A dangerous gamble
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The upcoming parliamentary election seems more like “the Moon Jae-in election.” The ruling Democratic Party (DP) is so focused on praising the president that its very existence is barely recognized by the public. Nearly 60 people who worked in the Blue House are running for seats in the National Assembly. You can hardly find any candidate without an affiliation to Moon. He seems to be running a one-man show.
Moon’s remarks are getting more attention than ever. During his annual New Year’s press conference last week with local and foreign reporters, Moon said, “I am immensely indebted to former Justice Minister Cho Kuk for the ordeal he suffered.” Two weeks later, a new top prosecutor argued that Cho should not be indicted. Every senior prosecutor who led a probe into potential abuse of power by the Blue House was replaced with pro-Moon prosecutors. This is worse than when Korea was under military dictatorship.
Moon’s statement that he would not wait for progress in denuclearization talks between North Korea and the United States also stirred controversy. When U.S. Ambassador to Seoul Harry Harris commented, one DP lawmaker likened the envoy to a governor during colonial days. Online, pro-Moon netizens showered indiscriminate attacks on Harris, saying his mustache resembled that of a Japanese policeman from the colonial era. The Blue House, government and DP all back Moon for whatever he says. Common sense and reasonable decisions are nowhere to be found.
Many former Blue House officials say that Moon’s secretaries walk on eggshells around the president more than in the Park Geun-hye administration and that the president only cares about the progressive Korean Confederation of Trade Unions (KCTU) and the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy (PSPD). As a result, the government continues to present leftist policies, they claim. Moon only takes care of his supporters.
In his 2011 autobiography “Destiny,” Moon wrote that after former President Roh Moo-hyun left the Blue House and prosecutors accused him of corruption, even liberal news media pounded on Roh just “like they were digging into his skin.” Moon — who served as Roh’s chief of staff — complained that it was difficult to stand the liberals’ attacks as he thought they were his allies. Moon must have grown traumatized watching the lead-up to the suicide of Roh after his terms were over.
Let’s imagine what would have happened if Moon had said he would change course in his signature income-led growth policy. In the summer of 2018, when Moon showed slight signs of a change in the policy, Roh Hoe-chan, chairman of the leftist Justice Party, raised his voice and slammed Moon for backpedaling on the policy. The KCTU and PSPD pressured the administration to reinforce the policy and devise a more aggressive fiscal policy. Moon immediately succumbed to the pressure. He said, “It takes time for the income-led growth policy to show effects […] Our economy is moving in the right direction.” It was wishful thinking to believe Moon might change his policy or cooperate with opposition parties.
Former Blue House officials also mention Moon’s vague fear of failing to reinvent the administration. As a key aide to Roh, Moon clearly saw what tragic results a defeat to conservatives in a legislative or presidential election can bring about. That’s why he’s been hell-bent on changing election laws and undermining prosecutors’ investigation into his office and cronies. He fears the ruling DP may not win enough seats in the April 15 election.
Moon sidelined all senior prosecutors close to Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl under the disguise of “prosecutorial reforms” after they doggedly investigated former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and his allies in the Blue House for alleged abuse of power. Despite the “massacre” of top prosecutors, Moon did not feel any shame for his quixotic act.
Moon is determined to win the April general election. But opposition parties are still struggling to find their positions.
The DP appears to be hoping for deeper divisions in the opposition camp and an inter-Korean event to show off the change it made with North Korea to voters. But the April election will likely be a one-on-one match between the DP and a merged party between the main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) and the New Conservative Party, which was separated from the LKP over their differences on the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye in 2017. Moon’s bet on winning the election based on votes from liberals and supporters in South and North Jeolla will be met with a stronger alliance of the conservatives than before.
A look at recent polls shows Moon’s gamble may work in the election. But a dark shadow lingers. Cho’s arraignment, which was leaked to the press on Monday, showed that several Blue House officials lobbied on behalf of former Busan Vice Mayor Yoo Jae-soo to save him from being indicted. Four years ago during the Park administration, pro-Park figures also divided political circles into those loyal to Park and those betraying her. LKP lawmakers claimed that her loyalists were the only “truthful” people. What were the consequences? Her party lost the general election, and she was impeached by the Constitutional Court. In three months, the elections will tell the fate of the Moon administration and opposition parties.
JoongAng Ilbo, Jan. 22, Page 31