By the time this edition of The Korea Herald is delivered to readers, the winners of the April 7 mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan will have been decided. There was a weeklong blackout of opinion polls before the vote, but popularity figures of major contenders in the last surveys had been so lopsided that few had doubts about opposition victories in both the capital and the nation’s second-largest city.
The ruling Democratic Party of Korea was fundamentally disadvantaged in these elections because it was responsible for the creation of vacancies in the two metropolises. They resulted from the suicide and resignation of incumbent administration chiefs who both belonged to the Democratic Party. To the shame of the leftist party, sexual harassment led them to the denouements.
Some conscientious voices within the DP initially called for the party to abstain from the by-elections as the party charter prohibited putting candidates to elections that were made necessary by the faults of its members. Yet, buoyed by the landslide victory in last year’s general elections, the governing party rewrote the rule in order to keep the Seoul and Busan administrations under its control. The two metropolitan cities were too valuable to concede to the opposition and it looked easy to win.
But Korea’s political climate has been changing remarkably since the Moon Jae-in presidency entered its second half, not merely because of the social and economic gloom from the COVID-19 pandemic. Primarily responsible for the declining public trust in the Moon administration was the president himself. In him, people saw no national leader appealing for unity to overcome adversity but the chief of a power group bent on protecting subordinates.
Pollsters produced an average 32 percent approval rate for the president, the lowest since he was elected in May 2017 with a 40 percent support in a three-way race. Once, the figures hovered above the 50 percent mark when he pushed a drive to “clear the evils” accumulated under past conservative administrations. Yet, right-wing repercussions started to appear as the new ruling force quickly emulated past evils.
Audacity and self-righteousness infected the leftists who gleaned power on the back of public protests in late 2016 against the maladministration of Park Geun-hye that led to presidential impeachment helped by the splitting of the then ruling party. Revolutionary changes were pursued by the leftist rulers, vociferous but inexperienced, turning economic and energy programs upside down. Meanwhile, sudden “peace initiatives” toward North Korea seriously weakened the overall defense posture.
The appointment of unqualified persons to the cabinet and other high government posts annoyed the people as they experimented with faulty measures in the name of “reforms” resulting in problems and errors. Cho Kuk’s wild-goose chase of “prosecution reform” eventually made him one of the shortest-serving justice ministers and his replacement, Choo Mi-ae, spent her year in office in a unproductive power contest with prosecutor-general Yoon Seok-youl.
Worst of all, half-baked policies stirred the real estate market under the baton of former minister Kim Hyun-mi of the Ministry of Land, Transport and Infrastructure. Apartment prices soared to the steepest rate ever as the government announced restrictive measures interfering with private transactions as many as 24 times in the last few years. Jeonse tenants had to shed all their “sweat, blood and soul” to meet landlords’ demands for higher deposits.
The coronavirus pandemic offered the government the chance to resort to its ever-anxious populist approach in disregard of huge state debts. Shortly before the April 15 elections last year, cash giveaways were made universally across the country. The government party reaped surprising rewards in the form of 180 seats in the 21st National Assembly out of the total 300.
Then, on the strength of the overwhelming parliamentary majority, statutes were mass produced altering financial and industrial programs and even changing the age-old law enforcement system. A powerful agency exclusively in charge of investigation and indictment of crimes by high government officials was created separate from the prosecution organization. The National Police now has a central investigation bureau which will take over cases of espionage and pro-North Korean activities from the National Intelligence Service.
Why are all these fancy “reform” steps necessary? Of course, some are devised to amend the sagging popularity of the leftist government against the rising conservative offensive. But many suspect a broader scheme to build the foundation for a permanent rule equipped with investigation apparatuses allowing easy control by political power. Even the independence of the court is compromised with the willing collaboration of Chief Justice Kim Myung-soo.
Whatever grand plan the present rulers may be carrying out to perpetuate their power, it is being hampered by the deficiencies of individual actors, who produce numerous episodes of arrogance and hypocrisy in official work as well as in private lives. Scandals involving the abuse of female staff are not infrequent, such as the cases of former South Chungcheong Gov. Ahn Hee-jung, Seoul Mayor Park Won-sun and Busan Mayor Oh Geo-don. The latter two caused the costly by-elections held yesterday.
The past four years of Moon Jae-in rule was long enough to illustrate moral laxity and professional ineptitude of its important members who rose to prominence with records of social and political activism but had little chance of training necessary for assuming public responsibility. They gained power prematurely as the conservatives, ever complacent with their contributions in the past chapter of national economic development, failed to conserve good leadership and discipline.
If last year’s general election definitely moved back democratic progress in this republic due to special circumstances including the pandemic, the coming presidential election next year should mark a historic turning point for the nation’s political forces to give up useless egotism and discard unqualified components on each side. Many names have gone with negative credentials in recent days of transition. The coming year should be a time to search for true leaders recognized for creative visions and trustworthy potentials for the future.
President Moon Jae-in is a case in point. Many believe that he was excessively engrossed in taking care of the past, presumably from his “fate” connected to his late mentor Roh Moo-hyun who took his own life and from his self-imposed mission as successor to an impeached president. Moon quashed South Koreans’ national pride as fast achievers on the global stage while he followed political and economic paths on the advice of aides who were guided by outdated dogma.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. He was managing editor of The Korea Times during the 1990s. -- Ed.