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Coronavirus: Another crisis tests a South Korean president

Conservative or liberal, leaders are defined by response to emergencies

People in Seoul during the MERS outbreak in June 2015.

TOKYO -- In battling the explosive COVID-19 outbreak in South Korea, President Moon Jae-in finds himself struggling not just to contain infections and deaths, but also with the seemingly inescapable crisis management jinx that tested previous leaders.

South Korea has been hit hard by the virus, with 8,799 infections and 102 deaths reported as of Saturday. The Moon government has fought the outbreak head-on, aggressively administering tests to identify infections, ramping up capacity to 5,000 a day with well-known drive-through testing sites.

And there is a reason for Moon's approach.

"The Moon administration won't stop aggressive testing. It simply can't," said a diplomatic source well-versed in Japan-South Korean relations. Moon's progressive administration was born in the aftermath of the impeachment of Park Geun-hye, whose secretive backdoor dealings brought her downfall. Total transparency is Moon's raison d'être.

Crisis management always has a way of becoming an Achilles' heel for South Korean leaders, regardless of their political stripes.

South Korean President Moon Jae-in, center, at a cabinet meeting in Seoul on March 3.   © AP

Shortly after taking power in 2008, the conservative Lee Myung-bak administration saw its approval rating plummet to below 20% after deciding to allow the resumption of U.S. beef imports that had been suspended over fears of mad cow disease. The move sapped the early momentum of his new administration.

Many South Koreans trace the beginning of Park's downfall to the 2014 sinking of the passenger ferry Sewol, in which 304 people died or went missing, mostly high school students. As the public speculated on her whereabouts after she disappeared for seven hours on the day of the incident, trust in her government took a heavy beating.

In both cases, South Koreans saw what they perceived as governments that were out of touch and incapable of sharing their pain.

Looking back even further, Kim Young-sam, a leading figure in South Korea's pro-democracy movement who served as president from 1993 to 1998, also grappled with a series of crises, including the deaths of more than 500 people when the Sampoong Department Store collapsed in 1995. Mismanagement of the Asian economic crisis that began in 1997 also took a toll on his popularity.

It's been nearly two months since Moon pledged forcible action. South Korea's response has included disclosing the movements of those confirmed to be infected by using mobile-phone signals and credit card records. A law was quickly put into force that could impose jail time on those who do not comply with a quarantine order.

In 2017, then-South Korean President Park Geun-hye speaks to family members of missing passengers who were on the South Korean ferry "Sewol."    © Reuters

Moon has had some missteps. His challenge started with a February outbreak in Daegu among a religious sect known as the Shincheonji Church of Jesus. Infections among members quickly spread nationwide.

The government ramped up testing in response to the Daegu outbreak but a "side effect" of that quickly became apparent. Those who tested positive but had no symptoms were still required to be quarantined in hospitals. Beds at Daegu medical facilities filled up quickly. Seriously ill patient awaiting hospitalization died as a result.

And when infections in the country were finally beginning to decrease, a new cluster of infections was confirmed in Seoul.

The basis for what has become South Korea's coronavirus testing regime was established after the Middle East respiratory syndrome, or MERS, outbreak in the 2010s that hit South Korea.

The Chosun Ilbo newspaper criticized the government for "mechanically applying" its previous response to MERS -- which has a high death rate but low infectiousness -- to the highly contagious novel coronavirus, which has a lower fatality rate.

Conservative media accused the Moon administration's aggressive approach for sowing confusion in hospitals and clinics.

In 1997, then-South Korean President Kim Young-sam is seen shaking hands with U.S. President Bill Clinton during a bilateral meeting at the APEC summit in Vancouver.

But there have also been quick adjustments. The government decided to change its policy guidelines on hospital admittance based on symptoms. And the politically liberal southwestern city of Gwangju recently announced that people infected but not seriously ill from Daegu, a conservative bastion, can be treated at two of its hospitals. That cooperation has drawn attention in a country known for bitter regional rivalries.

The spike in infections prompted Japan, along with more than 100 other countries and regions, to impose restrictions on travelers from South Korea, including banning their entry entirely or requiring quarantine upon entry.

In light of such travel restrictions, Moon expressed hope that those nations would grant exemptions to business travelers from his country, where the export economy is struggling.

Moon has managed to avoid a precipitous decline in his popularity. Criticism of aggressive virus testing is seldom heard inside the country and has been praised in international circles. With the fatality rate at just over 1%, citizens are maintaining calm in the face of a so-called invisible threat.

According to pollster Gallup Korea, even during the second week of March, Moon's support rate was holding steady at 49%, against 45% not supporting him. Still, with no signs of an end to the virus outbreak and the serious blow facing the economy, the JoongAng Ilbo newspaper says Moon is facing his "biggest crisis."

Ahead of a scheduled parliamentary election in April, the same expression meaning "breakthrough" is used among the Moon administration -- the language used by North Korea's Kim Jong Un in his strategy toward the U.S.

"In reality, we don't know what the right thing to do is," said a person close to the president. "It will be history that eventually judges the administration's efforts."

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