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[Kim Myong-sik] Nation at a crossroads

As we approach the midpoint in the Moon Jae-in presidency, let us make a brief rundown of the leftist administration’s major policies.

First is the denuclearization of North Korea. Moon has chosen a basically reconciliatory stance toward Pyongyang, favoring a step-by-step approach to peace that involves bartering with the North. This approach accepts the phased elimination of the North’s nuclear and rocket programs, rather than President Trump’s instant disarmament deal.

Second is the so-called “income-led growth” economic strategy. Part I of this policy is the sharp increase in the minimum wage, and Part II is limiting the workweek to 52 hours to ensure “balance between work and life” in a country long known for overworking its industrial population.

Third is the phaseout of nuclear power generation. Adhering to his election pledges, Moon has all but scrapped plans for new atomic power plant projects that were in place before 2017 -- except for two that were already 30 percent complete. The goal is to reduce dependence on nuclear energy to 18 percent by 2030 from the present 30 percent.

Fourth is returning the four major rivers flowing across the peninsula to their natural state by destroying all levees and dykes built during the Lee Myung-bak administration (2008-2013) for irrigation and transportation purposes. Environmental activists who helped Moon in his election campaign insist that the free flow of river water is more important than containing it in large quantities, although most farmers would choose the latter.

In the denuclearization process, President Moon wants to play go-between for Pyongyang and Washington, but so far he has yet to satisfy either side. In Oslo and Stockholm last week during his tour of Northern Europe, Moon called for the early resumption of top-level dialogue among the three parties, but his profile in multilateral diplomacy looks to be declining, especially after the rupture of Trump-Kim talks in Hanoi.

President Moon may believe that he can still read the intentions of Kim Jong-un, with whom he has had candid talks on three occasions with hopes of a fourth soon. But the people of South Korea doubt that their president, who has a rather straightforward and simple nature, can play hardball with extreme characters like the North’s dictator and the American businessman-turned-president.

North Korea will probably not resume testing a nuclear device or intercontinental ballistic missiles until the end of the year, but it could in the meantime prove its resilience by enduring the economic sanctions of the international community. Yet Pyongyang’s moratorium provides a chance to discuss a permanent peace regime between the two Korean War adversaries.

President Moon has been ridiculed by the domestic opposition and some foreign commentators for acting like a spokesman for Kim Jong-un. Instead of denying he has behaved this way, he needs to be more forthright in persuading opponents with realistic logic and practical propositions as the leader of the party that has the greatest stake in the denuclearization of the North.

Getting back to the second subject, “income-led growth” -- a policy that has by now earned an F in terms of the nation’s economic and industrial performance and against which millions have raised cries of despair -- Moon and his economic team need to cast away their apologetic masks and give up their attempts to hide behind manipulated statistics. The bottom line is whether the gap between the rich and poor has narrowed over the past two years. Show whatever positive sign there is of gradual improvement; if there is nothing to show, carry on no further experiments with people’s lives.

As for the third issue, phasing out nuclear power generation, Moon is unlucky, so to speak. More coal and oil have to be burned in order to depend less on nuclear energy, while yellow dust and fine dust from China have grown thicker over South Korean skies. Blame has been heaped on the new government for strangling nuclear energy technology and industry here, abandoning South Korea’s chances to pursue the lucrative export of reactors, and denuding hills to install solar power facilities. Meanwhile, the brazen-faced Chinese officials have a good excuse to deny any responsibility for dark skies here.

It would be better to declare a moratorium on the energy shift for two years or so, during which time an exhaustive study could be conducted by true experts rather than a handful of environmental activists who hurriedly assembled for Moon’s election campaign. Nuclear reactors in a land under the threat of war carry high risks, but people should not have to go on wondering whether Moon made the decision after watching a doomsday movie.

The fourth question, about the four rivers, is already under review by the ruling party. The current party leader has expressed reservations about the government’s plans for the Geum River, which passes through his constituency, under pressure from farmers. Why spend hundreds of billions of won (millions of dollars) to destroy levees and release water that often turns green in the dry season? South Korea’s heavy summer monsoons clear up all river water every year.

Besides the four issues mentioned above, there is a fifth and most dreadful matter that history will consider when it judges President Moon. More than 100 people from the top echelons of past governments -- including two former presidents, three former heads of the state intelligence agency and one former Supreme Court chief justice -- are behind bars in a prolonged campaign of “eliminating accumulated evils,” namely corruption, abuse of power and interference in judicial affairs. At least four men have taken their own lives after being subpoenaed.

Court procedures for most of the accused people will be completed within a year, possibly before the National Assembly election next April. President Moon will then have a grave decision to make about the punishments handed down to powerful figures from the past by prosecutors and judges, who, in my opinion, have floated on the wave of the times that rose up during the “candlelight revolution” in late 2016.

Moon made clear his resolve to push ahead with the “cleanup” by nominating Yoon Seok-yeol as the next prosecutor general after having him direct law enforcement in the political arena for two years as chief of the Seoul prosecution. Still, Moon will eventually have the choice to use his presidential prerogative and issue pardons. It may be a grand absurdity, but history will probably praise his courage.

We will soon see how the leftist government will wrap up its legal-political drive against figures of the past. Will national politics find its way to compromise and tolerance, or will a wave of revenge accompany every change of power? 

Kim Myong-sik

Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.