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Crushing by-election defeat stymies Moon's reform, peace initiatives

President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with his aides and secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday. Yonhap
President Moon Jae-in speaks during a meeting with his aides and secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae, Monday. Yonhap

By Nam Hyun-woo

With Wednesday's by-elections to pick new mayors for Seoul and Busan ending in a crushing defeat for the ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK), observers say President Moon Jae-in is now likely to rapidly lose his grip on state affairs.

They said the elections will also affect Moon's peace initiative for the Korean Peninsula, as Pyongyang is anticipated to strengthen its perception of inter-Korean relations as subordinate to those it has with the U.S., especially as the South Korean leader increasingly becomes a lame duck president.

During a press briefing, Thursday, presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok said Moon was taking the by-election results as "a stern reprimand" from the people and will "address state affairs modestly with a heavy responsibility."

"The President pledged to spare no efforts to realize the people's desperate demands for overcoming the COVID-19 pandemic, resuscitating the economy and eradicating real estate-related corruption," Kang said.

Presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok bows during a news conference at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Kang said President Moon Jae-in is taking the ruling bloc's defeat in Wednesday's mayoral by-elections for Seoul and Busan as 'a stern reprimand.' Yonhap
Presidential spokesman Kang Min-seok bows during a news conference at Cheong Wa Dae, Thursday. Kang said President Moon Jae-in is taking the ruling bloc's defeat in Wednesday's mayoral by-elections for Seoul and Busan as 'a stern reprimand.' Yonhap

Kang's remarks came on the heels of the main opposition People Power Party's (PPP) crushing victory over the ruling DPK in the mayoral by-elections for the country's capital and its second-largest city. In Seoul, the PPP's Oh Se-hoon was elected after gaining 57.5 percent of the ballots, beating the DPK's Park Young-sun's 39.18 percent. In Busan, the PPP's Park Heong-joon defeated the DPK's Kim Young-choon 62.67 percent to 34.42 percent.

The election results are largely interpreted as an expression of public disappointment with the Moon administration's apparent failure to control housing prices in Seoul and Busan, rather than liking or disliking the individual candidates.

As this sentiment was additionally fueled by a large-scale real estate scandal involving some employees of the state-run home developer the Korean Land and Housing Corp. (LH), Moon's control of the government and his administration appear to be slipping away quickly, with slightly over one year remaining in his term.

"The recovery from the pandemic, an economic rebound and the battle against real estate corruption were public demands seen in this election," a Cheong Wa Dae official said. "The presidential office's commitment to address these demands will stay unwavering."

Despite Moon's efforts to avoid lame-duck status, the DPK is already distancing itself from the President, blaming Cheong Wa Dae officials' corruption and Moon's real estate policy failures for the loss in party support.

Given the DPK still holds 174 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, distancing itself from Moon will likely provide some setbacks to the government's efforts to resuscitate the economy by expanding fiscal spending or controlling housing prices through existing policies.

As the by-elections signal a likely turnover of power to the opposition party in next year's presidential election, Moon's appeasement policies toward North Korea are also anticipated to be dampened.

"The election sends a signal that the Moon government is mired in a lame-duck status," said Hong Min, a senior researcher at the state-run Korea Institute for National Unification. "From North Korea's standpoint, the attractiveness of the Moon administration as a talking partner has been further diminished because chances have become slimmer for Moon's remaining appeasement policies being realized."

"If you assume that the by-elections were a prelude to next year's presidential election in South Korea, chances are high for the country to have a conservative government next year, and this also implies that North Korea will see no reason to have talks with the South now," Hong said.

Hong also anticipated Washington-Seoul relations regarding Pyongyang will also be affected, because the Moon administration's presence as a mediator between the North and the U.S. will be limited, thus allowing the Joe Biden administration to enhance its hardline approach toward the Kim Jong-un regime.

Looming Cabinet reshuffle

In a desperate effort to keep control over the government, Moon is expected to engage in a Cabinet reshuffle to add new faces to his administration.

On March 29, Moon named Lee Ho-seung, former first vice minister of economy and finance, as his new chief of staff for policy, replacing the scandal-hit Kim Sang-jo. Along with Lee, Moon named former finance ministry officials as his new senior secretary for economic affairs and economic policy secretary, offering a glimpse of Moon's attempts to maintain control over economic affairs.

Following these changes, Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun is anticipated to tender his resignation in the near future, in a likely move to run in the next presidential election. Finance Minister Hong Nam-ki, former Interior Minister Kim Boo-kyum and Education Minister Yoo Eun-hae are among the candidates being mentioned to replace him.

Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum is also projected to be replaced, as he already expressed his intention to resign to take responsibility for the LH scandal. Industry Minister Sung Yun-mo and Employment Minister Lee Jae-kap are expected to be replaced as well.


Nam Hyun-woo namhw@koreatimes.co.kr


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