Moon still shines. Why?

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Moon still shines. Why?



Choi Min-woo
The author is a political news editor at the JoongAng Ilbo.

In a Gallup Korea poll released on Friday, President Moon Jae-in’s approval rating was 45 percent. His rating was above the 40-percent mark in the last poll before the March 9 presidential election. It is overwhelmingly higher than any other past presidents. In Gallup Korea’s surveys conducted during the final quarter of their final presidential years, the approval rating of President Kim Young-sam was 6 percent, President Kim Dae-jung 24 percent, President Roh Moo-hyun 27 percent and President Lee Myung-bak 24 percent. President Park Geun-hye’s approval rating shortly before her impeachment plunged to 5 percent. In the five-year single-term presidential system, introduced in 1987, the approval rating of a president has been highest at the beginning of his or her term and declined toward the end of the presidency. It was a cast-iron rule. A president is lucky if they are not forced to quit the ruling party toward the end of their term.

But that rule was broken by Moon. As his approval rating was above 80 percent at the beginning of his term, the number has gone down. But it is radically different from the falls we saw in the past. During Moon’s five-year presidency, the lowest rating was 35 percent during the first quarter of his fifth year, according to the survey firm. If Korea were to allow a president to seek reelection, Moon’s rating is high enough for him to run and win. We often say it is the limit of our presidential system that almost all presidents ended up facing an unfortunate time after their presidency following a plunge in their approval rating at the end of their term. Does this mean Korea will finally have a successful president?

But there are many troublesome points. First, the approval rating of the incumbent president is above 40 percent, but the polls show that over 50 percent want an opposition victory in this election. It is unavoidable for opposition candidates to criticize Moon, but even the ruling party’s presidential candidate apologized for Moon’s shortcomings and failures.

If we review Moon’s presidency specifically, it is hard to praise him. The ruling and opposition parties both agree that his real estate policy was the worst ever. Although Moon put all possible efforts to ease inter-Korean tensions, North Korea fired nine missiles this year alone, returning to the deadlock.

Moon’s income-led growth policy and his glorious signboard marking job creation at his Blue House office quietly disappeared. Although he insisted on weaning the country off nuclear reactors despite strong opposition, Moon abruptly said that nuclear energy must be the main energy source for the country for the next 60 years.

Moon bragged about the administration’s success in social distancing campaign, but over 200,000 people are infected with the Omicron coronavirus variant each day, marking the highest new daily infections in the world.

Moon’s campaign against “accumulated evils” is no more than a campaign to remove his political foes. It is embarrassing to think about his reform of the prosecution when we see what the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials is doing now. Why is Moon’s approval rating still above 40 percent?

There can be many reasons. First of all, Moon loyalists said his family and friends are not marred by corruption. Although there were a few hiccups, no major scandal took place. Some say that Moon’s popularity is based on relatively better image ethically and emotionally compared to the major presidential candidates. Moon did not reveal his emotions and instead gave a sense of security, with an image of a hard-worker.

Others, however, gave different analysis. They said Moon has kept his supporters united by creating a national division. They said Moon prevented the law enforcement authorities from investigating alleged abuse of power and corruption involving his key associates such as the suspected intervention in the Ulsan mayoral election, alleged manipulation of an economic feasibility study to shut down the Wolsong nuclear reactor, and the Lime and Optimus fund scandals. They also said Moon ran a massive PR campaign to create a good public image.

One of the fiercest criticisms is that Moon’s approval rating has not gone down much because he did not actually run the country. When a leader works for a country’s future, the process can be painful and supporters protest. Roh’s decisions to dispatch troops to Iraq and sign a free trade agreement with the United States and Park’s push for a pension reform are examples.

It is a leader’s destiny to push forward an important task although it may trigger criticisms. But Moon refrained from tackling sensitive issues. He stayed away from complex, thorny issues. He made appearances at glitzy events like a ceremony marking repatriation of the remains of a famous independence fighter and a demonstration of an advanced weapon. Over the past two years, Moon told the public that he sees a light at the end of the tunnel, but when the country faces a crisis, aides issued an apology on his behalf.

President Moon may challenge such criticisms by saying that the poll number is a fact. But popularity at the current time is not everything. As his term reaches its end, he will face the cold reality of the history’s evaluation, not approval ratings.
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