Embracing unityPresident Moon Jae-in has not been a typical politician. Even after narrowly losing the 2012 presidential election with 13.69 million votes, he did not comfortably call himself a politician. In his memoir “Dec. 19 Is Not the End” released the year following his election defeat, he introduced himself as a law practitioner, civilian rights activist, and finally a politician.
He was campaign chief for his friend Roh Moo-hyun while he was running for president in 2002 on the condition that he would not join the party. The people who had helped remove the president through the massive candlelight vigil movement chose him because they believed he had run on selfless intentions, not on greed for power.
Moon pays for his family meals and daily groceries like toothpaste out of his own pocket in the Blue House. He vowed to save 42 percent, or 5.3 billion won ($4.7 million) out of the 12.6 billion won left in the balance for “special” activities of the presidential office for this year, to add to fiscal spending to make jobs for young people. His treasurer claims the president lives as a tenant — not an owner of the Blue House.
Moon merely moved out of his rented 84-square-meter humble home in Hongeun-dong in northern Seoul to the presidential residence. He was as modest of his hard-won title as Pope Francis who chose to live in the Vatican guest house instead of the grandiose papal residence in the Apostolic Palace.
The unconventionally homely and good character has made him the most popular president in Korea to date. But public approval does not make his work any easier. He set strict five guidelines on appointments of senior public posts. During the campaign, he vowed not to seat people with records of draft and tax evasion, real estate speculation, faking addresses or plagiarism — common among Korean elites — in high public positions. But finding people without any one of the faults has not been easy.
It is not because Moon is overly strict. It is because the society has long condoned the irregularities and unethical practices of the elites. Moon needs to compromise with himself by becoming more realistic without undermining his commitment to justice and conviction. Moon himself had a solution. In his book in 2013 ruminating on the reasons behind his defeat in the presidential election, he confessed that he had been a fundamentalist and wanted flexibility from the obsession with conviction and innocence from his days as a democracy movement activist fighting against the authoritarian regime.
“Our big weakness was a lack of debates on economic growth and security. People have seen through our weakness. We must formulate a better strategy on economic growth than the conservative camp to manage state affairs … We must broaden our perspective without impairing our identity … We should free ourselves from fundamentalism to broaden our sphere … We must become more flexible, more competent, and more capable liberals. We could become more expansive liberals if we embrace good values and policies of the conservative camp,” he wrote.
His book underscored his resolve to reinvent himself. He would not have hit the bottleneck in his appointments of senior public officials if his human resource pool went beyond the liberal camp. He also must become more realistic and flexible in policymaking. The promise to lift the minimum wage stemmed from his good intention of improving lives for low-income individuals. But reality betrays idealism. Convenience store owners say they will opt not to use part-time work if the legal hourly pay goes up to 10,000 won from current 6,470 won.
Moon was elected by people enraged by the impeached President Park Geun-hye who personalized presidential power by sharing it with her inner circle. But the legislative conditions are no different from the pre-impeachment days. The Liberty Korea Party, which has become the main opposition with its 107 seats out of the 300-member legislature, has disgraced the conservative name because it had pardoned the members loyal to the impeached president and remains unchanged.
But a war-divided nation is innately conservative. Although the climate is currently favorable for the liberals, the wind can change immediately if Moon slips.
Moon can see through what he had wished to do as president only when he turns into a thorough realist and shuts out those flattering him. He must be able to recruit people if they are capable regardless of his approval. He recalled that it had been a bold thought of Roh who considered naming Park Geun-hye of the opposition camp as his first unification minister as a show of bipartisanship to improve inter-Korean relations. Moon also had been impressed by Beijing’s top policy-making National People’s Congress accepting capitalists as its members in order to engage free market principles.
If he still hold those thoughts he had during his days of self-reflection, Moon must become bolder and practical in appointments and policies to engage the opposition in his government.
There is a way out of the conundrum Moon is in over appointments. He must divorce himself from uncompromising and self-absorbed fundamentalism as he had promised to himself. He will be sprinting down a one-way street if he pursues goodwill and justice without seeking unity.
JoongAng Ilbo, June 9, Page 35
*The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.