Hello lame duck
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in rarely changes his mind. But there is one magical phrase that has power over him: “In this way, we may not lengthen the governing power.” A former chief of staff to President Roh Moo-hyun, Moon remembers the end of the Roh line 14 years ago when a 10-year rule by the liberals was replaced by the conservatives.
Moon finally made an apology for the Korea Land and Housing Corp. (LH) scandal for “causing big distress and disappointment to the people.” The apology came two weeks after two progressive civic groups exposed LH employee’s purchase of land in the cities of Gwangmyeong and Siheung in Gyeonggi Province ahead of their winning of a New Town housing project. Moon has mentioned the affair publicly nine times, but did not apologize. He must have been advised that without his apology, the ruling Democratic Party (DP) may lose crucial by-elections for Seoul and Busan mayoral posts next month.
The LH scandal panned out quite differently from the controversy over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk. The liberal front went all-out to defend Cho and easily suppressed his opponents. If Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum went on a radio show hosted by leftist commentator Kim Ou-joon and complained how government employees engaged in speculative activities under past conservative administrations, Kim would have sympathized with the minister by floating a conspiracy theory. Outspoken pro-government commentator Rhyu Si-min also would have argued on his popular YouTube channel that it was better to see public employees make money out of property investment than seeing chaebol engage in real estate speculation.
Even the vanguards of the liberal front are keeping their mouths shut this time. Loyalists of Moon have stayed mum. Lame-duck signs loom. In the past, die-hard liberal supporters would have hit the streets carrying banners “I am Byeon Chang-heum!” or “We are LH!” to come to their defense. This time, it is different. The internet is awash with conservatives lambasting and ridiculing the government. It was saved by Covid-19, they say. Without it, people would have rallied for Moon’s impeachment through candlelight vigils.
The LH scandal is one of its hardest conundrums for the ruling front. It was first exposed by the People’s Solidarity for Participatory Democracy and the Lawyers for Democratic Society — core support groups for Moon. The government had been trying hard to crack down on real estate profiteering. “We will not lose the war with speculators”. “One thing I am most sure, is real estate.” “Under this government, there cannot be manic rent prices.” But all of Moon’s confident words fell away.
The Blue House and DP are agonizing over the real estate scandal with less than three weeks left before the April 7 mayoral by-elections. Polls show only the president is happy about the Gadeok Island airport project. The promise of massive housing supply also has been met with cynicism in Seoul. If Ahn Cheol-soo and Oh Se-hoon support a single mayoral candidate in Seoul, the conservatives outrun the DP’s leading rival by 10 percentage points.
Moon himself has been swept up in a controversy over his post-retirement retreat in Yangsan, South Gyeongsang. The ruling front came to his defense, claiming former President Lee Myung-bak’s post-retirement residence in Gangnam and Moon’s future home in Yangsan in a rural area are not the same.
Moon angrily responded that the accusations about his post-retirement plan was “ill-spirited and shameful.” But people are not comparing the Gangnam homes of former conservative presidents Lee and Park Geun-hye with Moon’s in scale and value. They are just unhappy to see the president comfortably retreat to a spacious rural home after a housing scandal. Moon should have said that if there was any inappropriateness in purchasing the land designated for farming, he would correct it.
Moon should learn some lessons from the late Swedish prime minister Tage Erlander, who was the longest-serving head of state from 1946 to 1969. Korea’s ambassador to Sweden recently looked back on his life on his social media page.
“Although being a former activist from the Swedish Social Democratic Party, he had led a dominant party through constant dialogue and compromise with the opposition and various sectors of the society. After 11 election wins throughout his 23 years in power, he stepped down in 1969 despite his party’s landslide victory with a voting rate of over 50 percent. He said a new figure was needed now. He had lived in a rented residence while keeping his prime ministerial office for work. As he did not have a place to live after retirement, people pitched in to build a cottage in his hometown.”
“His wife of 55 years, Aina, was equally modest. She kept her teaching job at a high school during her husband’s premiership. When her husband retired, she returned a handful of pens to the minister of secretariat affairs. The pens had the seal of the Swedish government. She said the pens had been used by her husband and belonged to the next government.”
Moon visited Sweden in June 2018. He would have heard the stories of the country’s most revered leader. We watched our former presidents head to the prison after retirement. Would it be too much to ask a graceful exit from one of our leaders?