MACK WILLIAMS. International implications of landslide Korean elections

The spectacular success of President Moon’s party in the recent parliamentary elections has some important international implications as well as those for the South Korean domestic political scene.

As Liz Griffin’s comprehensive analysis of the Moon’s  anti-Covid19 campaign ( “Why has the Republic of Korea’s campaign against coronavirus been so successful“ 21 April 2020) illustrated he may have been a little slow out of the blocks but drew together an impressive array of quick  actions well suited for the Korean societal environment to mount  an outstanding national strategy  to combat the pandemic.

Although it was very much the “Korean Way” there were plenty of lessons in it for other democracies in the world – especially demonstrated by the ability to conduct full scale national elections in the midst of the pandemic and the social isolation demanded to combat it. And to top it off with an extraordinarily high turnout by Korean standards – over 60%. The commitment to transparency throughout the process was remarkable and one with which some other democracies have struggled with – at least early on though the White House remains a stark exception. Another was the extensive use of innovation and technology, particularly the rapid testing on a massive scale followed up by a degree of tracking through mobile phones which seems beyond us in Australia. After such a rocky  time immediately prior to the pandemic, the landslide  in the parliamentary elections has strengthened substantially Moon’s political power base for the last two years of his presidency.

The ROK has also been very active in providing supplies of much needed medical equipment and reagents to others in need. BY early April, the Foreign Ministry reported that the ROK had received requests for assistance – material and other – in managing Covid19 from over 120 countries. Moon took an high profile role in global discussions on Covid19 – especially in Africa and with the WHO. The ROK has supplied test kits and other medical items to countries right across the continent from Morocco to South Africa and Madagascar to Senegal – including a small hospital in Kenya. All of which tied in well with the “African Integration: Legacies and New Horizons” initiative announced at the second Seoul Africa Dialogue late last year. More recently the ROK has also provided assistance to India and other Asian countries as well as to Italy and some of the EU. Moon also recently held a “Covid19 summit” meeting with New Zealand Prime Minister Ardern.

Inevitably Covid19 has diverted attention away from the inter-Korean dilemma in recent months with no sign of any real progress in the stand-off between Washington and Pyongyang. Moon and President Trump have spoken several times in the past few weeks with a main topic being Trump’s request for urgent medical equipment and supplies from the ROK for the US to meet its emerging Covid19 crisis  – around the same time as the US had clamped down severely on any similar export sales from the US or by US multinationals manufacturing abroad! Moon readily agreed to assist with stocks beyond the ROK’s own expected needs but also sought assistance from Trump with some regulatory constraints which the US had imposed on Korean companies. The ROK had also been approached by a number of individual US states for similar support.

The two leaders reportedly also discussed the threat Covid19 posed for the DPRK. Despite repeated assertions that it had managed to escape the virus by quickly and firmly closing its lengthy land border with China and reinforcing its control over other international connections, there seems little doubt that Covid19 has struck in the DPRK. But the extent of the pandemic in the North is still the subject of speculation. It was abundantly clear that the DPRK’s domestic medical capacity to manage the pandemic would have been woefully inadequate. – posing in itself serious medical threats to its neighbours – China and the ROK. The DPRK last month openly sought international assistance for medical supplies and equipment and there has been evidence of some Covid19 public health training and preparations.  The ROK was quick to offer assistance though, as in the past, the DPRK has been reluctant to accept any aid from the ROK government as such. Given the urgency and the complications imposed by US led sanctions, Moon and Trump discussed a range of ways by which aid could be provided. Trump also wrote a personal letter to Kim Jong-un expressing sympathy for the plight of North Koreans in the pandemic and indicating that the US would not stand in the way of aid deliveries. There has since been a flurry of activity in the NGO world with organisations like the Red Cross, Medecins Sans Frontieres and a number of large Christian mission organisations in the ROK but details remain so far few about actual deliveries.

An interesting segue from the above has been the public acknowledgement of Trump’s letter by Kim Jong-un’s sister (Kim Yo-jong) whose recent significant promotion within the DPRK power hierarchy has fuelled speculation that she might prove to be Kim Jong-un’s successor. She praised Trump for sending the letter when “big difficulties and challenges lie ahead in the way of developing ties” between the countries. She said Trump explained that he wanted to “propel the relations between the two countries … and expressed his intent to render cooperation in the anti-epidemic work”. And added, for whatever it might really mean, “in my personal opinion, I think that the bilateral relations and dialogue for them would be thinkable only when the equilibrium is kept dynamically and morally and justice ensured between the two countries ……Even at this moment we are working hard to develop and defend ourselves on our own under the cruel environment which the U.S. is keen to ‘provide.” She said her brother expressed his gratitude for the letter. Despite the quick and firm rebuttal by Trump, the ROK and China of the rumours this week emanating from US intelligence sources about the gravity of Kim Jong-un’s health, Kim’s decision to respond in public to Trump in this very unusual fashion only adds to the mystery about his current condition. Trump has since revealed that he has received a personal letter in reply from Kim Jong-un.

Meanwhile the ROK’s long running and increasingly bitter negotiations with the US about sharing the costs of the US military presence in the South still remain unresolved. A premature ROK announcement of a resolution last week proved highly embarrassing to the ROK when the message from Washington failed to confirm the agreement. This led some in the ROK media to harangue the Moon government about learning to deal with two separate US administrations – the Pentagon and the White House. The performance of the US Ambassador in the ROK has also attracted more criticism from parts of Korean society for being too “colonialist”. In his communications with his political base, Trump has continued to pillory the ROK for not paying its way and what he characterises as their predatory trade policies.

Somewhat belatedly, Trump commended Moon for the election victory but Secretary of State Pompeo’s earlier comments were pretty deadpan. Clearly Moon will continue to face continuing challenge in the bilateral relationship with the US – and especially with Trump as the US elections approach. How much his renewed political strength will assist him in this regard remains to be seen and whatever lies ahead with the DPRK  has yet to be revealed until Kim’s situation becomes clearer. All of the above should lead the Australian Government to recognise the enhanced role of the ROK in our region and the importance of rescheduling a visit here by Moon once the Covid19 situation allows.

Mack Williams – a former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea

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Mack Williams former Ambassador to the Republic of Korea.

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