Prove it, Mr. PresidentPresident Moon Jae-in directed his staff and the government to uphold “political neutrality” during a secretariat meeting earlier this week upon the start of the primary race for the presidential candidacy at the ruling party. The comment was timely as presidential aspirants from rival parities have been declaring their bids and gearing up for campaigning for the presidential election next March.
Actions must follow, but whether they will be raises questions, given the track record of his staff on political neutrality. Lee Jin-seok, presidential secretary for state affairs monitoring, who was present at the secretariat meeting, was indicted in April for suspected meddling in the Ulsan mayoral election. Lee was accused of helping Moon’s longtime friend Song Cheol-ho beat a sitting conservative mayor in an election held in June 2018. Moon had promised Hong Joon-pyo, then head of the main opposition party, to keep his neutrality. Even as that promise was broken, Lee remained on his staff. When he was the chief of the opposition party, Moon had mandated a reform outline in 2015, vowing to strip titles in the party from anyone who was indicted for corruption. But he retains staff indicted for breaking the election law.
The handling of Lee Kwang-cheol, secretary of civil affairs, also was suspicious. Lee was indicted for his role in arranging an illegal travel ban on former vice justice minister Kim Hak-eui in 2019. His offer of resignation upon indictment was accepted the following day. Lee had stayed in the office even when he was a suspect. The Blue House explained that he was retained because the job was too important to be left empty. But the presidential office kicked out Kim Gi-pyo, secretary for anticorruption, as soon as controversy arose about his real estate riches. Lee was also indicted without physical detention in the case of the Ulsan mayoral election. The prosecution found him “strongly suspicious of having been involved in the crime.” Why does the Blue House hold onto such suspicious staff?
The cabinet also has been questioned for neutrality. The government has never been so openly biased toward the ruling party. The cabinet is headed by a prime minister who has been a party heavyweight and includes justice minister Park Beomkye. Park’s planned sweeping reshuffle of mid-level prosecutors has been raising concern. Park said he was considering assigning the investigation of corruption allegations for a potential presidential candidate from the opposition camp and his family to the Seoul Central District Prosecutors’ Office. Brenda Hale, chief justice of the UK Supreme Court said a ruling must be fair and appear fair to the people. Neutrality is the same. For now, it looks doubtful.