For the reshuffle of Cabinet ministers and Blue House staff announced last week, President Moon Jae-in made more reasonable choices than at any other time in his entire tenure. Notable was the appointment of Lee Chul-hee as the senior presidential secretary for political affairs, a post responsible for taking care of the administration’s relations with the opposition.
Lee, 56, had given up running for the National Assembly after serving one term on a proportional representation ticket, expressing disgust at what he called the lowly nature of South Korea’s parliamentary politics. He has earned a sizable number of fans recently with his clear, neutral logic on political talk shows on cable TV networks.
Kim Boo-kyum, the nominee for prime minister, is one of the more respected senior politicians across partisan lines, known for his moderate manner but strong principles. After three legislative terms in Gyeonggi Province he challenged the conservative bastion of Daegu, where he lost parliamentary and mayoral elections in 2012 and 2014. He was successful in 2016, but was defeated again in 2020.
The replacements for five Cabinet portfolios and four other secretarial jobs at the Blue House, who were mostly technocrats, faced little immediate objection from the opposition. Fortunately, they included no particularly controversial figures to cause political storms like the three successive justice ministers Cho Kuk, Choo Mi-ae and Park Beom-kye, names that still haunt the public mind.
Besides the abovementioned three, Moon appointed more than 20 Cabinet ministers without receiving the Assembly’s “confirmation hearing report” upon the opposition claim of grave individual defects. Ministerial appointments do not require the Assembly hearing summary but an opposition refusal to sign the document meant the appointee’s significant lack of qualifications.
Over the past four years, when naming senior officials Moon often ignored his own rule of “five negatives” -- evasion of military duty, false residence registration, tax evasion, academic plagiarism and real estate speculation. Even if nominees had committed these wrongdoings and the opposition party refused to endorse them, the Blue House rarely withdrew their appointments.
By repeating this practice 20 times or more in four years, the Moon administration proved its audacity, or its inability to recruit competent and clean politicians, or both. Last week’s appointments for what will probably be Moon’s last Cabinet and Blue House lineup showed clear improvement.
We are seeing the change in the presidential attitude as the outcome of his vow to “humbly accept” the people’s wishes after mayoral by-elections in the nation’s two largest cities, Seoul and Busan, where the main opposition People Power Party won landslide victories. Kim Boo-kyum also said he would “humbly take the people’s admonition.”
In the fifth and last year of its rule, the government of the Democratic Party of Korea may be seeing the extinction of the protest candles raised against Park Geun-hye in 2016. A Gallup Korea poll showed an approval rate of 30 percent for President Moon last week, the lowest since he took office in May 2017. The number plainly revealed that the 10th popularly elected president is now following in the footsteps of his predecessors.
Hong Joon-pyo, Moon’s unsuccessful rival in the 2017 election, said this on social media, as if he were no longer interested in the presidential race: “Is there a guarantee that the cruel fates of Korean presidents will not continue through the latest one, while DJ (Kim Dae-jung) was the only exception?”
He then mentioned the ousting of Syngman Rhee through a student uprising, the assassination of Park Chung-hee, the convictions of Chun Doo-hwan and Roh Tae-woo for treason, the humiliation of Kim Young-sam in the International Monetary Fund bailout, the suicide of Roh Moo-hyun, and the imprisonment of Presidents Lee Myung-bak and Park Geun-hye, to warn those aiming for the Blue House. This also was a reminder for the incumbent president.
The heavily lopsided votes in Seoul and Busan on April 7 took Moon to lame duck status a little early, with younger Assembly members of the ruling party demanding the Moon administration read the wishes of the people more correctly. They called on him to discard the bad legacies of Cho Kuk and others, and the political blinds among the new power holders in this country.
Moon and his aides may have some consolation from the fact that his 30 percent approval rating is still a few points higher, not lower, than the figures logged by his predecessors in their final year in office. Yet they need to be cautioned that during the past four years Moon has given his opponents more ammunition for political retaliation in the event of a change of power.
They assert that the long incarceration of two former presidents was the inevitable result of their pursuit of “equality, fairness and justice” as the basic governing philosophy of a clean rule. And nothing can compensate for the tragedy of Roh Moo-hyun, who they believe was forced to take his own life by Lee Myung-bak’s merciless prosecutors.
But the people, more precisely 60 percent to 70 percent of the voters in the elections earlier this month, have presented their own verdict that the three big words of the credo were all conveniently discarded by Cho Kuk and his colleagues. Their worst sin was deceiving themselves with the false messianic spirit they conceived when they took part in some anti-establishment movements a few decades ago.
Then critics agree to pick up the case of official interference in the 2018 Ulsan mayoral election as possible grounds for criminal procedures against Moon before or after his retirement. Fifteen people have been put on trial for abusing their official power to help one of Moon’s old friends get elected mayor of the large industrial city, but at least three in the top echelon were untouched “despite strong suspicion,” as the indictment said.
The big question is whether Moon himself is seeing the writing on the wall with continuously declining popularity figures and the stunning outcome of the by-elections in Seoul and Busan. If the new names entering the Cabinet and presidential staff indicate his awareness of reality, we can expect something better for Moon and his country. The coming several months can either be a thrilling time or a continuation of disappointments, depending on the president’s capacity to perceive things as they are.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.