew Research Center polls, South Koreans’ trust in government has been increasing in recent years and especially since the COVID-19 pandemic struck. Also, Moon has avoided the accusations of systemic corruption that dogged some previous governments. Thus, arguably, Moon’s main domestic legacy is going to be a stronger sense of democratic resilience compared to the years before he took office.
In terms of domestic policy, the Moon government will be best remembered for its response to the COVID-19 pandemic, work-life balance changes, and green growth plans. With regards to the pandemic, South Korea’s swift and competent response has led to a very low death rate and a resilient economy, which has already reached pre-pandemic levels. This sat in contrast to Seoul’s poor response to the MV Sewol disaster of 2014 and a MERS outbreak in 2015. Certainly, the foundations of the mechanisms that allowed the Moon government to provide a more competent response can be traced back to the aftermath of the 2014-15 incidents. But it is true that the Moon government acted decisively and applied the lessons learnt.
As for work-life balance changes, one of Moon’s signature policies was the reduction in the maximum hour work week from 68 hours to 52. The result has been an actual reduction in working hours, an increase in the time spent on leisure activities, and no real impact on employment or unemployment levels. It would be very difficult for future presidents to increase the maximum hour work week now. Also, the Moon government increased the minimum wage, expanded childcare benefits and provision, and expanded health care coverage. However, the changes in these areas can be seen more as an evolution from previous presidencies, rather than a revolution.
Regarding green growth plans, South Korea joined the ranks of countries pledging carbon neutrality by 2040. To this end, Moon’s government has announced a Korean New Deal including both a Green New Deal and a Digital New Deal. In short, and focusing on green growth, South Korea wants to boost the circular economy, increase the share of renewables in its energy mix, reduce gas emissions and develop green infrastructure and industries. Many elements of this plan are likely to survive the Moon government. Arguably, it was the Lee Myung-bak government that put climate change and green growth top of the South Korean political agenda. The Moon government has now created the conditions for South Korea to indeed transition towards a more environmentally friendly economic growth model.
What have been the main domestic shortcomings of the Moon Jae-in presidency?
Moon came to office, like all South Korean presidents do, promising to heal the divide between liberals and conservatives. He has been unable to achieve this goal though. Moon’s relatively high approval rating hides a huge disparity between the perceptions of self-described liberal voters and their conservative counterparts. If anything, Moon has been accused of exacerbating divisions after the DPK won a supermajority in the National Assembly in the April 2020 legislative election. Following the election, the DPK steamrolled hundreds of new laws covering all areas from corruption to childcare. But there was no real attempt to forge a consensus with the conservative opposition. Even though polarisation in South Korea is often more about politics rather than actual policies, the fact is that it continues to exist.
In terms of actual policy, arguably, the Moon government’s failure to pass an anti-discrimination law has been its main shortcoming. This has become a totemic issue in South Korea with over 90 percent of the population showing their support for a law that would guarantee equality regardless of gender, race, sexual orientation, etc. — but politicians have been unable or unwilling to pass such a law for well over a decade. The Moon government had a golden opportunity to introduce and pass such a law following the April 2020 supermajority. But it declined to do so, arguing that it requires greater domestic consensus.
And as for actual policy, there is a general consensus, both within the DPK and South Korean society at large, that housing has been Moon’s greatest failure. During Moon’s first four years in office, prices went up by 35 percent in Seoul and the surrounding area where over half of the South Korean population lives—compared to 25 percent during Park’s presidency. Partly, this reflects trends that the government cannot fully control, including the growing number of households in South Korea and the increasing attractiveness of the country for foreign investors and migrants. But Moon decided to focus on restricting demand rather than increasing supply. This backfired, leading the president to admit that his government had failed in this policy area. This is a sensitive issue in South Korea because it touches on the wider issue of wealth inequality, which South Koreans have been concerned about for many years. The next president will no doubt prioritise house price stabilisation.