Interview: Duyeon Kim on South Korea’s elections in the midst of a coronavirus pandemic

By John Mecklin | April 13, 2020

2020 elections in South Korea A South Korean casts a ballot during early voting at a polling station in Seoul ahead of next week's parliamentary elections. (Photo by Jung Yeon-je / AFP)

This week, South Korea will hold National Assembly elections amid a coronavirus pandemic, previewing the difficulties that democracies around the world—including the United States—will face in administering their own electoral contests in coming months. Ahead of the South Korean vote, I asked Bulletin columnist Duyeon Kim, a senior adviser for Northeast Asia and nuclear policy at the International Crisis Group, for her views on the variety of intersecting political crosscurrents that connect and affect the upcoming South Korean election, the coronavirus pandemic, and the status of relations between North and South Korea. The interview was conducted via email and lightly edited for clarity.

Why is South Korea proceeding with general elections amid its own novel coronavirus epidemic, and what does this say about the country’s democracy?

There has been a fierce political and legal debate in South Korea since the coronavirus outbreak in January on whether to postpone the April 15 general elections. But ultimately, postponing or canceling elections is out of the question for South Koreans, largely because of their history with or “trauma” from two authoritarian regimes that spanned 1963 to 1988. Article 196 of South Korea’s election laws provides the president with the authority to postpone presidential and National Assembly elections if they are made impossible by natural disasters or extraordinary calamities. But elections have never been postponed or canceled in Korean history.  The 1952 presidential elections were held during the Korean War (1950-1953); the 1948 general elections were held during the deadly “Jeju uprising” caused by a Communist insurgency on Jeju Island; the 2000 general elections were held despite an enormous forest fire in Gangwon Province; and the 2009 by-elections were held despite the H1N1 influenza outbreak.

The state of the country’s democracy has recently been hotly debated because of corruption scandals involving presidential aides and criticisms about authoritarian practices by the Moon Jae-in government. Because South Koreans believe elections are essential to their democracy, the country has sought ways to safeguard them and limit the further spread of the virus. The National Election Commission (NEC) said voters must wear face masks and disposable gloves to cast their ballots; temperature checks will be conducted at the entrance of voting sites; voters must keep a distance of at least one meter from one another; and polling booths and ballot stamps will be disinfected. People with COVID-19 symptoms will vote at makeshift polling booths; COVID-19 patients will cast ballots at hospitals or medical facilities and those in two-week quarantine at home can vote by mail if they applied between March 24 and March 28.

It remains to be seen after election day how satisfied South Koreans are with the electoral process. The pandemic has already caused some voting problems. The NEC suspended voting centers and elections operations at 86 diplomatic missions in 51 countries, and only about half of the 171,959 eligible voters living overseas are allowed to cast ballots.

Two-day early voting began on April 10, and the NEC recorded the country’s highest voter turnout after the first day—12.4 percent of all eligible voters. South Koreans are casting votes to fill 300 seats in the National Assembly. Of them, 253 seats will be directly elected and 47 seats given to proportional representatives who are traditionally civilian subject-matter experts. Thirty-five political parties have registered candidates for this week’s elections, but the main race will be between two groups: the ruling Democratic Party (progressive) and the main opposition United Future Party (conservative), which have each established satellite parties (as the result of a new election law) to win more proportional representative seats. South Korean politics is, and has always been, a never-ending saga of splits, mergers, and the renaming of parties within ruling and opposition blocs.

What role does foreign policy play in the general elections?

Foreign affairs and national security typically are not a factor in South Korean general elections, and this is especially the case this year because the coronavirus outbreak is a top issue, and domestic issues determine votes. And even before the outbreak, the struggling South Korean economy, welfare, and corruption scandals have been major and controversial topics of public discussion. The general elections will also essentially be a referendum or mid-term report card on the domestic policies of President Moon and his progressive party, particularly the government’s handling of the coronavirus epidemic. So far, Moon’s approval ratings have been strong, and the opposition has struggled to form a united front. But it is still too soon to call the race.

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Still, even though South Koreans will vote primarily on domestic issues and party loyalty this week, the results of the elections will have an impact on issues on national security and foreign affairs going forward. For one, key candidates on both sides will use the general elections as either a popularity testbed or springboard to their presidential campaigns in two years. (Moon cannot run for reelection; the South Korean constitution allows each president only a single five-year term.)

By showcasing each party’s campaign pledges on national security, this election season is reaffirming the stark divide between the conservatives and progressives in how they approach North Korea policy and foreign affairs and how they prioritize these issues, which will be widely debated in the run-up to the 2022 presidential elections.

Second, the party that holds the majority seats will certainly be able to influence laws and budgets pertaining to national security matters. For example, they could influence issues such as the current debate on whether to reduce the number of South Korean soldiers and their period of mandatory military service, the defense budget, and any treaty or international agreement that requires ratification and approval.

Third, the Moon government will try to use the post-election period, the remaining two years of Moon’s term, to reset its key policies, particularly on inter-Korean relations, because he is still determined to leave behind a Korean peace legacy before he leaves office.

What are the prospects for implementing Moon’s foreign and inter-Korean policies after the general elections?

If the opposition wins, Moon will likely become a lame duck, and party politics will quickly focus on the 2022 presidential elections. But a progressive victory will likely embolden Moon to drive his key inter-Korean and foreign policies. Even though it will be practically difficult to jumpstart inter-Korean cooperation projects without a willing North Korean partner and in the absence of progress on denuclearization that begins to ease sanctions, the Moon government will nevertheless seek ways to resume inter-Korean cooperation and use it to induce the resumption of US-North Korea dialogue. Also, South Korean progressives will likely seek to improve inter-Korean relations and maintain enough autonomy from US influence to help their chances in the 2022 presidential elections. After all, during his own presidential campaign, Moon pledged to be a Korean president who says “No” to the United States if needed.

Moon might also become bolder on US alliance issues and in South Korea-Japan relations. He could push to speed up the transition of war-time operational control authority (OPCON) from the US Forces Korea to the South Korean military before leaving office. Moon might also decide to finally terminate the General Security of Military Information Agreement (GSOMIA), which provides for comprehensive intelligence sharing between Japan and South Korea, if Japan shows no signs it will repeal the export controls it imposed on South Korea in 2019. Nationalism and autonomy are key cornerstones of Moon and his progressive base’s ideology.

After this week’s general elections, it remains to be seen whether Moon reshuffles his cabinet and national security team to reinvigorate his inter-Korean and foreign policies, or he postpones any political housecleaning until after the US presidential elections in November.

Has North Korea made any attempts, overt or covert, to influence the coming election in the South? Is it clear from open source information whether Kim Jong un would prefer that Moon’s party win the coming legislative election?

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North Korea always tries to influence both presidential and general elections in South Korea, and this week’s elections are no exception. Pyongyang’s modus operandi is a mixture of engaging in provocations before every South Korean election and unleashing its propaganda machine to further divide South Korean progressives and conservatives. It tries to stir up South Korean sentiment against the conservative block and in favor of South Korean progressives. For example, North Korean propaganda outlets claimed the general elections should be judgement day for the main South Korean conservative party and condemned their recruitment of two North Korean defectors. Another widely-believed objective is for North Korea to breed allies in the South who can help Pyongyang unify the Korean Peninsula under communism one day.

Even though North Korea has bullied and cut the Moon government out of the current diplomatic process with the US over its nuclear weapons program, Pyongyang has always wanted progressives to rule the South, which includes Moon’s party. This is because South Korean progressives are ideologically aligned with North Korea. North Korea sees South Korean conservatives as American “puppets” and traitors to the Korean race and identity who are trying to topple the North Korean regime.

North Korea has publicly claimed to have no COVID-19 cases, but many outside observers believe the virus actually is ravaging the north. Has the possibility of a pandemic disaster in North Korea been discussed much during the run-up to these elections? If so, in what context?

It actually has not been discussed much at all. What is interesting about these elections is that what South Koreans call the “Northern winds” do not exist, despite Pyongyang’s best efforts to influence the elections. “Northern winds” basically mean the North Korea variable in South Korean electoral politics, in which South Korean politicians and candidates use the topic of North Korea to attract votes in elections.

The extent to which this has not occurred is to the point where some South Korean media outlets have pointed out that the coronavirus pandemic has stamped out the “Northern winds,” meaning, both South Korea and the United States are so preoccupied with their own viral outbreaks that they have not reacted to Pyongyang’s March missile tests in a way that would make North Korea a topic of debate before the elections.

It seems South Korea is handling both the pandemic and its election processes much more competently than has been the case in the United States. Do you know of any efforts by US federal or state officials to reach out for South Korean help on dealing with COVID-19, or on running a national election during a pandemic? How do you think the South Korean public would feel if the Moon government offered such aid to the United States?

The South Korean government said US President Donald Trump called Moon in March, making an “urgent request” for medical equipment, including test kits. Moon agreed to “provide as much support as possible, if there is spare medical equipment in Korea.” While South Koreans are supportive of helping countries in need, they first worry about their own supply during this crisis, and most South Koreans are irritated by the request, because of Trump’s longstanding demand that Seoul pay an exorbitant amount more for hosting US troops. Many South Koreans are opposed to sending masks and medical equipment to China because they blame Beijing for the outbreak in South Korea; others have expressed hope that South Korea makes huge profits from exporting medical supplies abroad.

The US may not have officially requested help in running a national election during a pandemic yet, but it is quite apparent that countries around the world are looking closely at how South Korea conducts its elections during the pandemic, and whether fair elections are possible during such an outbreak.

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