Passion and practice

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Passion and practice


Lee Hyun-sang
The author is an editorial writer for the JoongAng Ilbo.

There is a wise saying in the board game of Go: examine yourself before attacking your opponent. President Moon Jae-in holds a 4-dan level amateur rank in the game. When he pulled aside Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe for an impromptu chat on the sidelines of a regional summit on Monday in Thailand, he may have been reminded of the adage.

Moon’s hard-line decision to walk out of the General Security of Military Information Agreement (Gsomia) with Japan to protest its economic retaliations has backfired. Moon wanted to stand tough against the bullying ways of Tokyo, but neglected the sad reality of the country: it relies on a tripartite alliance with the United States and Japan against North Korean and other regional threats. Kim Hyun-chong, second deputy chief of the National Security Office, proclaimed the country wouldn’t ask for Washington’s intervention in its standoff with Tokyo. But it was uncomfortable to see the Blue House suddenly hyping an “amicable” mood between the two leaders when Tokyo refused to attach any meaning to the brief tête-à-tête.

After the debacle over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, the president appears to be trying to come to terms with reality. His sudden idea of reinforcing the weight of standardized tests for college admissions came up at a time he was coming down to earth. “I know state exams cannot be the answer. But there is a need to pay heed to the opinion that exam-based admissions can be fairer than other forms,” he said in a meeting with the Blue House press corps. “Looking back, everyone talks of fairness. But they have differed in their commitment to the concept.”

Moon was so eager in the first half of his five-year presidential term. He unwaveringly pushed ahead with his campaign promises to eliminate “past ills,” implement so-called “income-led” growth, and build a society more appreciative of its senior population. He talked about fairness, equality, justice and peace. His zeal to create a “society we have never experienced” in just two years has caused havoc in all corners of our society. The social divide deepened. Self-employed businesses collapsed, taking with them jobs and deflating business sentiment. Relations with our neighbors are in wreck. Ideals may have been high but so were Moon’s feet — which should have been on the ground. As an ancient Chinese sage said, governing state affairs should be as careful as flipping a fish in a pan. Moon’s government has ruined a lot of fish.

On the economy, the government only learned of the full effects of its policies after the data hit bottom. The president who was once cold to the family-run conglomerates or chaebol is now frequently dropping by Samsung and Hyundai Motor to encourage their efforts. He presided over an economy-related meeting and even ordered economic stimuli led by construction.


Presidential Secretary for Political Affairs Kang Ki-jung, center, yells at an opposition lawmaker during an interpellation session on Sunday after the legislator lambasted National Security Director Chung Eui-yong, right, for his answer to her question on South Korea’s preparedness for North Korean missile attacks. [JTBC]

Unlike their leader, who has turned more realistic, Moon’s aides remain stubbornly uncompromising. The senior presidential secretary for political affairs recently yelled at the floor leader of the main opposition party during an interpellation session. The senior secretary for economic affairs argued back to an opposition lawmaker who used to be his senior at the finance ministry, claiming that economic growth was equally poor when he was in charge of policymaking. The national security director is defensive about North Korea’s military provocations, arguing they are part of its eagerness for peace. The latter half of Moon’s term will pass faster. The political landscape will be entirely engrossed with the April 15 general election and then the presidential election in December 2021. A single five-year presidential term does not allow the luxury of economic experiments.

The president actually faces a strong challenge from his die-hard supporters. They are a loyal group who criticized the ruling party head’s vague apology for the controversy over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk as “submission.” They could lash out if the president betrays them. His strongest cheerleaders could become his strongest critics. A poet once wrote, “I saw a flower while descending, which I did not notice while ascending.” If the president fails to solve these challenges, he could miss the flower even while coming down.

JoongAng Ilbo, Nov. 8, Page 34
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