Moon Jae-in’s first week as president exposed both positive and negative aspects, raising hopes and concerns about the decisions he will make over his five-year term.
Having taken the national leadership amid a deep divide caused by the removal of Park Geun-hye as president, Moon has put “national integration” as one of the key tenets of his presidency. Communication is another core word as he believes Park ruined her presidency due to her parochial operation of the government and detachment from the public and even her close aides.
Against this backdrop, it was quite refreshing to see the new president visit the four major opposition parties and National Assembly Speaker Chung Sye-kyun in his first day in office.
The reality is that Moon and his Democratic Party of Korea cannot do anything at parliament without the help of opposition parties, but a president paying a personal visit on the first day of his presidency and soliciting help from the opposition for his new administration raised hopes for less confrontational -- if not harmonious -- politics.
Moon displayed his tendency to break away from authoritarianism and parochialism that have long been associated with the Korean presidency.
Some may have been choreographed as PR stunts, but the president holding a tray and moving along the line at the Blue House cafeteria and walking in company with his aides for a chat -- without their jackets and with cups of coffee in their hands -- definitely contrasted with the past grim-faced leaders.
His decision to spend much of his time in one of the three small buildings housing the offices of top presidential aides -- instead of the spacious, grandiose main hall in the presidential complex -- is more encouraging. We absolutely need a president who is close with senior officials -- unlike Park who rarely saw her Blue House aides one-on-one.
Not all that Moon and his Blue House did in the first week reassured everyone about his potential as a good president.
During his campaign, Moon said that he would trim down the presidential office and that he would work closely with Cabinet ministers to whom he would give more power and authority. That argument partly had to do with the public antipathy toward Park, who faced criticism for lacking communication even with senior Blue House aides.
Moon’s decision to create the office of a top policy aide -- a minister-level post -- runs counter to his campaign promise of a “small Blue House.” This also raises the specter of the president relying more on Blue House aides than Cabinet ministers in running the government.
Some of Moon’s appointments offered a cause for concern, especially in terms of the “national integration” Moon put forward as a central motto of his administration. Cho Kuk, a law professor the president installed to the powerful post of the senior presidential secretary for civil affairs, is one prime example.
Cho, a prominent liberal activist who often used his social media to attack rightists, was touted by Moon -- and his liberal supporters -- as the right person to reform the prosecution and fight corruption among the elite. But to Moon’s antagonists in the conservative bloc, Cho is a chief enemy warrior bent on punishing opponents in the name of reform.
Moon and Cho have already indicated that some past cases they suspect were linked to Park’s conservative government will be re-examined.
Moon’s decision to revoke state-authored history textbooks for middle and high school students, reopen the investigation into the sinking of the Sewol ferry and allow the singing of an activist song at the ceremony marking the May 18 Gwangju civil uprising are already drawing criticism from opposition parties and conservative groups.
Those issues had pitted conservatives against progressives during the Park administration. One cannot help but wonder “correcting” the past things were so urgent a job for a government which earned only 41 percent of votes and which should reach out to the 59 percent who opposed it. As Moon said, national integration and harmony is the call of the times, but it takes two hands to clap.