[Viewpoint] The chameleon manMoon Jae-in is mean. He is mean in the debates about the Korea-U.S. free trade agreement and the plan to build a naval base in Jeju. They are both ambitious projects of the late former President Roh Moo-hyun. Moon, however, is neglectful of protecting Roh’s legacy. Moon says his position on those issues is the same as his party’s position.
The Democratic United Party continues to change its positions. Its FTA strategy flip-flopped. The leadership rushed to the U.S. Embassy in central Seoul to demand that it be scrapped. After media criticism, it changed its demand to a complete renegotiation of the deal.
Negotiations with Washington for the free trade agreement began with Roh’s spirit of challenge and his determination to resolve the uncertainties of our future. It eventually became a joint venture between Roh and President Lee Myung-bak. The initial agreement concluded under the Roh administration was nearly preserved, and the Lee administration made a few concessions in the auto industry. Hyundai and Kia motors still showed confidence in the deal being good for Korea, despite those concessions.
Roh appeared to have predicted a tough road for the FTA. The winds meant to test it blew from the liberal side. When he was alive, Roh prepared for their hypocrisy and cynicism. He didn’t hesitate to show his contempt. He once said, “None of the liberals’ arguments against opening up the country was ever proven true.”
Roh also said, “I ask the liberals who participate in politics to not be obsessed with dogmatic ideologies and to stop singing old anthems. They may be able to instigate a few who are feeling aggrieved and harbor complaints, but that is not a responsible answer.”
Instigation, dogmatic ideologies and old anthems are provocative expressions. Such words are used to condemn the liberals. Roh’s was not a passive defense. Roh’s language was an offensive challenge. The opposition party, however, does not remember Roh’s honest challenge to the liberals’ views.
Moon Jae-in was supposed to be different because he had a deep relationship with Roh. Expectations were high that he would miraculously salvage Roh’s legacy. But Moon is passive. He appears to just blow where the wind propels him.
Roh has become a political crutch. Opposition candidates use his name in their campaigns, promoting their ties with the late president. They vow to uphold Roh’s values. The FTA was something Roh believed in. But as liberals invoke his name, they attack what he stood for. At the center of the double-faced reality stands DUP Chairwoman Han Myeong-sook and other liberal leaders like Lee Hae-chan, Chung Dong-young and Rhyu Si-min.
Roh’s legacy is now situated in a political landscape of caprice and betrayal. The opposition party has no intention of changing because all it cares about is an election strategy. The priority is forming a grand liberal alliance. The DUP wants to join hands with the Unified Progressive Party, leftist civic groups and other progressives. The glue for this alliance is anti-American sentiment. And the FTA with the United States has become the main whipping post.
Roh’s legacy is not a priority anymore, and the DUP leadership has no sympathy for it. The protest against the naval base construction in Jeju follows the same logic. A military base is a familiar target for an anti-U.S. protest. The base plan also began during the Roh administration. “Without arming our military, peace is not sustainable. To defend Jeju Island and sea routes, we need to upgrade our naval power,” Kim Jang-soo, then defense minister, quoted Roh as saying. At the time, Moon Jae-in was the chief of staff of Roh Blue House.
Moon is from the Geoje Island. His parents came to the South when the allied forces retreated from Heungnam, South Hamgyong Province. The winter was bitter in December 1950, and the U.S. troops were surrounded by Chinese forces. They had to retreat to the port of Heungnam. The Americans did not ignore the refugees. They allowed 100,000 civilians to board the military landing ship, tanks and other vessels. It was the largest evacuation of civilians during the war. It was a miraculous event. The ship Moon’s parents boarded went to Geoje Island.
Moon’s father was a civil servant. In his book, Moon recalled that his father was forced to join the Communist Party but resisted. When UN forces occupied the city briefly, he served as manager of the agricultural department of the Heungnam city government.
What would have happened if his family couldn’t board the U.S. military vessel? The answer is easy to guess. Moon’s father would have been purged. His father is a first generation defector from the North. And it is interesting to see how such a life influenced Moon’s perceptions toward the United States and North Korea.
Moon succeeded in the politics of image-making. The image of a former member of an airborne troop, a fit body, a protester of Park Chung Hee’s dictatorship and a successful candidate of the bar exam gives a feeling of solidness. In reality, Moon’s true character is nowhere to be seen. Before the tearing down of Roh’s legacy, he hesitates to act. That is enough to stir suspicions that he may be a calculating, unfaithful man.
Moon the politician likes the short-sentence politics as ushered in by Twitter. But who Moon really is remains unclear. He only shows his emotional side. His stances on North Korea, anti-U.S. sentiment, the FTA, opening up the economy and building a naval base in Jeju have not yet been stated clearly. He is a man of few words. But unnecessary taciturnity can lead to doubt that he stands for nothing at all.
by Park Bo-gyoon
* The author is a senior columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.