Moon rising: On South Korean election

South Korean ruling party’s win is a chance for President Moon to expedite peace efforts

April 21, 2020 12:02 am | Updated 11:38 am IST

South Korea’s President Moon Jae-in, whose government’s handling of the COVID-19 pandemic won acclaim, scored a political victory last week as his Democratic Party (DP) swept the parliamentary elections . Despite the health-care crisis , he decided to go ahead with the poll, with stringent precautionary measures in place. While the DP won 163 seats, up 43, the progressive coalition it leads commanded 180 seats in the 300-strong National Assembly. The Opposition United Future coalition got 103 seats. The results marked a substantial turnaround in public sentiments from last year when protests broke out amid a slowing economy and corruption allegations. With more parliamentary seats, the President, who is into the third year of his five-year presidency, can follow his reform agenda and North Korean rapprochement without legislative bottlenecks. But tackling these challenges arguably poses an even greater test of his leadership and political will than his government’s effective handling of the disease. The desire for normalcy with the North is evident among other things from growing impatience to end the disruption of business activity across the border. Since the thaw in ties between the neighbours began in 2018, Mr. Moon and Pyongyang’s leader Kim Jong-un have also met on the Demilitarised Zone before a global media blitz. But the endeavour for peace is fraught with challenges, not all of which seem entirely amenable to Mr. Moon’s control. Foremost, he would have to consider the implications of his initiatives towards Pyongyang for Seoul’s military alliance with Washington.

Besides the suspension of their annual military exercises in South Korea, Seoul and Washington have been unable to agree on more substantial measures to ease tensions with the North. Moreover, the formal declaration of an end to the Korean war of the 1950s, where the U.S. was involved, is hostage to the more recent international demand for the Korean Peninsula’s denuclearisation. But progress on the North’s nuclear stand-off has been stalled ever since the Trump-Kim Hanoi summit, in February 2019, broke down. Their meeting, in Singapore in June 2018, resulted in no more than vague promises to end the long deadlock. Pyongyang insists on crippling economic sanctions ending as a precondition for any meaningful reduction of nuclear testing in the future. Washington has, meanwhile, harped on access to the North’s nuclear sites in exchange for a relaxation of sanctions. Mr. Trump, himself facing re-election in November and focused on combating the pandemic, is unlikely to renew attention to the dispute with North Korea. Paradoxically though, the collective desire among nations to confront the unfolding health emergency could open avenues of cooperation, even defying the ordinary operation of realpolitik. Therein lies a ray of hope. Mr. Moon must make the most of the situation.


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