President Moon Jae-in sounded detached from the prevailing public sentiment when he gave an address and answered questions from reporters in Monday’s news conference marking the fourth anniversary of his inauguration.
He made it clear that he would stay the course on policies criticized for being misplaced during the remainder of his single five-year tenure. This inflexible stance disappoints many who hoped the ruling party’s crushing defeat in last month’s mayoral by-elections in Seoul and Busan would lead to a shift in his administration’s policy approaches.
In the news conference, Moon cited the failure to curb runaway housing prices as a main reason for voters’ “severe punishment” for his party in the elections seen as a barometer of voter sentiment ahead of the next presidential vote slated for March. Home prices have soared out of reach for most first-time buyers due to a string of measures to restrict the supply of new houses in Seoul and raise property-related taxes.
He agreed on the need to modify the real estate policy but still suggested he would keep its framework largely intact.
Moon also defended the way his government was administering vaccinations against the novel coronavirus and running the national economy.
He said COVID-19 vaccinations would be administered without a hitch to ensure that herd immunity could be achieved before the original target of sometime in November.
Moon said South Korea’s economy was on a fast recovery track, pledging to step up efforts to push up the 2021 growth rate above 4 percent for the first time in more than a decade.
His remarks were out of touch with growing public concerns that snail-paced vaccinations coupled with strict regulations on corporate activity would leave the country behind other major economies in preparing for the post-pandemic era.
In the news conference, Moon made no mention of the worsening unemployment problem. He assumed office with a pledge to place a top priority on job creation. But over the past four years, a large number of decent jobs have disappeared as companies remain reluctant to increase investment and employment due to a set of pro-labor measures taken to carry out the income-led growth policy.
His administration’s labor-friendly approach has only benefited unionized regular workers, making the job market more rigid. The actual jobless rate for young people hovers around a record high of 25 percent.
Economic inequality in the country has also widened under the Moon administration, as its ill-conceived policies have resulted in a decrease in earnings of low-income households.
In Monday’s address, Moon pledged to step up efforts to revitalize the peace process for the Korean Peninsula, saying he regarded the remainder of his term as the last opportunity to “move from incomplete peace to irreversible peace.”
Referring to his first in-person talks with US President Joe Biden in Washington later this month, Moon said he would seek to restore dialogue between the two Koreas and between the US and North Korea by more closely coordinating policies on the North with the Biden administration.
His adherence to the peace process runs the risk of endangering South Korea’s security and hurting its national interest. Insisting on reconciliation with a Pyongyang that refuses to discard its nuclear arsenal would play into the hands of the recalcitrant regime while weakening the South Korea-US alliance.
Moon said he would not be pressed by time or become impatient in pushing for the peace process during his final year in office. He should truly stick to this attitude. But in the eyes of many people, he still appears preoccupied with restoring the unsubstantial reconciliation with the North in 2018 before he leaves office.
In what seemed to be a sign of his impatient approach to putting the peace process on track, he emphasized the need to implement the controversial law enacted to ban North Korean defectors here for flying anti-Pyongyang leaflets across the border into the North.
During the remainder of his term, Moon is required to redress divisive and misplaced policies and focus on achieving national unity. In this context, he needs to withdraw his recent nominations for Cabinet posts of figures criticized for alleged ethical lapses.
Regrettably, his latest news conference affirmed he was not ready to follow this course of action.