The bumpy political path of our republic in the 21st century has had two major upheavals involving former presidents: the suicide of Roh Moo-hyun and the impeachment of Park Geun-hye.
They resulted from aggravated power contests. Political power has alternated between the right and left, like seasonal winds blowing on this peninsula, northwesterly in winter and southeasterly in summer. Ideological polarization has developed, along with a vicious circle of political vendetta, as rivals fail to master the art of sharing power.
Moon Jae-in took over from Park, who, along with her immediate predecessor Lee Myung-bak, represented the side that enjoyed better access to social assets and systems in this country for a long time, making the remainder feel a sense of inequality and loss of opportunities. At the close of the last millennium, a financial crisis gave the minority a chance for power.
But the 10-year rule under Presidents Kim Dae-jung and Roh Moo-hyun was too short to transform the social milieu in the face of formidable challenges from the conservatives. Shortly after the rightists recovered power, a corruption investigation into Roh’s family began, and the former president took his own life.
In 2008, Park dramatically returned to the Blue House where she had lived until 1979. Then she mysteriously sank into inertia and obstinacy, which invited popular protests. Cracks in the ruling party allowed her removal from office. Moon was elected with 41 percent support in a snap election, defeating a divided right.
Winning power on account of Park’s incompetence rather than by its own merit, the left has to continue the “candlelight revolution” that started in 2016, to complete the unfinished task of changing the mainstream. There is steady support from traditional allies -- such as labor, human rights groups, environmental activists and pro-North Korean pacifists -- but the new power holders see too many hazards in the systems they operate.
An extensive reshuffle of the prosecution last week revealed the Moon group’s restlessness in pursuing a solid grip on power. Since he took office on May 10, 2017, President Moon has filled chairs in the Supreme Court, the Constitutional Court and the state-controlled media with people endorsed by the leftist camp, but the prosecution under Yoon Suk-yeol has remained a stumbling block.
Now, a siege has started against the prosecutor general, whom Moon had earlier chosen to lead the purge of “accumulated evils” from the past. Upon handing him the letter of appointment last July, the president told the highest law enforcement official to be equally stern on “the live power” and “the dead power” in doing his job -- a rather rhetorical instruction that Yoon has followed too faithfully.
For the past six months, Yoon has thoroughly conducted investigations, first into Cho Kuk, one of the president’s closest aides, and a few other presidential confidants for alleged abuse of power and other misdeeds. When the prosecution indicted Cho, his wife and relatives, huge crowds at weekend demonstrations at Gwanghwamun Square praised his valor, while pro-government groups protested what they called “biased law enforcement.”
Moon’s disappointment with Yoon led to the naming of Choo Mi-ae as justice minister, departing from the tradition of giving the job overseeing law enforcement to nonpolitical figures. A judge-turned-lawmaker, she had risen to the leadership of the then-main opposition party, with a reputation for toughness in partisan disputes.
Within a week of her appointment, Choo replaced all senior positions in charge of investigating present and former presidential aides. She is expected to take further action to bind Yoon’s hands in his probes into the “live power,” short of an outright dismissal of Yoon, who is guaranteed a fixed two-year tenure until July 2021. The media have dubbed Choo’s actions the “Saturday night massacre,” alluding to US President Richard Nixon’s sacking of justice officials at the height of the 1976 Watergate scandal.
When the prosecution started investigating the Cho case last July -- subpoenaing suspects and witnesses, requesting arrest warrants and conducting searches of their offices and homes -- many observers thought these actions could help the Moon administration gain public trust, as it appeared to be unafraid of exposing its own misconduct. As the probe expanded to come close to the very center of power, Choo emerged, turning what the people had feared into reality.
Internet forums abound with encouragement for the prosecutor general to persist with probes into Cho, Yu Jae-su, Baek Won-u and others, whatever pressure investigators may face, while faint voices complain of Yoon going out of bounds. Most frequently heard are the famous quotes from Moon’s inaugural address, titled “To create a country we have never experienced before.”
It read, “The administration led by Moon Jae-in and the Democratic Party of Korea will promote equal opportunities. The process will be fair, and the result will be just.” After two years and eight months, this solemn pledge has become a joke in conversations, as people find few of his commitments have been realized.
I retrieved the text of Moon’s inaugural speech from the internet and read through it, only to be saddened upon seeing the great distance between the man who gave the address on May 10, 2017, and the president we now have. The text was not long, as the speech writers chose short, precise words to express the new president’s will in the inaugural ceremony at a hall in the National Assembly, the day right after the election.
He repeated “I will” at least 50 times, making commitments to become a president for everyone; to change the landscape of politics; to create a world without discrimination or privileges; to become an honest, clean president; to build a country stronger than it has ever been; and to do many other things.
The president and his colleagues should continue efforts to transform our society into one that is fair, just and equal for everyone, but they need to avoid by all means creating a situation that could result in yet another tragedy involving the highest-elected official of this country.
They may seek to prolong their grip on power with the right mandate of the people, earned through making the country stronger, safer and richer -- not by scattering cash to voters or turning the law enforcement system into a watch dog of power.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org -- Ed.