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Coronavirus

South Korea's Moon faces biggest political test over virus outbreak

President's party frets over epidemic's impact on April general election

South Korea's President Moon Jae-in faces growing public discontent over his handling of the coronavirus outbreak and an earlier decision to not to bar Chinese from the country.    © Reuters

SEOUL -- South Korean President Moon Jae-in faces his biggest challenge since taking office three years ago, as people express dissatisfaction over his leadership amid the worsening new coronavirus epidemic.

More than 1.4 million Koreans have signed a petition over the last month calling for Moon's impeachment, blaming his government for not preventing the virus from spreading throughout the country. South Korea has more than 5,700 cases of coronavirus infection, the largest number in the world after China. The country's death toll from COVID-19 reached 35 as of Thursday morning.

The public outcry comes just a month before a parliamentary election, sparking fears of an electoral rout among ruling Democratic Party lawmakers. The vote matters as it will affect Moon's ability to govern for the rest of his single five-year term and his party's chances in the next presidential election in 2022.

"Public dissatisfaction with President Moon Jae-in's handling of the coronavirus outbreak, and a consolidation of political opposition forces, have prompted us to lower the probability of the ruling Democratic Party of Korea winning the National Assembly elections on 15 April from 70% to 55%," said Scott Seaman, Asia director at U.S.-based research center Eurasia Group.

The president's approval rate dropped slightly last week, falling to 42% in the fourth week of February, down from 45% a week earlier, according to a survey by Gallup Korea.

In the same survey, 77% of respondents said they worry about being infected with the coronavirus, up from 63% the previous week. They also expressed anger over the shortage of masks and the government's failure to take the epidemic seriously.

People have lined up for hours in front of discount chains, agricultural cooperatives and post offices to receive a handful of masks, as supplies have failed to keep pace with demand. Prices for masks have jumped two to three times, causing a financial strain for some.

Moon urged his cabinet to clear the supply bottleneck. "Recognize that this is a very serious problem. I am doubtful whether the government considers this an urgent matter," Moon said in a meeting with the cabinet on Tuesday.

The government compiled an extra budget of 11.7 trillion won ($9.9 billion) on Wednesday, which will be submitted to the National Assembly on Thursday. Part of the funds will be used to procure masks and other medical supplies.

Moon has also drawn flak for his decision not to prevent people traveling from China to South Korea. The government placed entry restrictions on people from Hubei Province in February, but it allowed people from other parts of China to enter after passing through quarantine at airports.

Sentiment toward China and Moon have both soured, particularly after China quarantined people from South Korea entering the country. Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha has complained to her Chinese counterpart, Wang Yi, but China's policy remains unchanged.

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