Moon Jae-in was sworn in as South Korea’s new president last week, replacing the impeached and ousted Park Geun-hye. Koreans, naturally, are optimistic about what President Moon will do to help the country cope with a number of pressing challenges.
The first and foremost obstacle to overcome -- or ignore -- is not North Korean leader Kim Jong-un, but US President Donald Trump. The reason is obvious, but I want to emphasize it here again: Trump is doing his job so terribly that Moon should not be judged against the embattled president of the United States. More specifically, Moon should not feel superior to Trump about what he will do for Korea; Trump is an extremely low base for comparison.
Trump, referred to as a 7-year-old brat by David Brooks, a columnist of the venerable New York Times, is “the all-time record holder of the Dunning-Kruger effect, the phenomenon in which the incompetent person is too incompetent to understand his own incompetence.”
What a pithy summation of Trump’s real identity! But the sentence above offered me a great chance to practice English. (As I’m not a native speaker, I keep practicing new English expressions every day.) I could replace “incompetent” in Brook’s sentence with a variety of words, such as reckless, ruthless, self-delusional, greedy, awful and big-mouthed. Miraculously, all these expressions seamlessly fit the character of Trump, who is widely seen unfit for the post he holds.
Trump recently fired FBI director James B. Comey for dubious reasons. He also kindly produced a blockbuster scoop for the Washington Post by leaking highly classified secrets to Russian diplomats. He had pressured Comey to drop a probe into former US national security adviser Michael Flynn, according to the New York Times.
Given that Trump is only in the early stage of his tenure, he is expected to generate more intriguing news for curious US observers across the globe in the coming months, unless he gets impeached and leaves the White House faster than anticipated. By the way, if Americans want to learn the technique of removing an incompetent president out of office, they can get everything they have to know by checking out what Koreans did for former president Park Geun-hye, who is now in jail.
The reason for citing the danger of a low base in comparison is that we Koreans are already witnessing signs of such a phenomenon. Park Geun-hye, for various reasons, shunned the Korean media as much as possible. She did not take any questions from local reporters, even when she publicly apologized for her wrongdoing. In contrast, President Moon actually gave some explanations about his policies at a press conference. The new president’s simple ability to have a normal conversation with reporters came as such a shock after Park that many Korean Twitter users expressed their surprise.
Likewise, Moon could be praised for doing just okay in comparison with Trump, who is leading the world’s supreme superpower by making one pathetic blunder after another. This low-base comparison could steer the public’s attention from the sobering facts plaguing Korea.
Korea is struggling with a plunging birthrate, soaring child care costs and a widening rich-poor gap. Korea’s household debt is at a dangerous level. Nearly half of Koreans aged 65 or older are living in unbearable poverty. Korea remains the undisputed leader in suicide rates among the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development countries, with an average of 28.7 out of 100,000 Koreans killing themselves each year.
The list of local issues awaiting President Moon is fairly long. Moreover, each and every challenge requires much effort not only by the new president but also by all those involved, particularly lawmakers, politicians, civil servants and businesspeople.
On the diplomatic front, the difficulty level goes even higher. When Moon was cited as the favorite for the snap election to replace Park Geun-hye, many US media portrayed him as a liberal who would challenge the United States, while trying to improve ties with China and North Korea. To exaggerate a bit, the US media, except for a few, interpreted Korea’s presidential election as a sign that Korea would challenge the United States, its longstanding ally.
Did we elect Moon because he would disrupt diplomatic relations with the United States? Did we give signals that the American forces stationed here should pack and go home by electing Moon? Did we elect Moon because he would become Kim Jong-un’s best friend?
As far as I know, Koreans are not so simple-minded. The election results reflect the urgency of largely local challenges. Of course, there are serious geopolitical problems to tackle such as China’s shameless economic and cultural retaliation against Korea over the deployment of a US anti-missile system (Why don’t they confront the United States? It’s their anti-missile system, not ours.) Kim Jong-un, who is giddy about the new mid-range missiles, is another serious headache.
But for better or worse, Kim Jong-un has largely been predictable. He keeps bragging about the North’s new missiles and shows no sign of stopping the regime’s pursuit of nuclear weapons. He keeps his mouth shut about what his underlings are up to.
Trump is different. He’s totally unpredictable. Nobody knows what he will tweet or reveal with his “absolute right” as US president. President Moon is set to meet with his US counterpart in late June, and I’m already deeply worried. What would happen if Moon delivered make-or-break intelligence about North Korea to Trump at the summit? Can we safely say that Trump will not spill the beans about the North’s new weapons on Twitter? What if Trump claims his “absolute right” after sending bombers to Pyongyang for “humanitarian” reasons?
When the Korean president holds a summit with Trump next month, he should be extremely cautious about the businessman-turned-politician, who is instinctively eager to strike deals. Instead of talking about the renegotiations of the bilateral free trade pact, Moon should gracefully remind Trump how Koreans impeached and ousted a corrupt and incompetent president.
By Yang Sung-jin