After dividing people into friends and foes

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After dividing people into friends and foes

Koh Hyun-kohn
The author is a senior editorial writer of the JoongAng Ilbo.

Moon Jae-in became president with little sweat through a snap election — a result of the historic impeachment and consequential downfall of President Park Geun-hye. He started office with an approval rating of over 80 percent thanks to months of candlelight vigil protests to oust the conservative president. Moon had every chance to leave his mark as a respected leader.

People had hoped for a Nelson Mandela-like new beginning to restore national dignity. As soon as the legendary anti-apartheid leader became president of South Africa, he treated the white community with benevolence. Mandela invited Percy Yutar — the prosecutor who had sentenced Mandela and other African National Congress leaders — to the lunch in 1995 shortly after he became president and received praise from Yutar, who declared Mandela a “saintly man.”

Mandela believed, “If they can learn to hate, they can be taught to love, for love comes more naturally to the human heart than its opposite.” Thanks to the saintly leader, South Africa avoided the bloodshed common for fledgling democracies. He is still regarded one of the greatest leaders of mankind.

Sadly, for the Korean people, President Moon did not take a reconciliatory path. In his inauguration speech, he vowed a “true beginning of national unity.” But payback began soon under the pretext of eradicating “past evils.” Moon was merciless. He acted more like a ringleader for a certain ideological front than a state leader. Everything became ideologized and politicized. Economic, social and foreign affairs blended into his political recipe.
In meeting with Blue House correspondents on Monday, President Moon Jae-in answers questions from them in a garden at the presidential compound. [JOINT PRESS CORPS]

Moon’s experiments with the income-led growth and real estate policy, a phase-out of nuclear reactors, peace on the Korean Peninsula, Korea-Japan relations and judiciary reform all failed. He did not stop to correct wrong policies even when they caused enormous side effects. He did not admit to mistakes. When a steep increase in the minimum wage hit self-employed businesses and wiped out jobs, he reacted with a pledge to reinforce his income-led growth drive. He did not bend his stubbornness and self-righteousness. An expert on the president said Moon would push further in the face of opposition.

Apart from policy failures, Moon’s biggest folly was factionalizing. The feature of the last progressive president Roh Moo-hyun deepened under Moon. Outspoken liberal commentators like Rhyu Si-min or Kim Ou-joon fanned the division. Han Sang-jin, an emeritus professor at Seoul National University and veteran among progressive scholars, expressed concerns about the Moon government trying to muster support by dividing people into friends and foes. The Cho Kuk scandal symbolically broke the country into two — conservatives rallying at Gwanghwamun, downtown Seoul, and supporters of the former justice minister around the judiciary and prosecutorial headquarters in Seocho, southern Seoul — over the prosecutorial probe of the families of the central figure to the Moon administration.

Hatred was bred against the opposing front. Moon did not stop the fight. He found the phenomenon a “part of democracy” and “not national division.” He confessed he was indebted to Cho even as half of the population raged against the hypocrisy of Cho and his family.

To avoid liability from the real estate fiasco, the rich were made scapegoats. Landlords and tenants were made enemies. Anti-Japanese sentiment was fanned to cover up for foreign policy shortcomings amid a trade war with Japan. An umbrella union leader who spearheaded a violent rally was pardoned, whereas strict ethics were upheld for former presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye and businesspeople. During the March 1 Independence Movement Day, Moon pronounced that the liberal Kim Dae-jung administration had been the first democratic government, dishonoring ex-presidents Roh Tae-woo and Kim Young-sam, who had been elected through direct elections under the constitutional reform in 1987.

Factionalization was backed by blaming and self-excuse. In his book published in 2017, Moon found fault with President Park Geun-hye’s wardrobe. “National budget would have been spent on Park’s rich wardrobe and bag collection. She has a big special activity budget. But the money should not be spent for her personal expenses.” Moon’s presidential office refuses to disclose his special activity spending.

Moon will leave office less than two weeks from now. He has maintained an approval rating at around 40 percent by keeping his loyal base rock-hard through factionalizing tactics. But the nation remains divisive. Moon advised incoming president Yoon Suk-yeol to resolve conflict and achieve unity. But he is the last person to offer that advice, given all the wrecks he had made.

Moon is publishing a book and going on air to celebrate his achievements before stepping down. But self-justification cannot make a retired president happy. He did not apologize when he met with the press on Monday. Moon vowed not to get involved in politics after retirement. But before that, he must candidly admit to his mistakes and apologize to set a path for unity.

A Catholic, Moon had better remember the words of Cardinal Stephen Kim Sou-hwan, who urged people “to love one another” and Mandela, who championed a “moment to bridge the chasm that divides us has come.”
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