President Moon Jae-in reshuffled his Cabinet and senior secretaries at Cheong Wa Dae on Friday. Clearly, he intended to give fresh impetus to his leadership amid the fallout from his party’s crushing defeat in key mayoral by-elections early this month.
With slightly more than a year to go before his five-year tenure ends, Moon’s approval rating continues to fall as many people are increasingly disappointed and disillusioned with what they see as his substandard performance. His support rating dropped to a record low of 30 percent in a poll of 1,005 adults nationwide conducted from Tuesday through Thursday. The figure marked a 2 percentage point fall from the previous week, with the president’s disapproval rating having risen 4 percentage points to 62 percent over the cited period.
Moon seemed to be responding to the critical public sentiment shown in the April 7 mayoral by-elections in the country’s two largest cities -- Seoul and Busan -- by selecting figures with more flexible views and expertise to fill Cabinet and Cheong Wa Dae posts. It is particularly notable that he chose two former ruling party lawmakers outside of the pro-Moon mainstream faction as his new prime minister and senior secretary for political affairs.
Kim Boo-kyum, the prime minister nominee, and Lee Cheol-hee, who will serve as a channel between Moon and political parties, pledged to try to bring changes in the way the Moon administration handles state affairs.
Kim vowed to exert efforts toward cooperative governance, social inclusion and national unity, saying he would not hesitate to ask for cooperation from the opposition bloc. If formally appointed after a parliamentary confirmation hearing, Kim, a former four-term legislator and interior minister, will replace Chung Sye-kyun. Chung, who offered to resign following a 15-month stint, is expected to run in the 2022 presidential race.
Meanwhile, Lee defined his role as helping the president make good decisions through sufficient review of various options, including those different from his own ideas.
The president also nominated bureaucrats or other experts for the five posts of land, labor, industry, science and oceans ministers in a departure from his previous preference for politicians close to him as Cabinet members.
The simultaneous reshuffle of Cabinet ministers and presidential secretaries still appears to fall short of convincing the public that Moon will drop his government’s misplaced policies and move toward enhanced collaboration with opposition parties.
The lack of public confidence is caused first by Moon’s ambiguous stance on the future course of his administration. Following the ruling party’s rout in the mayoral by-elections, he said he took the electoral outcome seriously. But he has since avoided mentioning sweeping changes in the way his government works, prompting speculation that he will continue to stay the course on a set of policies criticized for being ill-conceived.
Unless Moon changes his fundamental position, a mere personnel reshuffle will do little to assuage mounting public discontent with soaring home prices, worsening unemployment, slow-paced vaccinations against the coronavirus and wrongdoings involving associates of Moon’s.
Also dashing the hopes for policy changes is the hard-line faction’s firm grip on the ruling Democratic Party of Korea, which retains an overwhelming parliamentary majority.
On the same day Moon carried out the personnel reshuffle, ruling party lawmakers elected Rep. Yun Ho-jung as their new floor leader. While chairing the National Assembly’s Legislation and Judiciary Committee over the past year, Yun spearheaded a raft of controversial bills that have further dampened corporate activity and pushed up housing prices.
In a speech to his colleagues before the vote, he pledged to ceaselessly pursue legislative efforts to achieve reforms that, in his view, many people hoped for.
On May 2, the ruling party is scheduled to elect its new chief and its decision-making Supreme Council. The top posts are also likely to be occupied by hard-line mainstreamers, completely silencing calls from moderate party lawmakers to redress measures taken so far and seek compromises with the opposition bloc.
Moon and the ruling party leaders now need to recognize that their intransigent adherence to the current path might help rally core supporters but will further alienate moderate voters, who are expected to hold the key to the outcome of the upcoming presidential election less than a year from now.
Enhanced cooperation with opposition parties is also required for Moon to manage state affairs in a stable manner during the remainder of his term in office.