No hope for change
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The ruling Democratic Party’s crushing defeats in the April 7 mayoral by-elections are a clear demand by voters that the Moon Jae-in administration change its direction of governance. But given the attitude of the Blue House and Democratic Party (DP) since the defeats, that cannot be expected. The slogan of “orderly innovation” means that nothing will change.
Moon and his Blue House staff are a strange tribe. Old acquaintances refused my phone calls once they entered the Blue House. When I finally get through to them, they bluntly ask why I am calling. They do not hide their hostility as they don’t read our newspaper anyway.
I first thought they might be worried about recording over the phone or wiretapping. But the Blue House is more skilled in invading other people’s phones. Upon allegations of wrongdoings by security officers, the Blue House looked into the phones of over 150 officers. It is no wonder Blue House staff take extra care using their phones.
Watchfulness does not seem to be a habit on the individual level. Shin Hyun-soo retained the title of senior secretary for civil affairs for just a month before resigning after finding “little space” for him in the Blue House. The state affairs monitoring office and the senior secretariat office for civil and social affairs are said to be the hidden power at the Blue House. The office of state affairs monitoring is understandable as it regularly reports to the president. But why the office of civil and social affairs? New projects or ideas for policies get scrapped if the office cites potential opposition from labor unions or progressive civic groups or other groups that support the president. It more or less speaks for the leftist front.
The Blue House’s stubbornness is partly influenced by Moon’s personal experience. Moon served as the late President Roh Moo-hyun’s chief of staff during his final year in the Blue House. Roh was shunned by supporters for his policies of seeking a free trade agreement with the United States, building a naval base on Jeju Island and sending troops to Iraq to back U.S. operations. Having endured the painful lame-duck period with Roh, Moon would not want to fall out with the liberal front.
Moon vowed more humbleness in governance after his by-elections defeat. But he also promised to carry out efforts to meet public demands “without any wavering.” Lee Hae-chan, former DP chairman, said that a loss of the Seoul mayoral post does not weaken the party’s prospects in the next presidential election. “We just have to take the longer way,” he said, pointing out that there is no promising presidential candidate from the opposition. Moon’s aides also think that they did not heed public opinion enough, although they believe the government is going in the right direction in policymaking.
The more pressure from outside, the more tight the Moon camp gets. When first-time lawmakers of the DP issued a self-critical statement to call for changes in some policies, they came under heavy attack and were told to leave the party.
Apartment prices in Seoul have surged more than 80 percent over the last five years. The rage over the Korea Housing and Land scandal does not just stem from corruption, but from the failures in real estate policy. Despite a promise to be a government creating jobs, full-time workers were reduced by 1.95 million during Moon’s term. The irregular work force grew by a record 870,000 in 2019 alone in spite of the president’s vow to add “zero” contract workers. If the government goes on with its damaging policies despite the data that shows their failures, it will entirely lose public confidence. Voters are more sensitive to the government’s approaches to dealing with issues than the issues themselves.
A fall is inevitable if a political leader sticks stubbornly to policies that don’t work. Moon Jae-in’s office is looking like the Blue House under President Park Geun-hye around the time of her impeachment five years ago. The ruling conservative party acted against voters’ wishes even after losing big in the April 13, 2016 parliamentary elections. Although the nomination for pro-Park forces and purge of their opponents had been the main reason for the election defeat, pro-Park Rep. Lee Jung-hyun became head of the party. There is a sinking feeling that the five-year curse may repeat itself. According to “Parallel Lives,” a book on ancient Greek and Roman leaders by Plutarch, a leader who only seeks to please the people falls with them and the one who goes against them becomes fallen by them.