South Korean leader′s support slips amid ′North Korea fixation′ | Asia| An in-depth look at news from across the continent | DW | 30.10.2018
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South Korean leader's support slips amid 'North Korea fixation'

South Korean President Moon Jae-in has taken the credit for building a working relationship with North Korea, but his critics say he is neglecting a looming economic crisis in Asia's fourth-largest economy.

Public support for South Korean President Moon Jae-in has slipped into the 50 percent range, continuing a gradual but apparently consistent decline from the high 70s he was receiving only a few months ago, as the public and the media raise questions about his economic policies.

It is even being suggested in some quarters that he has a "fixation" with rebuilding ties with North Korea and that domestic issues are suffering as a result.

In a Gallup poll released on October 25, 58 percent of South Koreans gave Moon a positive grade on his achievements to date. That is a figure that many other national leaders would consider a fairly resounding endorsement of their administration, although it was down a full 4 percentage points from one week earlier, and significantly lower than as recently as June, when he was basking in a support rate in the high 70s.

And while Moon has undoubtedly made progress on the thorny issue of relations with Seoul's northern neighbor – for which he still retains the overwhelming support of ordinary South Koreans – there is little disguising the fact that the domestic economy is on the brink of recession. And analysts agree the outlook is rather bleak.

Growth forecast revised downward

The Bank of Korea recently downgraded the national growth forecast for the year from 2.9 percent to 2.7 percent, the most anemic annual growth rate for Asia's fourth-largest economy since 2012. The International Monetary Fund (IMF) anticipates growth will weaken even further in 2019, falling to 2.6 percent.

Those concerns are being reflected in everyday life, with unemployment in the third quarter surpassing the 1 million mark for the first time since the Asian financial crisis of a decade ago. A much-anticipated $3.7 billion (€3.26 billion) special budget for job creation initiatives has failed to generate the desired results. In total, 4.2 percent of the total workforce is presently unemployed, an eight-year high.

Consequently, domestic demand is weak and companies are refraining from investing in facilities and equipment, while the shipbuilding and auto industries – traditionally mainstays of the national economy – are in the doldrums.

Inevitably, South Korea is also feeling the early effects of the trade war that has erupted between the United States and China.

"South Korean firms are effectively damaged in this conflict because of the impact on the global supply chain in products that are exported from China," Daniel Pinkston, a professor of international relations at the Seoul campus of Troy University, told DW.

"But the country also faces a number of deeper-rooted, systemic challenges, including a demographic time bomb of an ageing population, rising youth unemployment and the loss of the old system of a guaranteed job for life for anyone who finished college," he added.

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And Pinkston believes that Moon's desire to achieve detente with Pyongyang – or, at the very least, reduce the physical threat that the North poses – may very well have impinged upon the time that he has been able to devote to other issues.

"There is limited bandwidth in any administration and a limited number of hours in every day for any leader to address the countless matters that they face," he said.

"North Korea and the inter-Korean relationship have clearly been a priority for Moon, and maybe a decision was made within the Blue House to focus on that because something like the US-China trade war in some ways puts economic issues out of reach."

"They have less leverage on the trade war, so maybe it was decided to focus on something where they were more likely to make progress," the expert said.

Opposition criticism

Opposition parties have been quick to jump on the perception that Moon's policies – including raising the minimum wage and increasing pensions – have damaged what was not long ago a robust economy. And they ascribe that to his narrow focus on North Korea.

Read more: South Korean president falls short lobbying for Pyongyang in Europe

In an editorial on Monday, The Korea Times accused Moon of "economic incompetence that is overshadowing some of the so-called diplomatic achievements."

It added that Moon has a "fixation" with North Korea, with Seoul granting too many concessions to Pyongyang for nothing of substantive value in return. Unilateral appeasement has, they added, also harmed relations with the US, South Korea's most important security partner.

Even the initiative towards the North seems to have stalled in recent weeks, other analysts point out.

"The economy is not going well, and that has to be one of the reasons for Moon's falling support rate, but his approaches to the North do not seem to be making much progress anymore," said Rah Jong-il, a former diplomat who previously served as South Korea's ambassador to Tokyo and London.

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'No real-world progress'

"Things were almost triumphal a few months ago but now we're seeing nothing in the way of progress in the real world," he said, although he added that Moon's administration has not been helped by a series of personal and financial scandals among some of his closest political allies.

Rah does not believe accusations that Moon is "neglecting" the domestic economy are altogether fair, although he agrees that maybe it is time for a shift in economic approaches as "policies that might have appeared to work in the classroom are not working in practice."

But the nature of politics means that the South Korean leader may be running short on time. Unless he can convince the electorate that he has their best interests and well-being at heart, that steady decline in public support may just begin to pick up more speed.

Read more: Whither North Korea's economy? 

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