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South Korea's second city of Busan is traditionally a conservative area, and has inched further to the right in recent years in apparent frustration with the ruling party's failure to revive the regional economy.
Asia Insight

Moon promises the sky in Busan but faces electoral crash landing

Polls tip conservatives to win back mayorships of South Korea's two biggest cities

STEVEN BOROWIEC, Contributing writer | South Korea

BUSAN, South Korea -- President Moon Jae-in has a grand plan to build a glittering new airport in the southeastern South Korean port city of Busan, as part of a project to "bring together the sky, sea and land to create a world-class logistics hub."

The plan for the proposed airport on Gadeok Island, on the southwestern fringe of the country's second city, had been under discussion since the early 2000s.

The president made the announcement on a trip to Busan in late February -- just before campaigning began for a mayoral election in city. The right-wing opposition accused Moon of a pork-barrel attempt to appeal to voters in a populous area with a flagging economy. Moon's ruling party denied that the sudden fast tracking of the airport plan was intended to boost his party's chances in the poll.

Park Hyung-joon, the candidate representing the main conservative opposition People Power Party, looks poised to cruise to an easy victory over his Democratic Party opponent, Kim Young-choon, in Wednesday's election.

The conservative camp is also poised to win the mayoral election in Seoul on the same day. The capital is a stronghold for Moon's left-leaning ruling party, but opposition candidate, Oh Se-hoon, a former Seoul mayor, holds a commanding lead in polls over the DP's Park Young-sun.

These mayoral votes could foreshadow next year's presidential election. South Korean presidents serve single, five-year terms, so Moon is not eligible to run. His party, having come up short in linchpin policies such as bolstering the middle class and achieving lasting peace with North Korea, faces an uphill battle toward retaining the nation's top office.

The situation in the country's two largest cities is reflective of the woes Moon's party is facing nationally. Despite having overseen a mostly successful handling of the coronavirus pandemic -- winning a landslide in midterm elections last year on the back of this -- and spending aggressively to address inequality, the party's popularity is cratering amid a series of corruption scandals.

What seems to have made the difference, as it does with most anything in South Korea these days, is housing. Specifically, the question of who can afford to purchase property -- a measure seen by many in the country as the only reliable path to financial security.

In March, employees of the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH), a state housing developer, were suspected of using information gleaned through their jobs to purchase millions of dollars worth of land slated for use in development projects -- before their announcement.

The scandal triggered fresh public anger over rising housing prices in South Korea, which the Moon administration has failed to rein in while government officials have been accused of engaging in the kind of speculation they claim to be trying to prevent.

"If you look at how Korea has done economically during the pandemic, compared to other countries, it has actually been fairly good," Cha Jae-kwon, a professor of political science at Pukyong National University, told Nikkei Asia in an interview at his office in Busan. "The government has really tried to help the poor and people who are suffering, but their mistakes have distracted voters from that and left people with a kind of emotional dissatisfaction."

Campaign posters in Busan, South Korea. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

Busan is traditionally a conservative area, and has inched further to the right in recent years in apparent frustration with the ruling party's failure to revive the regional economy. The city was one of the few areas where the opposition gained seats in last year's general elections.

Data indicates that many people in Busan will choose the candidate they think can improve the city's economy. A poll of voters carried out in March by public broadcaster KBS and Hankook Research showed 27.5% of respondents saying that the economy was the most important issue, followed by real estate policies with 18.3%.

In the same poll, 48.4% said they plan to cast their ballot for the opposition, as a rebuke to the ruling party, while 33.4% said they will vote for the ruling party in the interest of national stability.

On the ground in Busan, up the coast from Gadeok Island, city workers patrol the city's scenic beaches like hall monitors, enforcing mask mandates and social distancing measures.

The city likes to consider itself a more scenic and convivial alternative to the smoggy, frantic capital. But it has suffered flagging growth in recent years, and has been hit hard by the pandemic. Especially vulnerable have been the tourism sector and businesses that rely on smooth movement in the global supply chain.

Cheryl Kim runs Kai Distribution, a purveyor of imported surf and skateboard products. She said in normal years, her company orders products in October so that they arrive in early winter, right ahead of peak sales season in March, as consumers purchase gear to use in early summer.

This year, she doesn't expect those orders to arrive until May. "We order products made in China and the U.S., and because of COVID, a lot of those warehouses are operating at less than normal capacity, and it has taken much longer than normal to receive any shipments," Kim said.

"This is peak season, when we normally make most of our money for the year, but nowadays we have no money coming in. We're hoping next year things will get back on track."

The Busan office of the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions, a left-wing umbrella group, has criticized the decision to embark on a years-long airport project when many in the city are struggling.

"Ninety percent of companies in Busan are small operations with fewer than 30 people, and they've had to deal with difficulties, such as layoffs and restructuring. But instead of policies to help them, tens of millions in taxpayer funds are being poured into the Gadeok Island Airport," the group said in a statement.

Haeundae beach in Busan, South Korea. The city likes to consider itself a more scenic and convivial alternative to the smoggy, frantic capital. (Photo by Steven Borowiec)

Some Busan residents welcome the airport plan as an overdue investment in the city's infrastructure. Lee Chang-ha, 32, says doesn't follow politics closely but is in favor of the Gadeok airport. "I think we need it. Most big cities have two airports, and it could lead to more visitors," Lee told Nikkei Asia.

Lee left an unfulfilling job at an international trade company years ago to pursue a career in the soccer business. Now a certified coach, he runs youth and amateur teams while working to get Porten, his own brand of soccer gear and training products, off the ground.

He says his operations have withstood the pandemic. "Every little boy still wants to play football. Things will keep getting better," Lee said.

The pandemic has been a mixed blessing for some bars and restaurants in the city.

"Last year we had our biggest summer ever at our Busan based taprooms because people couldn't travel abroad, but a lot of places in the area have been closing since," Seok Sang-min, director of Gorilla Brewing. "We had some really slow months at the worst points of the pandemic, so we had to constantly innovate, coming up with new products that people could consume at home."

Hong Gi-woun, a 36-year-old teacher, said he plans to vote liberal in the by-election out of a sense of party loyalty, but feels like the election is already lost.

"The atmosphere in the city has turned against the ruling party so much. Because of the corruption scandals, everyone who is normally in the middle has gone over to the conservatives," he said.

The by-elections in Busan and Seoul were called after the mayors of the country's two largest cities were accused of sexual misconduct. Busan Mayor Oh Keo-don stepped down after a former city government employee accused him of sexual harassment causing injury. Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon was accused by a former secretary of harassment over a period of years and found dead in a Seoul park, apparently having taken his own life.

Democratic Party guidelines forbid the party from fielding candidates in a by-election that was held due to a party member having had to leave office in disgrace. Nevertheless, the party changed those internal rules instead of giving up two crucial posts without a fight.

For good measure, the likely victor in Busan, Park Hyung-joon, has been dealing with a real estate scandal of his own, surrounding the purchase of an expensive beachfront apartment in Busan. But that does not appear to have derailed his campaign.

The Moon administration's shortcomings have resonated particularly with the young, a demographic that will be key to the Democratic Party staying in power.

"I know a lot of young people who hoped for more from the Moon administration, and they obviously feel a lot of anger at the government. They don't feel that Moon and his party care about justice and equality," Se-Woong Koo, a political analyst, told Nikkei Asia.

"The reason South Korea's badly bruised conservative party is still alive, and support for Moon has shrunk so much, is that he and his party proved to be not that much better than the alternative."

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