South Korea


Executive Summary

Final period of Moon administration
In the final stretch of the Moon Jae-in administration – with presidential elections held in March 2022 – several long-term tasks prioritized and set forth by President Moon in his 100 Policy Tasks (2017) and New Deal (2020) remained relevant and important for the future of South Korea.
COVID-19 overshadows other priorities; long list
of reforms implemented
On the one hand, the Democratic Party’s decisive victory in April 2020, giving it a parliamentary majority, provided a strong mandate for implementing President Moon’s agenda. On the other hand, managing the COVID-19 pandemic overshadowed most other policy priorities throughout this period (2020-2021). Nevertheless, the government implemented several important and promising measures, including creating new jobs in the public sector; continuing the phased reduction of the maximum work week; strengthening family benefits; expanding the social safety net (notably, healthcare and employment insurance); establishing an independent anti-corruption agency; expanding the autonomy of local governments via amendments to the Local Autonomy Act; adopting critical and long-overdue labor rights protections; creating space for SMEs and startups through regulatory easing; committing to more ambitious climate change mitigation targets; enhancing Korea’s role in global governance, particularly in the realm of global public health; and developing a blueprint for Korea’s transition to a digital and green future.
Successful pandemic management
Notably, the administration has been able to achieve this while successfully containing the coronavirus. Through internationally lauded public health and pandemic management protocols, according to the OECD, as of January 2021, Korea recorded the second-lowest incidence of COVID-19 cases in the OECD. Korea’s economy also weathered the COVID-19 crisis well, with an economic downturn of just 0.9% in 2020 (among the smallest such declines in the OECD); and economic growth of 4% in 2021 (which outpaced its average growth rate of 2.9% over the period 2013-2019). Strong demand for Korean digital technology exports in the pandemic era and robust, counter-cyclical government spending facilitated Korea’s resilience during the COVID-19-induced economic crisis.
Improving civil and political rights; opposition from powerful conservatives
Notwithstanding some suspension of personal liberties in the interest of pandemic containment, Korea maintained its position as one of the few successful democracies in East Asia. It led the region with regard to rankings of press freedom and liberal democracy. Indeed, it was the only Asian country ranked in the top 10% of the 2020 V-Dem Liberal Democracy Index. Korea’s civil society continued in 2020 and 2021 to push for removal of remaining limits on civil and political rights. This period saw some improvement in the areas of freedom of expression and association – with the National Intelligence Service stripped of some of its discretionary power; labor-union rights strengthened (via the passage of key ILO conventions); and official union status restored to the Korean Teachers and Education Workers Union. Moon also made some progress on combating corruption and depoliticizing corruption investigations through the launch of a new and independent Corruption Investigation Office. However, these advances fell short of the expansion of civil rights and deepening of democracy that Moon had originally promised. Despite growing public support, Moon was unable to push through a comprehensive Anti-Discrimination Law due to opposition from powerful conservative interest groups. Indeed, on this and other reforms which seemingly enjoy public support, the Moon administration found it difficult to effect change because of the hierarchical organization of society that perpetuates the polarized power struggles between elite blocks at the expense of everyday democracy.
Modest steps toward
more just society
Thus, despite an ambitious agenda and a relatively strong mandate, the Moon administration made only modest inroads into making Korea a more just society. Moon’s proposed reforms had the potential to move the country in the right direction. Relative poverty, old-age poverty and income inequality declined under Moon’s administration. But progress has been limited, painstakingly slow, and is subject to reversal unless bolder and more structural steps are taken. Ultimately, Moon’s desire for a more inclusive, income-led society played tug-of-war with his (and many Koreans’) inability to imagine an economic future that was not dominated by big business, particularly Korea’s flagship business conglomerates.
Diminished tensions
with North Korea;
closer partnership
with United States
With regard to international relations, President Moon focused much of his tenure on improving relations with North Korea. This was to some extent successful, as tensions at the end of the period were much lower than under previous governments. However, tangible improvements in political and economic relations remain very limited, as neither a peace treaty nor a normalization treaty between the North and South had materialized. Beyond the North Korea question, the Moon administration was criticized for lackluster engagement and a level of leadership ill befitting the world’s 10th-largest economy. Korea’s contribution to the global COVID-19 pandemic seems to have been a turning point. In the area of global public health, Korea has become more active in global fora, including the G-20. Over the past few years, the Moon administration committed to significantly more ambitious climate-change, development-cooperation and technological-cooperation goals. A newly announced partnership with the U.S. in the area of technological cooperation is cited by some as one of Moon’s most significant diplomatic accomplishments. It will be interesting to see whether this marks a shift back toward the U.S. orbit, or whether Korea will continue its approach of strategic balance and autonomy, including via enhanced partnerships with middle and emerging powers.
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