South Korean President Moon Jae-in holds his New Year press conference at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on January 10, 2019. Photo: AFP/Jung Yeon-je
President Moon Jae- in is in the twilight of his presidency, but told the UN that he would work for inter-Korean reconciliation to the last day of his term.-Photo: AFP

After the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, the former president of South Korea who had been involved in a series of corruption scandals, Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning political stalwart, became the country’s new leader. Then lawmakers in the opposition conservative parties started to denounce the president for absurd reasons.

The conservatives expressed a negative view on Moon’s efforts to invite the North Korean national team to the 2018 Pyeongchang Olympics. They claimed that the Moon administration was imposing oppressive rule under the name of reforming the tarnished prosecution system. And now, right-leaning politicians are attacking Moon’s government for the surge in Covid-19 infections, stirring up criticism against his regime.

By the end of February, Covid-19 cases started to surge across South Korea. Currently, this country has the most confirmed cases of the disease outside of China, where the coronavirus that causes it was first identified. Conservatives have accused the Moon administration of failing to deal with the disease properly.

Hwang Kyo-ahn, the leader of the conservative United Future party, condemned what he called the government’s failure to deal with Covid-19.

“The president, the prime minister and the entire government were too idle in their responses to the virus,” The Korea Times quoted Hwang as saying. “The current crisis has been caused by the government’s failure. The entry ban on China should have been implemented from the very beginning, as requested consistently by the people and experts. But the president did not listen.”

Also making bitter criticisms against the government, Han Sun-kyo, a lawmaker with the right-leaning Future Korea party, urged Moon Jae-in to offer an apology to all citizens for failing to prevent the spread of Covid-19.

“The government should have to impose a strict entry ban on Chinese,” Han said. “But the president was passive to do so, just kowtowing to China, as it is one of the biggest trade partners of Korea. With the incompetence of the minister of health and welfare, the government’s poor response to Covid-19 led thousands of citizens to be infected. Until now, Covid-19 is growing exponentially, and citizens are fretting that they could be infected.”

While right-wingers are slamming the government over the surge of the epidemic, the world has a different view. James Kim, chairman of the American Chamber of Commerce in Korea, said: “Korea is proactively and transparently dealing with Covid-19. The confirmed cases are surging in Korea, due to the country’s well-prepared testing procedures compared to other countries.” Kim added that South Korea could tackle the disease without a problem. 

A New York City doctor also mentioned Korea’s testing procedures. When he pointed out how the American health authorities are poorly prepared for treating Covid-19, Dr Matt McCarthy said South Korea had been able to test tens of thousands of people. With the country’s aggressive testing efforts, Korea’s death toll from the disease is less than 1%, while the global average is 3.4%. This is thanks to the government’s early preparation for the outbreak of infectious diseases.

Indeed, the South Korean government last year started to develop effective methods that can diagnose any kind of virus. The government has prepared for a potential outbreak of an infectious disease like severe acute respiratory syndrome (SARS) and Middle East respiratory syndrome (MERS), which spread in 2003 and 2015 respectively.

In 2015, South Korea detected the most MERS cases in the world outside the Middle East. The conservative government at that time under Park Geun-hye was ill-prepared for the outbreak, even when some hospitals turned away MERS patients. The Park administration lacked professionalism in handling MERS, and the public expressed distrust in her government.

But unlike the Park administration, the current government announces the whereabouts of patients shortly after confirming new cases of Covid-19. It also sends emergency alert messages to citizens when new cases are found around their homes.

While the incompetent Park administration was largely to blame for the MERS epidemic in Korea in 2015, this time the government is not to blame for the spike in Covid-19. Shincheonji, a controversial evangelical church widely seen as a cult, was at the forefront of the pandemic.

Right-wingers, however, are demonizing the government because Korea is witnessing a rapid increase in Covid-19 infections. They play down the government’s early preparation for infectious diseases, being reluctant to talk about an announcement by the World Health Organization that an entry ban has no relation to the prevention of Covid-19. The conservatives even turn blind eyes to citizens’ criticisms against Shincheonji.

Many Koreans think the right-wingers’ continuous criticism against the government over Covid-19 as a thinly veiled attempt to win support from voters as the clock is counting down to the general election scheduled for April. But instead of playing political games, these right-wing politicians should be cooperating with the health authorities and the government to fight against Covid-19 if they are sincerely worried about Korean citizens.

Da-Sol Goh is a translator in Seoul. She is a graduate of Myongji University in Seoul, where she studied law and English literature. As a translator, she mainly handles foreign articles from anglophone countries dealing with politics and international issues.