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South Korea Holds Parliamentary Elections During Pandemic


Polls in South Korea have closed in elections that are widely seen as the public's report card for President Moon Jae-in and his administration's handling of the COVID-19 epidemic. New case numbers there have dropped sharply, giving Moon a political boost. NPR's Anthony Kuhn reports from Seoul.

ANTHONY KUHN, BYLINE: Voting for lawmakers in the country's 300-member National Assembly happens every four years, and voter turnout and enthusiasm are usually pretty lukewarm. Today appears to be different, though, and early turnout was strong.

KUHN: Kang Hye-soo (ph), who describes herself as a progressive and currently looking for a job, gives the Moon administration high marks for its handling of the epidemic.

KANG HYE-SOO: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The government has allowed people to continue some of their activities," she says, "and it's put some people in self-quarantine in a way that did not feel coercive. And compared to other countries, we have a medical system that provides better treatment to confirmed patients."

Finance worker Oh Seung-yeol (ph) gives the government credit, although, he says, it's not enough to keep him from voting for the opposition conservative United Future Party.

OH SEUNG-YEOL: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "The government's doing well in controlling the disease," he says. "They're sharing the plain facts and haven't lied to the public, which is a relief. For us citizens, complying with the government's measures is the best way to cope with the crisis."

Before the epidemic hit, President Moon's ratings had been on a long downward slide. His efforts to jumpstart economic growth faltered, attempts to broker a solution to the North Korean nuclear crisis deadlocked, and his pick for a justice minister resigned amid corruption allegations. But Lee Eun-young, director of the Seoul-based Korea Public Opinion Lab, says that at this point, Moon's previous policy successes and failures seem beside the point.

LEE EUN-YOUNG: (Speaking Korean).

KUHN: "People are exhausted from prolonged social isolation and disruptions to their everyday lives," she says. "It's not that there's a hierarchy of issues in the election. Indeed, the significance of the election itself pales in comparison to the epidemic."

Nor has President Moon offered stirring words or particularly charismatic leadership, says Yonsei University professor John Delury.

JOHN DELURY: It's a sort of leadership of expertise and competence and making sure the right people are in charge, keeping the politics at bay.

KUHN: It also helps, he says, that experts praised South Korea as one country that has tackled the epidemic the right way and that world leaders, including President Trump, have sought his help.

DELURY: I think South Koreans are aware of how their country's being perceived. And I think that the message has gotten through back home that the world is looking to South Korea as a model.

KUHN: Moon's approval ratings, according to one poll, now stand at a 17-month high. His ruling Democratic Party is pushing to secure a majority in the legislature and to lay the groundwork for victory in presidential elections in 2022.

Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, Seoul.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC) Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Anthony Kuhn is NPR's correspondent based in Seoul, South Korea, reporting on the Korean Peninsula, Japan, and the great diversity of Asia's countries and cultures. Before moving to Seoul in 2018, he traveled to the region to cover major stories including the North Korean nuclear crisis and the Fukushima earthquake and nuclear disaster.