Moon’s last mission
The author is the chief editor of the JoongAng Ilbo.
The sun has set, although there is still a long way to go, President Moon Jae-in said during a TV interview with JTBC last week. His comment reflected his frustration about leaving office without an end-of-war declaration with North Korea. But his failure to strike the deal with North Korea should not be the only regret he has as he looks back on his five years in office. If so, he should have wished his successor Yoon Suk-yeol better luck in completing the unfinished missions. Former presidents — and life-time political rivals — Kim Young-sam and Kim Dae-jung met weekly during the transition period.
But Moon’s swan song was full of hostility and disgruntlement. He disapproved of President-elect Yoon’s plan to abandon the Blue House and relocate the presidential office to Yongsan. “Does the space of the Blue House block the president from communicating with people?” he asked. As a presidential candidate in 2012, Moon also described the Blue House compound as a “symbol of dictatorship and autocracy” as it was used as the base of the Japanese colonial government and Korea’s military regime. He pledged to move his presidential office to Gwanghwamun Square. The outgoing president should have applauded Yoon for his determination to realize Moon’s broken promise and cooperated with the relocation. But he criticized Yoon instead.
How can we understand Moon’s unfathomable perception about his administration’s endless real estate fiascoes. “Our price hikes were among the lowest in the world,” he said. Real estate policy failure had been the biggest cause of the ruling Democratic Party’s (DP) election defeat in March. Yet Moon stayed self-righteous until the end. He was also critical of Yoon’s comment about a preemptive attack on North Korea at clear signs of a launch of nuclear weapons and the abolishment of the gender ministry. The outgoing president should not have attempted to shake the incoming leadership amid perilous conditions on the economic and security front. It was Moon who emphasized the value of unity during a meeting with his secretaries shortly after his victory in 2017. The People Power Party (PPP) asked the president to “show civility towards the people during the remaining days in office.”
The legislation aimed at stripping the prosecution of its investigative authority is destined to shake the very foundation of our criminal justice system. The anti-bribery group under the OECD expressed concerns about the apparent weakening of anti-corruption and anti-bribery investigation capabilities in Korea. It was Moon who triggered such concerns from the OECD. Following his leadership, the DP, which has 171 seats in the 300-member National Assembly, pushed revisions to the Prosecution Act and the Criminal Procedure Act. Moon must veto the revisions apparently aimed at saving him from investigation.
Moon lacked the humility of great leaders. President George Washington led the Continental Army to triumph over the British after eight years of the Revolutionary War to become a hero. Instead of joining a coup by disgruntled solders over pay, Washington persuaded them with his famous speech.
Legendary General Lucius Quinctius Cincinnatus of ancient Rome is remembered for his selfless devotion to the republic in times of crisis and for giving up his reign of power when the crisis was resolved. He returned to his humble cottage after finishing his duty of saving the republic. Julius Caesar and Oliver Cromwell became absolute powers to bring down the republics. But Washington was as selfless as Cincinnatus to bring true democracy to the United States. Even King George III, who had fought against Washington’s army, paid respect to Washington for “being the greatest man in the world” after he voluntarily resigned his military commission to the Confederation Congress and returned home in Mount Vernon on Christmas Eve of 1783.
Although he was summoned to eventually become the founding president in 1798, George Washington confessed of feeling like a convict being led to the death after he was pressured into a second term. In order to prevent a lifetime presidency, Washington made an emotional farewell address about returning to the life of a private citizen six months before his term was to end. When he finally returned to a farm in Mount Vernon, Virginia, Napoleon Bonaparte said, “Posterity will talk of Washington as the founder of a great empire, when my name shall be lost in the vortex of revolution.”
Washington could have ruled for life, but he chose the life of a simple farmer. Through the show of selflessness and restraint, he had set the foundation of healthy U.S. presidency of maximum two terms. He was unlike Korean presidents that wished to extend their terms for life.
In less than a week, Moon leaves the Blue House. The sun is setting. He has said he wishes to live a life of “the forgotten” after retirement. If he really can distance himself from politics, he could at least set a decent precedent for retired Korean presidents.