A slow vaccination campaign, a new wave of infections and a recent by-election wipeout spell trouble for South Korean President Moon Jae-in, now in the last year of his presidency. Photo: AFP

In South Korea, spring has sprung early.

Warmed with bright sunshine and cooled by gentle breezes, Seoul’s cherry trees have blossomed ahead of schedule. Downtown’s service sector is booming as citizens emerge from pandemic hibernation to socialize, consume and enjoy.

At lunchtimes and after-hours, restaurants and cafes that weeks ago were virtually bereft of customers amid the stay-at-home trend are bursting at the seams amid the unseasonably fine weather. The only losers are those queuing to get inside.

Were it not for the masks (mandatory); the early closing times (10pm); and the modest size of groups (no meetings of more than four are allowed); one could be forgiven for asking: ”Pandemic? What pandemic?”

There is upbeat economic news, too.

Korea’s “no lockdown” approach to Covid-19 containment largely kept the wheels of industry turning in 2020 which proved a vintage for the country’s key industry, semiconductors.

In March, it was reported that, according to OECD research, South Korea had climbed two places in global GDP rankings for 2020, leaping overRussian and Brazil. That thrusts Korea, formerly the world’s 12th largest economy, into the Top 10.

And at the micro level, a tax holiday has been instituted for many SMEs, which will remain in place until September.

But for Moon Jae-in and his Democratic Party of Korea, storm clouds are darkening the horizon.

A welcome early spring has come to Seoul, waking the country from a long Covid-19 hibernation. Photo: Tom Coyner

Now for the bad news…

Infection numbers are rising yet again, while the world’s 85th-placed vaccination drive is eroding the excellent reputation Moon’s government won last year for effective Covid-19 containment.

On April 7, failed real estate policies, property scandals and likely weariness with a late-term administration led to the ruling party being routed in a slew of by-elections. An interesting dynamic has appeared in post-election analyses: The floating voter, rather than the committed party supporter, is the new force.

Combined, these developments suggest new contours of political risk rising ahead of Moon and his party.

Indicators suggest that the “fourth wave” of Covid-19 ravaging the EU and Latin American is poised to break on Korean shores.  The country registered 700 new Covid-19 cases on Thursday – a rise from 668 on Wednesday and the highest number since 870 on January 7. On Friday, the numbers were 644.

This has sparked animated discussions on TV chat shows, at coffee shop tables and besides office water-coolers regarding likely upgrades to social distancing guidelines.

On Friday, authorities announced a modest change: Business at clubs, bars and other entertainment establishments in Seoul and Busan, Korea’s second-largest city, will be suspended.

The ban on “bars” is not necessarily Armageddon for drinkers: Many pubs serve food, so fall under restaurant regulation. But there is also talk of halting in-house customers in restaurants in Seoul after 9pm, an hour earlier than the current restrictions.

Engines slow ahead

Meanwhile the national vaccination drive is proceeding at a snail’s pace – an unfamiliar trajectory for Koreans who talk of their national “palli palli” (“hurry, hurry”) syndrome.

The country only started vaccinating on February 26. Since that date, as of Friday, 1,113, 666 people have been inoculated among a total population of 51.7 million. 

According to the Global Vaccine Tracker managed by newspaper the Financial Times, Korea has inoculated just 2.2 people per 100 members of its population

By comparison, global leader Israel has administered 112.2 doses per 100 residents; number 5-placed UK has inoculated 56 persons per 100; and tenth-placed Serbia has jabbed 38.7. Even virus-battered Brazil has managed 11.5.

These figures also suggest that the widespread belief that rich countries are leading in vaccinations has holes in it: South Korea, a newly minted G10 economy, is behind such developing nations as Bangladesh, Colombia, the Dominican Republic, Nepal and Rwanda.

With Korea having well developed physical infrastructure and health facilities and personnel, there are two reasons behind Korea’s slow vaccination place.

One is the government’s policy direction, set last year. The second is the hiccups in global vaccine supply. 

A senior citizen is vaccinated in South Korea. The country’s drive to innoculate is proceeding at an uncommonly slow pace for a country that has a “hurry, hurry” culture. Photo: AFP

Why the snail’s pace?

After having overcome the first waves of the virus, Korean health officials told foreign reporters in Seoul that they would advance prudently with vaccinations, given that the country had an effective containment system in place.

According to the officials, this approach had two advantages. Buying late into vaccines would grant Seoul the opportunity to observe the most effective variants, and the country would benefit from lower prices as more vaccines hit the market.

“Back in the summer, when they might have made advance purchases the way the US did, they waited until vaccine efficacy was tested,” Dr Jerome Kim, the head of the International Vaccine Institute told Asia Times. “By that point, a large number of high-income countries had made purchases and were ahead in the queue.” 

But vaccines got a new urgency during the winter wave of the virus, which proved harder to contain than earlier waves. As a result, President Moon himself took to directly contacting the CEOs of global pharmaceutical firms in an effort to obtain supply.

A further issue was a heavy reliance upon the global COVAX supply project.

In February, South Korea – a nation of 52 million – had no choice but to cut its Q1 vaccination target from 1.3 million people to just 750,000, due to adjustments in the supply timetable of the 2.6 million doses of AstraZeneca’s vaccine from COVAX.

Another COVAX shipment disruption was announced in April, with Korea being told that it would only receive 432,000 doses instead of 690,000 and delivery would be delayed due to export curbs in India, a key manufacturer of vaccines.

There have been local concerns about the main vaccine used in South Korea, AstraZeneca’s. This week, as EU medical authorities weighed the risk of blood clots caused by the vaccine against the pandemic risks of not using it, Korea briefly halted distribution of the controversial vaccine, but resumed the following day.

Broader supply should pick up. South Korea is set to take delivery of 13.7 million doses in Q2: 6 million from Pfizer, 7 million from AstraZeneca, and 729,000 from COVAX.

If these shipments, and others in Q3, take place, Korea can achieve its aim of herd immunity by November, Kim said. But global supply bottlenecks have not been resolved.

“As you scale up production of vaccines you invariably have issues and all of them – including vaccines from Russia and China – are having problems scaling up,” Kim said.

Complicating the issue is not just the unprecedented speed of approving and manufacturing vaccines, nor the vast scale of distribution, but the fact that different companies have outsourced production to different facilities across the world.

“When did Sanofi ever make a vaccine for Pfizer, or South Korea make a  vaccine for AstraZeneca?” Kim asked. “All these different producers could have problems.”

An issue that has already caused political disputes between the EU and the UK, and between Italy and Australia, is so-called vaccine nationalism.

“Companies have contractual obligations, but governments are saying. ‘We have precedence,’” Kim said. “We have not got past the issue: Indonesia is not going to get vaccine from India, as India is using it.”

Rumors are circulating that the Korean government may restrict exports of vaccines being manufactured in Korea, Jung Sun-jae, an epidemiologist at Yonsei University Medical School told Asia Times, though she could not confirm this.

The country’s SK Bioscience is producing the AstraZeneca vaccine under contract, and Korean firms have contracted to produce Moderna’s vaccine and Russia’s Sputnik V.

A further issue on the global scene is the rate of approvals by regulatory authorities. Neither the Chinese nor the Russian vaccines have yet got green lights from the WHO, or from EU or US regulators, which many countries follow as benchmarks.

With so many factors in flux, massive uncertainties hang over global vaccine supplies. Asked if she expected the situation to improve in the near future, Jung said, “Nobody knows.”

Kim however, was more upbeat. As new vaccines come online, new regulatory  approvals are granted, and gremlins are worked out of the global value chain, he anticipates most supply bottlenecks being resolved by mid-summer.

That development would be welcomed by Moon’s DPK. They are going to need good news by year’s end, for a presidential election looms in March 2022.

President Moon Jae-in is vaccinated ahead of his trip to London for the June G7 summit to which Korea has been especially invited – the latest recognition of the country’s rising global prominence. Photo: AFP

Political perils gain pace

It is unclear whether this week’s by-election result against the DPK was a true sea change or a protest vote. Either way, there are considerable grounds for public discontent.

Chaotic real estate policies in the capital area have achieved the unusual result of alienating both landlords and tenants. Meanwhile, slow vaccinations and on/off social distancing guidelines not only irk the public and businesses, they contrast with self-aggrandizement by the government.

“Last year, the Moon administration spent a lot of money advertising ‘K-Quarantine,’ to spread it to the world and promote their own response,” said David Tizzard, a professor of Korean Studies at Seoul Women’s University. “Many said at the time that this was a bit presumptuous.”

Moreover, Korea’s Covid-19 containment last year was not simply due to the efficacy of governmental strategy.

“The excellent response last year was as much down to citizens’ dutifulness as policy, and now the government is dropping the ball on vaccinations,” Tizzard, who is also a columnist and radio host, said. “Koreans go online and see people in other countries getting vaccinated and are wondering why they are not.”

And crucially, there appears to be a shift underway in the body politic. Customarily, many Koreans voted based on region, and more latterly, on left/right political stance. These erstwhile realities are now being undermined by the floating voter.

Polls found that 20 and 30-something Koreans who previously voted for the DPK turned their backs on it in the by-elections. If – as these findings suggest – votes are now based on government performance rather than personal political beliefs, Moon and his party must deliver on vaccinations and Covid recovery.

“The by-election results were a demonstration that citizens are not holding on to ideologies or politics like those, in, say, the US, where people are lifetime reds or blues; people are voting on results,” Tizzard said.

“The government has failed on housing, failed in the recent elections and failed on North Korea, so they have got one shot left.”