A new year has begun, but a heavy heart comes before expectations and hope. Last year, the nation was dismayed by the alleged irregularities of the family of Cho Kuk, President Moon Jae-in’s choice for justice minister, and the ensuing bribery and election-meddling allegations against the president’s cronies.
The scandals revealed the hypocrisy and dogmatism of the Moon regime, which trumpeted fairness, equality and justice as its credo and identity. Society has been split ideologically over almost every issue -- North Korea, growth, social reforms and so forth -- and prominently over the scandals between Moon’s supporters and opponents.
Moon vowed to be a president for everyone, but he has instead displayed a divisive leadership style that protects his supporters but excludes and ignores the opposing forces.
He brokered US-North Korea summits, but they produced no deal, and instead the security risks were heightened.
With external conditions unsettled by the US-China trade war, the domestic corporate sector was in the doldrums and investments declined for 12 months in a row.
To change or not to change
Amid complex difficulties at home and abroad, the nation will hold general elections on April 15.
One of the most important questions facing voters is whether Moon’s leftist policies and controversial reform laws pushed through by the ruling party should gain traction or be changed or abolished by the new National Assembly.
Many eyes are on two laws that caused a strong backlash from conservative rightists. The proposed election law and a law to create an agency to investigate high-ranking public officials will be hot campaign issues.
The ruling party and four minor opposition parties changed election rules unilaterally despite fierce protests by the largest opposition party. It is unfair and a serious matter to change the rules of the game without a consensus of all players.
Election rules were changed to the advantage of the minor parties. In return, they voted for the creation of an investigation agency, which the ruling party was eager to materialize.
There are concerns that the agency will likely be abused to hush up crimes by officials close to Moon. This may open the door for dictatorship.
The fate of the two laws, which will change the framework of the nation, are up to voters.
For whom are the reforms?
The Moon administration dug up the evils of the past rightist governments and punished those involved strictly.
Initially, people hailed his signature drive against corruption, though it targeted only the past rightist administrations. But their expectations and hope for the clean and just society promised by Moon turned into fury and disappointment after the breakout of scandals that revealed the sleaze and shamelessness of those he trusts. The suspected misconduct of Cho’s family looked more despicable than the evils of past governments.
Nevertheless, the ruling party and Cheong Wa Dae criticized and tried to suppress the prosecution. They argued it should be reformed -- to their liking -- saying that is what the people want, despite only their supporters calling for it.
Those who believe justice means applying the same yardstick to everybody without exception want the prosecution to get to the bottom of the scandals.
But to their disappointment the ruling party and the four minor parties pushed through the bill to create a powerful investigation agency that can sweep crimes under the carpet if the perpetrators are on the favored side.
The ruling camp calls the two laws reforms, but whether they are disguised to keep the ruling party in power or reforms for the sake of the people will be decided April 15.
Wise judgment is required.
Find a new way
Regarding security, the nation faces a new and more insecure situation.
From the beginning, North Korean leader Kim Jong-un had no intention of dismantling his country’s nuclear programs.
He will never give up the programs, for which North Koreans have endured tough sanctions.
Late last year, he vowed to find “a new way.” That way seems to involve nuclear bombs and intercontinental ballistic missiles.
Pyongyang is expected to keep demanding the withdrawal of US forces from the Korean Peninsula and its surrounding areas as it raises tension with upgraded atomic weapons.
The US administration under President Donald Trump reportedly approved a scenario of military options if the North continues to provoke. The security environment is grave.
Even though Pyongyang is not showing any signs of scrapping its nuclear programs, China and Russia are instigating South Korea to work harder toward easing sanctions. Seoul would do well to utilize the two allies of North Korea as leverage to persuade the North to resume talks, but it should not do anything to weaken its US alliance.
Nuclear talks need to be continued. But probably North Korea’s nuclear programs cannot be undone through negotiations. If so, situation management is needed. To better control the situation, a strong defense and shrewd diplomacy are essential.
In response to the new way the North pledged to go, the South must find its own new way to safeguard its people.
Path to growth
The struggling South Korean economy is not likely to improve quickly this year.
The US-China trade war will likely be prolonged over such hot potatoes as intellectual property rights and government subsidies. The tide of trade protectionism is expected to heighten worldwide.
The problem is, the South Korean economy is swayed by politics. Businesses are discouraged by a web of regulations and labor-friendly policies. It is urgent to motivate and encourage them.
More flexible working hours and performance-based wage systems are worth being considered positively to revive the growth momentum.
Above all, the leftist labor-centric policy frame must be rebuilt from square one to foster facility investment and entrepreneurship.
The Moon administration’s management of state affairs will be influenced greatly by the outcome of the general elections.
The choice is up to voters, but no matter what happens, the government needs to pay attention to the growing number of people who are discontented with its policies.
If it keeps pushing policies biased to appeal to the ruling party’s support base, they will face a backlash and their actions will backfire.
If it wants to be a government for all, Cheong Wa Dae must turn its eyes to its opponents and listen to them. It is foolish and dangerous to stay the current course and expect changes when the path leads to a lopsided playing ground.
The year has changed, but reality remains little changed. Everywhere is ash gray. The nation is at a critical crossroads.