President Moon Jae-in is set to enter the fourth year of his five-year presidency in May. For him, now is the time to look back with a cool head at what he has done so far and decide what to focus on for the rest of his term.
But his New Year’s address was filled with self-praise rather than an objective assessment of his policies. He effectively declared that “I will keep doing things my way no matter what.”
Moon vowed to push the changes and reforms his government has led more strongly. His avowal fuels concern, given persistent side effects of his policies and difficult situations in many fields including the economy and security.
His perceptions of economic reality are worrying.
Moon said the employment situation shows a clear trend of recovery and that the employment rate was the highest ever last year thanks to the creation of 280,000 new jobs. But most of them were temporary public-sector jobs. Decent jobs in private companies vanished quickly. Jobs created with taxes to gloss employment statistics will disappear when tax support stops. It is hard to call this a sign of recovery in employment.
Exports, which are Korea’s growth engine, plunged 10.3 percent, the steepest fall in a decade, last year, but Moon did not mention this. Trade surplus shrank to a seven-year low, but he did not broach this, either. Instead, he noted 11 straight years of trade surplus.
The Federation of Korean Trade Unions, which habitually uses violence in industrial sites and rallies, has become the largest trade group in the nation. And yet Moon vowed to work harder to establish a society that respects labor. Militant unions of large companies hurt industrial competitiveness, but the government merely looks on.
The National Intelligence Service concluded it was impossible to negotiate with North Korea to scrap its nuclear programs in exchange for sanctions relief. Nevertheless, Moon emphasized inter-Korean cooperation to induce talks between Washington and Pyongyang. He asked North Korean leader Kim Jong-un again to visit South Korea in return for his visit to Pyongyang, but it is questionable if conditions are appropriate for such a proposal. He also proposed South and North Korea submit a joint bid to host the 2032 Summer Olympics.
The North vowed to develop “a new strategic weapon” and take a “shocking” action. Pyongyang poured out raw criticism of Moon’s peace proposals.
His reiteration of inter-Korean relations sounds hollow and unrealistic. He did not mention how to denuclearize North Korea. Pursuit of cooperation with the North without a blueprint for denuclearization is putting the cart before the horse. His words are cause of concern that a hasty push for inter-Korean cooperation may weaken the US-led security cooperation against the communist state.
He avoided mentioning former Justice Minister Cho Kuk, regarded as the epitome of injustice, who caused a strong backlash from the people. Instead, he said his government made strenuous efforts to eliminate “foul play” and “undue privilege.” This is a mockery to those who condemned the foul play and abuse of privilege shown by Cho’s family.
Cheong Wa Dae is putting pressure on the prosecution apparently to prevent it from pursuing its investigations into corruption and election meddling allegations against figures close to Moon.
He defended the recently passed law on the establishment of an investigation agency that critics worry may sweep irregularities involving his cronies under the carpet. He called it a system for a fair and equal rule of law over everybody. It’s a far-fetched interpretation.
In this situation, Cheong Wa Dae, the government and the ruling party will spend 62 percent of this year’s budget in the first half of the year and as much of it as possible before April. They say that aims at stimulating the economy but by any reckoning, it targets the April 15 general election.
As many as some 70 former and current Cheong Wa Dae officials are expected to run in the general election for the 300-member National Assembly. Some officials, even in the ruling party, are said to complain that this is too many. It is questionable if they, distracted by the elections, did or are doing their best to perform their jobs at Cheong Wa Dae. State affairs can be chaotic. This is a worrying situation.