Still a ‘model state’?
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Mainstream media in the United States suffer from a considerable reduction in subscriber numbers just like their Korean counterparts. The phenomenon can largely be attributed to remarkable changes in the media environment. But the descent in America owes much to the end of the “Trump effect.”
A dazzling repertoire of bluffs, threats and lies the eccentric president used against opponents provided endless fodder for interesting stories. After his never-ending provocation as the commander in chief disappeared, though, such enticing news vanished from the market.
That Trump is back. After he started inciting supporters and provoking haters with his signature election fraud theory since last November, media outlets hard-hit by decreased reader and viewer numbers may finally put a smile on their face.
President Moon Jae-in is often compared to Donald Trump, as he can masterfully polarize the people through ideology-based policies and appointments of government officials despite his pledge to become the president for all. But a major difference between the two is that President Moon has not been — and will not be — at the center of news.
At the peak of the Cho Kuk scandal in December 2018, Moon staged a rare mid-air press conference on a flight from Argentina to New Zealand after attending the G20 Summit in Buenos Aires. But he chose to baffle reporters aboard the Korean Air Force One. “I won’t take any questions about domestic affairs this time … I don’t know how you were given a chance to ask me such questions,” said Moon. He prioritized on-site visit over news conference to “more effectively communicate with the public.” If a head of state’s trips to sites really help deepen communication with the public, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un can easily earn the attractive title as the king of communication.
Moon’s nervousness about the press may have originated with the critical damage his former boss — President Roh Moo-hyun — suffered from his frequent slips of the tongue during media interviews in the mid-2000s. Or Moon could rather be a type who prefers not to speak himself. Keeping silent can help prevent public criticism on him. As a result, however, people get disoriented whenever there is stark discrepancy between statements from the government and the ruling party.
A case in point is the lead-up to fixing the amount of the latest disaster relief grants to the public. The fifth round of relief grants is the epitome of unfathomable calculation. In the beginning, the Democratic Party (DP) wanted to dole out the money to those in the lowest 80 percent income bracket. But the threshold suddenly went up to 88 percent without any explanation. In the face of strong complaints from those excluded, the figure again rose to 90 percent. With no transparent standards, a battle between 88 percent and 90 percent still goes on.
The biggest victims of the stringent social distancing rules enforced by the government are the self-employed, mom-and-pop store owners, small merchants and low-income earners. That is a direct result of the government’s overly relaxed approach to purchasing Covid-19 vaccines when other countries were rushing to buy enough of them — and an outcome of the administration’s blind faith in a regulation-based solution detached from reality. Will the coronavirus, for example, only attack private — not public — gatherings after sunset?
The yardstick for relief grants should be who really are the victims. But damage compensation stipulated in a supplementary budget for hard-hit small merchants is less than the 250,000 won ($210) relief checks for the lower 88 percent income bracket. What’s the standards here? Confusion is fueled by the government’s double standards of advising citizens not to go outside while handing out money to stimulate the economy.
The discrepancy largely stems from the amazing effect of the helicopter money the government confirmed last year after disbursing it to the entire population. (The DP won a landslide victory in the April 15 parliamentary elections.) With about six months left before the March 9 presidential election next year, the government will likely come up with another package of relief grants around Lunar New Year, which falls on February 1.
Self-employed business owners struggling to survive are asking what the government did for them except demanding self-sacrifice. The number of self-employed who committed suicide has topped 20 since the pandemic hit them hard. A self-proclaimed “president for ordinary citizens” must answer their outcry. Moon must explain why they should stake their lives even after his administration spent so much to help them stay afloat.
That is democracy, but such mind sets have vanished. Lawmakers of the DP gave 16 rounds of applause to their floor leader in the National Assembly when he praised the Moon administration for “outpacing Japan 75 years after our liberation from Japan,” referring to the so-called “K-quarantine,” a successful operation to rescue Afghans in Kabul and bring them to Korea, and a “victory in a trade war with Japan.” If DP lawmakers are that proud of what the government did, why do owners of mom-and-pop stores turn their back on them?
Moon extolled Korea as the “safest and most exemplary country in the world” amid the pandemic. A safe country is where no citizens would end their lives over livelihood woes. “Good politics is about allowing the people to live without worries,” said Emperor Kangxi (1654-1722) of Qing Dynasty.