Seoul City Mayor Park Won-soon's latest response to Middle East respiratory syndrome appears to have given him an opportunity to demonstrate his capacity as a competent administrator and a potential alternative to the incumbent presidency that has struggled to control public fears over the MERS outbreak.
Park on Tuesday met Rep. Moon Jae-in, the leader of main opposition New Politics Alliance for Democracy, and vowed to consolidate efforts to address the outbreak that left seven people dead, close to 100 infected and 2,892 under quarantine as of Tuesday afternoon.
The meeting came as part of the mayor's efforts to take the lead in combating MERS. He has taken independent steps to prevent the disease and criticised the government's mishandling, a move widely applauded by the public.
His move could help prove his leadership and demonstrate his capacity for the next presidency, observers said. "It is hard to deny that he would emerge as a strong presidential hopeful," said Yoon Pyung-joong, a political professor at Hanshin University.
"The Seoul mayor is often considered to be on the road to the presidency. After all, the government changed its stance due to his remarks. He made a necessary call while the whole nation, even the government, was plunging into panic amid the MERS crisis," Yoon said.
Park held a press conference on June 4 to criticise the government for withholding information on MERS. He accused the Ministry of Health and Welfare of letting a confirmed MERS patient go to a public gathering where 1,565 residents attended, putting the public in danger of contracting the disease.
President Park Geun-hye blasted the mayor's decision, claiming it further confused the public amid the outbreak. She urged the local municipalities, including Seoul, to communicate with the central government during the crisis.
But the mayor fired back, saying that the municipalities' "overreaction" was better than the government's "belated response." He asserted that there is no place for debate in the face of the people's call for public safety.
Experts said the mayor's decision has weight as he was exercising his right as mayor. "As an elected mayor, he is entitled to take matters into his own hands to ensure public safety," said Kim Wook, a political professor at Baejae University.
Other experts gave him credit for successfully positioning himself against the incumbent administration, but added that would not be enough. "Contrary to the president, the mayor's response was decisive and swift," said Choi Jin, the chairman of the Institute of Presidential Leadership.
"(The mayor) could score quick political points through this kind of move. But he should continue on by showing the public his own policy. Simply going against the president will not help him in the long run," said Choi.