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[News Focus] Moon weighed down by economy, North Korea

Slowing growth, worsening employment figures cast doubt on Moon’s economic policies

As he approaches the halfway point in his term, President Moon Jae-in is juggling hefty issues on both the international and domestic fronts. On the home front, Moon faces mounting criticism on a wide range of issues. 

Personnel choices, politics of security and economy

In addition to increasingly tricky international issues, Moon is faced with complex domestic political issues, ranging from high-level personnel choices to accusations that his administration has botched state affairs.

In the political arena, the conservative main opposition Liberty Korea Party is turning up the heat on Moon, once again accusing him of being “pro-North Korean.”

President Moon Jae-in at a luncheon with independence activists and their descendants at the presidential office on Tuesday. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in at a luncheon with independence activists and their descendants at the presidential office on Tuesday. (Yonhap)

“Why can’t (Cheong Wa Dae) say a word in response to North Korea’s insults? It seems the people’s hurt pride is not visible to this administration,” Liberty Korea Party Chairman Hwang Kyo-ahn said Monday, referring to a statement issued the previous day by the North Korean Foreign Ministry.

In that statement the North ridiculed Seoul, comparing the presidential office to a “scared dog,” and claimed US President Donald Trump had recognized the North’s recent missile tests as a legitimate form of self-defense that fell within the North’s rights.

“The people have suspicions, whether (the administration) has a big debt to North Korea, or if (Cheong Wa Dae) is laying low to become indebted (to North Korea) in the general elections,” Hwang said, accusing Moon of deferring to North Korea for political gain.

Hwang also accused Moon of failing on North Korea issues and went on to say that should North Korea receive the US’ approval to retain its nuclear arsenal, South Koreans would become “nuclear hostages, and nuclear slaves of North Korea.”

With little progress on the denuclearization talks, some in the conservative bloc have rekindled discussion about South Korea securing nuclear weapons of its own -- either through a separate nuclear weapons program or by asking the US to deploy nuclear assets in the South.

In addition, another storm is brewing over Moon’s latest personnel choices.

Last week, Moon tapped Seoul National University law professor Cho Kuk for the position of justice minister, prompting immediate backlash from the conservatives.

The conservatives have raised a host of accusations against Cho, who had until recently served as Moon’s civil affairs secretary, promising the toughest confirmation hearing yet at the end of the month.

Economy, jobs and minimum wage

Like Moon’s North Korea policies, his economic policies have yet to produce significant results.

One of Moon’s main domestic economic policies is the so-called income-led growth initiative. The basic outline of the plan is to raise the average income, which would then lead to increased spending, which in turn would fuel the growth of local firms.

And the linchpin of the plan is the minimum wage, which Moon promised to raise to 10,000 won ($8.20) per hour during his term.

In an effort to achieve that goal, the minimum wage was increased by 16.4 percent in 2017 and 10.9 percent in 2018.

Although past conservative administrations had approved similar increases, the Moon administration’s moves prompted heavy criticism from conservatives and corporate communities.

Faced with intensifying pressure from businesses and the realities of a gloomier economic outlook, the government decided next year’s minimum wage would go up 2.9 percent on-year -- the lowest increase in 10 years.

The minimum wage issue has also pitted Moon against labor groups, which backed him in the 2017 presidential election.

While conservatives and corporate lobby groups say the minimum wage is too high and is ruining the economy, the unions say Moon is now siding with corporations.

After next year’s minimum wage was set, the hard-line Korean Confederation of Trade Unions accused the Moon administration of “completely standing on the side of capital” and of abandoning the income-led growth model.

Cheong Wa Dae has rejected the accusations, with Moon’s chief of staff for policy Kim Sang-jo saying income-led growth is a concept that goes beyond minimum wage.

Saying the administration has “widened the social safety net and is moving toward (becoming) an inclusive nation,” Kim defended the 2.9 percent raise for minimum-wage workers, saying the rate of increase over the past two years had exceeded the market’s expectations.

The Moon administration is also struggling to expand the country’s job market.

Despite Moon’s election pledge to become an “employment president,” the country’s unemployment rate has gone up since his inauguration.

According to Statistics Korea data, unemployment came to 4.1 percent in the second quarter of the year. This is the highest figure recorded for any second quarter since 2000.

Moon’s economic dilemmas have recently become thornier, with Japan’s trade restrictions placing one more burden on an already sluggish economy.

In July, the Bank of Korea lowered its economic growth forecast for the year to 2.2 percent from the previous 2.5 percent, but various think tanks have suggested Korea’s growth rate might fail to reach even the 2 percent mark due to Japan’s export control measures.

According to estimates from the Korea Institute for International Economic Policy, those measures could lower Korea’s gross domestic product by as much as 0.44 percent.

By Choi He-suk (