A peripatetic president
The author is a columnist of the JoongAng Ilbo.
Despite the spread of Covid-19, President Moon Jae-in and his wife embarked on an eight-day, three-nation Middle East tour on Jan. 15. They are visiting the United Arab Emirates (UAE), Saudi Arabia and Egypt. The Blue House said Korea will sign a $3.5 billion deal to export Cheongung-II missiles to the UAE. But I wonder if the contract requires the president’s signature to take effect. Domestic and overseas situations are also volatile.
The pandemic is still serious. We must not let our guard down just because the number of daily cases went down from 7,000 to 4,000. The Korea Disease Control and Prevention Agency (KDCA) predicts that more than 10,000 new cases will be reported daily at the end of next month if the Omicron variant became dominant — and even if rigid social distancing measures are maintained. If the measures are eased to assist businesses, the country is expected to see 30,000 daily cases and 1,800 critical patients a day. Anything can happen if public sentiment is worsened further.
The security crisis is also growing. On Jan. 17, during Moon’s Middle East trip, North Korea conducted its fourth missile test this year. On Dec. 5 and 11, it fired hypersonic missiles capable of maneuvering in the atmosphere while flying at a high speed. They can easily penetrate the missile defense system of South Korea and the United States. That means the Korea Air and Missile Defense (KAMD) and Kill Chain systems — which cost a whopping 17 trillion won ($14.3 billion) to build — won’t be able to intercept the advanced missiles.
Despite the severity of the situation, Moon ordered his chief of the National Security Office to stay in the country, observe North Korea closely and deal with the situation by cooperating with related ministries. Does he really think it’s okay for him — a head of state and commander in chief — to leave the country amid a pandemic and a growing North Korea threat?
Of course, Moon can carry on with trips overseas if they are crucial. But let’s look at his destinations. The Blue House cited the need for the president to seek cooperation in the hydrogen economy and defense industry and secure a future growth engine for the country. But could it really justify the trip he took in the face of security challenges at home?
Even if the trip is a diplomatic event arranged earlier, Moon’s trips are deplorable. After the breakout of the pandemic in Korea in January 2020, he refrained from going on overseas trips for a while. But starting with his trip to the United States in May 2021, he traveled overseas six times, including the latest one. In the six tours, the president visited 11 countries over 38 days in total. He visited the UK and the United States twice each.
Leaders of other countries are different. Chinese President Xi Jinping never left his country since mid-January 2020. Taiwan’s Prime Minister Tsai Ing-wen also stayed in her country since July 2019. Leaders of the U.S. and Japan had overseas trips, but they were minimized.
Since the pandemic, Japan had three prime ministers — Shinzo Abe, Yoshihide Suga and current leader Fumio Kishida. Since January 2020, they had five overseas trips combined over 19 days, including to Britain, America., Vietnam and Indonesia.
During the same period, the United States had four presidential trips by Donald Trump and Joe Biden. They visited seven countries in total over 17 days. Moon is spending twice more time abroad than his U.S. and Japanese counterparts.
Moon’s presidential trip itinerary also is extremely lame. Whenever he attended a major international summit, he included one or two unnecessary destinations. When he visited the Group of Seven summit in England last June, Austria and Spain were included in his trip out of the blue. When he attended the Group of 20 summit in Italy and COP26 meeting in Scotland in October, his itinerary included Hungary.
When Moon visited the United States last September to attend the UN General Assembly, he visited Hawaii on his way home. The justification was to host a transfer ceremony for the remains of Korean War veterans, but Moon had already hosted similar events in Korea twice. In contrast, U.S. and Japanese leaders only attended absolutely necessary events and returned home fast.
As South Korea faces multiple crises at the same time, the president’s presence is more important than ever. But Moon is traveling overseas. It is no wonder his overseas trips have been criticized as leisurely ones.