Moon’s clock is ticking
The author is senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
President Moon Jae-in is stingy with apologies. In four years in office, he never made a decent apology. He may end up defaulting on his inauguration promise to “admit if I erred” or “not to attempt to cover up unfavorable public opinion through lies.”
Moon did say he “felt sorry” several times. If those were not strictly apologies, he made a gesture. He felt “sorry” for the scandal with the Korea Housing and Land Corp., the spikes in housing prices, and the fierce clash between Justice Minister Choo Mi-ae and Prosecutor General Yoon Seok-youl. During his New Year’s address, the president said he felt “very sorry” for people who were anguished by housing insecurity. In the press conference at the beginning of the year, he admitted the government had not succeeded in stabilizing the real estate market although it had endeavored to contain speculation.
But if the president was genuinely sorry, he would not have blamed the upturn in real estate prices on increased mobility and single-person households. By saying so, he contradicted himself. The average price of apartments in Seoul, which was around 500 million won ($444,444), jumped to 900 million won over the last four years. Many have become house-poor. No matter how much he refuses to admit it, housing instability has been the consequence of policy failures by his government. He should be promising to make amends and fix his policy instead of putting the blame on other factors.
Moon has avoided responsibility every time he faces a challenge. On the controversy over former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, he said he was “regretful” about causing conflict and division among the people. But during a New Year’s press conference last year, Moon said he felt “indebted” to Cho for the agonies he had suffered. He must have hypnotized himself and his people to believe they were all flawless and perfect.
The more he diverges from public sentiment, the more his approval ratings fall. A recent Gallup Korea poll showed his approval rating at 29 percent, below the psychologically-important 30 percent ceiling. Fissures have appeared in the dam. If they get wider, he won’t be able to govern as he hoped. If his approval rating continues falling below the ruling Democratic Party (DP)’s, which hovers around 30 percent, president aspirants will get nervous. When former liberal president Roh Moo-hyun’s rating plunged to the 10 percent range in his final year in office, Chung Dong-young, frontrunner in popularity polls among DP presidential hopefuls, accused Roh of carrying out “a variant of politics of terror based on self-righteousness and arrogance.” Moon, who was Roh’s chief of staff, had to watch Roh pushed out of the DP. That tragic history must not repeat itself.
Die-hard Roh fans were not enough to turn the tide. Moon’s loyalists likewise won’t be able to save him. He must turn his eyes away from the run-of-the-mill reports drawn up by his aides to face reality. The poll showed that Moon’s responses to real estate problems (28 percent) and Covid-19 (17 percent) as the biggest causes of his sagging approval rating. On the government’s real estate policy alone, the negative response reached 81 percent. In the age group between 18 and 29, in particular, only 4 percent found it “positive.” The president has failed in his prime duty to defend people’s lives and assets.
Climbing down can be more difficult than going up. But there is still a chance. He must first acknowledge the government’s failure to buy Covid-19 vaccines early enough and apologize. Americans and Europeans are going around without face masks and going to concerts or on trips. But Korea’s vaccine program is delayed due to a lack of vaccines. Strict mitigation rules primarily based on keeping social distances and refraining from gathering have been forced onto the people for over a year. Although public disgruntlement is at a boiling point, policymakers keep saying vaccine imports are progressing nicely. Wishful thinking and self-hypnosis cannot solve the problem. It only irks the public more.
Authorities must turn away from their wrong direction before it is too late. They must honestly admit to their policy mistakes and seek the public’s understanding through a genuine apology. They must acknowledge they misjudged the vaccine situation and that brought about a critical shortage. Covering up their past mistakes and hyping their achievements will only cause people to trust them less.
Moon will celebrate his fourth year in office on May 10. Instead of congratulating himself on his real estate policy or assuring the public that their lives will be normalized soon, he must be frank with them. In his inauguration address four years ago, he said he envisioned returning to his hometown someday as an ordinary citizen and mingle with his neighbors after retirement. But he does not have much time left.