As the year’s end draws near, people tend to be more contemplative, looking back on and appraising what happened in 2018, the second year of President Moon Jae-in’s leftist rule. In my own journalistic perception, there was a rapid buildup of disappointment with the president and his staff during the year mainly in reaction to the two major directions of policy thrusts, one designed to improve workers’ lives and the other to settle wrongdoings by past powers.
Key economic measures misfired, and the prosecution’s frequent arrests, searches and seizures drew widespread complaints of political vendetta. Inter-Korean dialogue is one of the few areas of positive assessment, but it is an ongoing affair with no clear progress in sight toward North Korean denuclearization. President Moon and Kim Jong-un met three times since April and a fourth is expected, but prospects are shaky. Also being indefinitely awaited is a second meeting between Kim and US President Donald Trump.
Here is a rundown of 10 important yet disagreeable developments (by my arbitrary order of importance) under the Moon administration this year:
--South Korea has become militarily more vulnerable with the current administration pushing reduction of Armed Forces manpower by one-fifth along with the shortening of the mandatory service period of conscripted personnel by half a year to 18 months. Some Army divisions are disorganized and the number of generals and admirals in the three armed services is being significantly reduced.
--In an agreement with North Korea produced through the summit talks, a no-fly zone has been designated to the north and south of the maritime border in the West Sea to prevent accidental military engagements. Forward observation posts in the central Demilitarized Zone have been demolished on both sides for the same purpose, but military experts assert that these measures considerably compromised the South’s reconnaissance capabilities on the North’s aggressive signs.
--The decision to phase out nuclear power generation, which government officials euphemistically call energy conversion policy, has promptly destroyed the foundations of the nuclear energy industry and technology. Concentration on alternative, renewable energy is causing new environmental hazards while the continued efforts for overseas sale of nuclear power plants face loss of national credibility among potential customers in the global market.
--On the domestic economic front, triple reforms – an increase in minimum wage, maximum 52-hour workweek and upgrading of irregular workers to regular employees – led to more unemployed youths than newly employed and drove numerous small businesses to close up shop or lay off workers. Public pressures forced Moon to recently replace his chief economic policy aide and the deputy premier for finance and economy, but the new appointees have vowed the continuation of existing policies.
--Government authorities’ thinly veiled interference in the management of terrestrial broadcasting companies has placed the networks KBS and MBC virtually under control of radical progressive unions, which are dedicated to serving the interests of the leftist segments of society. Left-leaning contents in the two public broadcasters led nationwide audiences to shift to cable channels, which have quickly overtaken the old networks in rating.
--Prosecutors’ investigation of judges who had taken court administration positions continued in the name of ferreting out past practices of collusion between government power and the judiciary. Two former Supreme Court justices have been put under arrest and the prosecution is seeking the arrest of a former chief justice and his conviction as the top man responsible for alleged “trial bargains” with the past Park Geun-hye Blue House.
--With all three former directors of the National Intelligence Service in the Park administration on trial on accusations of transferring NIS funds to the Blue House, the organization of the state intelligence apparatus has been stirred. Its military counterpart has been completely shaken up after disclosure its senior staff had studied emergency troop mobilization when candlelight demonstrations were at their height late in 2016. A former head of the Defense Security Command took his own life while under investigation for ordering surveillance on the families of the Sewol ferry disaster.
--Police have been instructed not to disperse demonstrators from main streets unless they disrupt traffic for over an hour. Police are generally unenthusiastic about controlling outdoor rallies, as they cannot escape punishment or avoid damage suits when injuries result from their physical control of violent demonstrators.
--Labor unions, especially the radical Korea Confederation of Trade Unions, have practically become the most powerful organizations in South Korea. People say that its nationwide manpower of 1 million is even mightier than the 600,000-strong Armed Forces and 150,000-strong police force, as no authorities attempt to enforce the law while unionists beat up company executives, force nonunionists out of workplaces and, in the most recent case, prevent a major automaker from establishing a new plant in a provincial city at a reduced pay scale.
--Disarray in the main opposition Liberty Korea Party continues, although this is not for the president to take blame. Soon after the Liberty Korea Party’s 112 National Assembly members elected a woman as their new floor leader, a special reform committee disqualified 21 lawmakers, including many Park Gen-hye followers, from party nomination for the next general elections. Strong repercussions started from them instantly.
If I may add an 11th item, people have been relieved of the fear of war which had grown high until early this year with the North’s regime making threats of attacks with incessant nuclear and missile tests. With little visible progress in inter-Korean and North Korea-US negotiations, no one knows when a war scare could flare up again.
In this short review of 2018, I would like to introduce one episode involving President Moon, which I am afraid could indicate a limit to his leadership and loss of confidence in governing the nation. During an informal but on-the-record conversation with reporters on his flight home from attending a G-20 summit in Argentina earlier this month, Moon evaded answering reporters’ questions on domestic issues as many as four times.
“Please do not ask me about domestic issues. If any of you ask me about domestic matters, I will not answer. Well, who is first?” Moon said. Watching this scene on YouTube, I wondered if the president’s job could be divided into internal and external affairs, or if he is more content with being just the spokesperson for the denuclearization campaign for the entire Korean Peninsula.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.