Moon versus Merkel
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Leadership around the world has been tested in the battle against the coronavirus. Former Japanese Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, wearing a tiny mask, drew scorn for his wavering policy. Taiwanese President Tsai Ing-wen enjoys public support of more than 60 percent thanks to her successful mitigation policy. Few European leaders stood out. As containment rarely lasted, their economies have been wrecked. Germany reports daily cases of around 20,000 with a cumulative tally exceeding 2.2 million. Its economy posted negative growth of 6 percent last year. Still, German Chancellor Angela Merkel has the support of 70 percent of her people.
In South Korea, 141 out of 100,000 on average became infected with the coronavirus. That ratio is the third smallest after New Zealand and Australia among 37 members of the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD). Korea managed to finish last year with negative GDP growth of 1 percent, the best among OECD economies. Nevertheless, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating has sunk into the 40 percent range. The difference comes from how honestly leaders communicated with their people.
In a public address last March when the Covid-19 pandemic was picking up, Merkel said that Germany faced its biggest postwar crisis. She warned that 60 to 70 percent of the population could catch the virus in the worst case. The chancellor called for public cooperation because no one knew when Covid-19 vaccines or cures would be developed. Stressing that curbing the spread was the sole option, she candidly admitted how difficult it is for ordinary people to be stopped from moving around in a democratic country. Having grown up in East Germany before unification, she sounded genuinely apologetic.
In May, President Moon delivered a public address marking his third year in office. He was jubilant as if he had won the battle against the pandemic, lauding South Korea for “becoming a role model in fighting the virus,” adding, “Korea’s dignity and pride have never been so high. I am so proud of our people.”
The German leader spoke candidly and directly about the state of the pandemic. She admitted that curbing the virus depended more on the public’s cooperation rather than the state’s role. The Mainichi Shimbun of Japan observed with envy that Merkel communicated with her people using accurate information. Since she took no undue credit, her words earned the trust of the public. Instead of being guided by political interests, she sincerely worried about public wellbeing. Her compassionate yet decisive leadership shone brighter during a crisis.
Moon’s rhetoric is flowery and ambiguous, an old-school style. People today can judge his administration more accurately with the help of IT and internet connectivity. The government can hardly fool the public through propaganda-like rhetoric. The old ways are a bit dusty but not so bad when things are going well, but can be a problem during hard times. The president has never addressed in a straightforward way public anxieties and distrust. He has given the impression of politicizing everything he speaks of — even the virus crisis.
What touches the public more? Merkel’s frank admission of a government lacking certain powers and thanking the people for understanding and cooperating, or Moon’s way of applauding his own government’s role and condescendingly thanking the public for support they may not have even offered.
While pitching a colossal budget for 2021 in December to fight Covid-19, Merkel said the national debt would grow as a result of the battle against the virus. Since such heavy fiscal spending cannot continue, the government would have to start paying off debt from 2023, she said, warning of challenges in budgeting in the years to come.
In a similar plea for budgetary approval in October, Moon appeared at the National Assembly and vowed to make “painstaking efforts on cost-cutting” to uphold fiscal integrity.
Merkel explained in detail how Covid-19 was wrecking public finances. Since it is an emergency, spending is inevitable. But the government and the public would eventually have to tighten their belts to pay off the debt. Austerity would have to start no later than 2023, she warned. The details she offered added credibility to her pitch. No doubt Korea faces a tough challenge in its public finances. And yet, out of his 1,1000-word speech to the legislature, Moon mentioned the government’s “painstaking cost-cutting efforts” only once.
In her New Year’s address, Merkel said the past year had been the toughest in her over 15 years in power. She underscored that Germany was fighting and surviving the pandemic crisis through the cooperation of many people but challenges would continue. “We cannot know when the brutal winter will end, but we enter the new year with hopes,” she said. In his New Year’s speech, Moon was still sanguine and self-indulgent. “We have become a model country in virus mitigation. We are finally seeing the end of the tunnel. Last year was a year when South Korea was rediscovered as a strong nation in the face of crisis.”
Merkel devoted her New Year’s address to the battle against Covid-19. After she placed public health and wellbeing as the top priority in her last year in office before she resigns in September, her determination was augmented. The New York Times thought such precision and honesty have made her so popular over the long years. But Moon’s rhetoric is easily forgotten because it lacks sincerity except for self-praise. That can explain the 30-percentage point gap in the approval ratings of the two leaders.