The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
A president’s power is most mighty after inauguration. The fatigue of administering a country can be dissolved by the roar of approval from the public. Strength can lead to public adoration, which leads to even greater strength. But public sentiment gradually cools off. And then it sours. A lame-duck period eventually arrives. That’s an unavoidable cycle in Korea’s single, five-year presidency.
President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating has slipped below 30 percent with a year left in office. The Blue House set up a taskforce on youth affairs after losing the votes of the people in their 20s and 30s, once Moon’s biggest fans. They liked his slogans about fairness, justice and equality. Now they don’t believe them. Moon’s governing power has lost steam.
The Pfizer vaccination program has stopped due to the government’s failure to buy enough of the two-dose vaccines. Moon’s assurances and reassurances that enough vaccines had been bought turned out to be a bluff. Even the sycophants will keep a distance from him from now on. Sleepless nights await the president on his way to the exit.
How much favor he has lost with the public was underscored by the opposition of residents of Yangsan, a rural area in South Gyeongsang province, which resulted in the suspension of the construction of Moon’s post-retirement home on a spacious lot of farmland. The area has been festooned with banners demanding an end to construction that would “wreck” the community’s peaceful life. His aides claim Moon will be living there and won’t be selling the house for a profit and that he did not break any rules in the purchase of the farmland.
But the people cannot sympathize with the president’s’ purchase of farmland as big as a soccer field at a time when people can’t afford to buy homes due to spikes in real estate prices. And yet, Moon’s chief of staff and security chief advised him to purchase the farmland by insisting on his alleged 11 years of farming experience and later changed the land purpose to build a spacious residence for the retired president and security guards.
A retired president must return to ordinary life. A conflict is inevitable if an ex-president aspires to a life of influence and political relevance. Soon after former President Roh Moo-hyun retired to a spacious rural community in Bongha, South Gyeongsang, he received a parade of visitors every day. The prosecution’s raid and investigation of his family for bribery may not have been coincidental. Moon’s retirement retreat is even bigger than Roh’s residence. The construction plan was not wise.
A humble return to normal life could offer a psychological relief. Moon was twice indicted for protesting the military regime and sentenced to a jail term. When his background was questioned during a review for his application for a judge post after passing the bar exam, he kept to his convictions and lost the chance to build a judicial career in the government.
A big law firm offered a high-paying job, but Moon chose to become a human rights lawyer. “A virtuous human rights lawyer” was Moon’s biggest appeal and helped him become president. If he is really the same altruistic man, he had better return to his modest home in northern Seoul, where he lived until moving to the Blue House.
A desire to stay important could boomerang. Just because he has access to power and information, he should not think himself almighty and look down on the public. He must not follow in the footsteps of past presidents.
A 34-year old man has been recommended for prosecution for insulting the president. In a democracy, some hyperbole needs to be tolerated. When free expression is restricted, a community can break down. Moon has said the people have the freedom to criticize the president. That can be good if doing so can comfort the people and ease their anxieties, he explained. Has Moon changed after taking power?
What is more valuable than a president’s conviction is the people’s safety and interests. The comment Moon made ahead of his first summit with U.S. President Joe Biden on May 21 was worrisome. He criticized vaccine-producing countries for vaccine nationalism. But the White House soon announced it would give 60 million doses of AstraZeneca vaccines to countries in need. In a video address to the Boao Forum for Asia in China, Moon praised Beijing for its Covid-19 support and vaccine sharing. That won’t help Seoul ask for Washington’s help in bringing more vaccines to the country.
A leader should be able to accept the opinions of political opponents to unite the people. New Seoul Mayor Oh Se-hoon has decided to continue with the costly project of rebuilding Gwanghwamun Square. Oh said construction was 34 percent complete and 25 billion won ($22.3 million) was already spent. He vowed to see through the project. Oh sought cooperation with the ruling party-dominated city council by respecting the plans of the late mayor he succeeded. In his final year, Moon must become selfless and seek unity. He must seek the sense of the common, not his own.