Resolute no more
The author is the chief editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.
“I am an expert in turning crisis into opportunity,” Gyeonggi Governor and presidential candidate for the ruling Democratic Party (DP) Lee Jae-myung often boasted. When the government announced a policy to cut a subsidy to Seongnam City, home to rich neighborhoods, in 2016, Lee, who was the mayor of the city at the time, camped out in Gwanghwamun Square in central Seoul and staged a hunger strike. During the early outbreak of Covid-19, he led an army of police and firefighters to break into the headquarters of Shincheonji Church in Gwacheon, Gyeonggi, when the religious group’s gathering became an epicenter of the virus.
Despite controversy, that radical move was supported by many. Lee argued that “the golden time to stop the spread of the virus must not be missed even if it requires a strong military-like quarantine action.” Sensitivity to follow public sentiment and decisive action became his hallmarks. The belief that he could be relied on as a leader who would protect civilian life and property at times of crisis has made him the ruling party’s presidential candidate regardless of his lack of lawmaking experience.
But Lee’s strengths have been conspicuously absent in his response to the scandal over the Daejang-dong land development. Instead of watching him plow through the stumbling block, the public is frustrated at seeing him stumble around cluelessly.
The land development scandal looks complex, but its essence is simple. The city government seized land owned by residents at cheap prices for the cause of public development, but the city changed the project into a joint public-private development to charge higher prices for the new apartments compared to other neighborhoods in the area. Eventually, huge profits were made by a few private developers. But on top of that, they took hefty gains after property prices jumped due to the Moon Jae-in government’s real estate policy failures.
Jackpots were enjoyed by acquaintances of Lee. Thousands of dollars in investments harvested millions of dollars in profits, all thanks to the self-declared “architect” and supervisor of the development, who was Lee, who championed his political slogan of cleanness and transparency.
Based on his past behavior, Lee should have held a press conference and presented all the documents and financial accounts to prove his innocence. He should have gladly accepted an investigation by an independent counsel before the public started to demand it. (In a recent poll, 73 percent showed approval for the appointment of a special prosecutor). That would have been more like Lee.
Yet Lee has been acting very unlike himself. He claims the city administration could reap only 550.3 billion won ($467.3 million) because the opposition People Power Party (PPP) got in the way. Lee blamed the opposition for ruining his campaign of retrieving “70 percent from the thieves.” He accused the PPP of “making up stories and slander to hide the truth.”
Even if there is some truth in his claims, his comments are out of sync with public sentiment as enormous wealth went to a precious few when people were pushed out of their homes due to spikes in apartment and rent prices. Lee’s crusade to wage “the last battle with corruptive forces” in the upcoming presidential election is not reverberating. The approval ratings of Lee and his party have been skidding.
The presidential race is turning into a sensational soap opera. Rival camps talk of prison and gangsters. A presidential campaign trail has never been so muddy. Discussions of policy and debates on the national future have been missing, swallowed whole by the Daejang-dong black hole. It is a national tragedy and disgrace to voters’ rights and dignity. To properly carry out a presidential election, all the clouds should be cleared. The key lies with Lee. He must propose a special investigation to reduce the political risk from the scandal and get to the truth. Given the short period of time left until the March election, rival parties can shorten the investigation process if a special prosecutor is appointed. Given Lee’s usual style of resolve, such a breakthrough is not an impossibility.
The ruling party in 1987 prevented national chaos by accepting the call for a direct presidential system. President Chun Doo Hwan agreed to the idea at the request of ruling party candidate Roh Tae-woo. The sudden proposal from Roh, who had a military background, changed the perception of the military regime amid the democratization movement and rallies. The move drew praise from rival candidates Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung, and turned the tide for Roh, who ended up winning the country’s first direct presidential election.
Roh admitted having been scared of facing the first direct vote at a time when negative sentiment toward the military was at a peak. Nevertheless, he decided to push it as he worried about the devastating impact on the economy if another election had to be held later. The Daejang-dong scandal will persist if an election is carried out without clearing all suspicions behind the lucrative development. Gov. Lee and the DP must seriously deliberate on what is at stake.