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Can South Korea’s Catholic president survive the political storm?

A host of unresolved issues see president Moon Jae-in’s approval ratings drop to an all-time low since 2017

Can South Korea’s Catholic president survive the political storm?

South Korean President Moon Jae-in listens to visiting US Secretary of State Antony Blinken and US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin during their meeting at the presidential Blue House in Seoul on March 18, 2021. (Lee Jin-man/Pool/AFP)

When Moon Jae-in, South Korea’s second Catholic president after Kim Dae-jung (1998-2003), came to power after winning the 2017 election with about 40 percent of the votes, he was greeted with a red-carpet welcome from his countrymen.

South Koreans voted Moon and his Democratic Party of Korea (DP) to power as they believed in his promises including reviving a declining economy, uprooting corruption, reform of the judiciary and pursuing cordial, pacifist diplomatic policies towards North Korea.

Moon, a former human rights lawyer, succeeded Park Gyuen-hye, the country’s first president removed from office after impeachment on corruption charges. Park was later arrested and remains imprisoned.

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In the past years, Moon, son of North Korean immigrants, has scored well at home and abroad.

He made notable attempts for peace with North Korea by holding several meetings with Kim Jong-un in 2018 and visited the Demilitarized Zone with US President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim in 2019.

On the economic front, he pursued reforms to better control the country’s large business groups run by rich families. He has raised the minimum wage by 16 percent and reduced weekly working hours from 68 hours to 52 hours.

Moon’s administration also tried to reform the judicial system, especially the role of the Public Prosecutor’s Office, which enjoys immense powers, including ordering and carrying out investigations and enforcing indictment. In recent years, the Public Prosecutor’s Office has been accused of favoring the rich and powerful.

During the Covid-19 pandemic, Moon’s government imposed what was dubbed one of the largest and best-organized epidemic control programs in the world. It implemented physical distancing, mandatory face masks, mass testing, contact tracing, isolation for infected people, and a ban on international flights that put infections and deaths in check.

By his words and actions, the president has definitely brightened the image of the country’s Christians, who make up 29 percent of South Korea’s 51.8 million people.

It is evident that Moon’s Catholic faith and upbringing were reflected in his liberal but pragmatic domestic and foreign policies. During the pandemic, he reached out to the Church for effective collaboration.

Moon’s successes were translated into political dividends when his party and allies won the legislative election in April 2020 by a landslide by securing 180 out of 300 seats.

Now, one year on, Moon and his party face a heavy political storm only weeks ahead of crucial mayoral elections in the capital, Seoul, and Busan, the second-largest city, on April 7.

The elections are being seen as litmus tests for the ruling party ahead of the presidential election next March.

A host of unresolved issues including an ongoing property scandal involving a state agency has seen Moon’s approval ratings drop to an all-time low since 2017. Realmeter poll says Moon’s approval ratings dropped to 34.1 percent and disapproval ratings soared to 62.2 percent, an all-time high.

Some 20 employees of state-run Korea Land and Housing Corporation (LH) are suspected of buying land worth 10 billion won (US$9 million) in Gwangmyeong and Siheung cities, southwest of Seoul. They are accused of purchasing the land by using inside information even before the government announced development plans for the areas.

The scandal forced Prime Minister Chung Sye-kyun to launch an investigation earlier this month, but the issue turned complicated as two senior LH officials committed suicide before the investigation started.

Meanwhile, Land Minister Byeon Chang-heum, who led LH until December, has resigned. Some lawmakers of the ruling party and their family members are also suspected of involvement in the land scandal.

President Moon himself has been accused by opposition lawmakers of buying farmland near Busan last year by extra-legal means. The president plans to spend his retirement life in the farmhouse.

Moon brushed off allegations against him and claimed he fulfilled all legal obligations before the purchase.

The land scandal has angered and disappointed many South Koreans. The frustrations soared further when tens of thousands reacted angrily after the president posted a message of Facebook on March 12 and urged people to stop making noise about his land purchase issue.  

Many netizens questioned if Moon and his party are really committed to upholding policies of fairness and justice that they promised before the 2017 election.

The property scandal also brought to the fore some other issues the ruling government has yet to tackle successfully.

South Korea’s unemployment rate jumped to 5.4 percent in January, the highest in two decades and up from 4.2 percent when Moon came to power in 2017. It is largely a result of the pandemic that hit the job market hard, but also due to a slopy economy that saw exports fall in recent years. In 2020, Asia’s fourth-largest economy was predicted to shrink for the first time in 22 years.

In October 2019, Moon’s ally and Justice Minister Choo Kuk was forced to quit after corruption allegations surfaced against his wife and daughter. The case of Choo Kuk was complex as the Justice Ministry and powerful Public Prosecutor’s Office got embroiled in a battle for power and supremacy following a reform agenda for the judicial and prosecution system.

The Choo Kuk case divided society and politics in South Korea. Though Choo Kuk pleaded innocent, the clouds of the issue have not been effectively cleared.

Meanwhile, the government has been accused of maintaining silence and not doing enough about sexual abuse by powerful individuals including top government officials and politicians in a country where patriarchy is still dominant.

Park Won-soon, a member of Moon’s party and longest-serving mayor of Seoul, died in July 2020 in what apparently seemed to be a suicide. His death came after his secretary accused him of four years of sexual harassment. Following his death, a probe by National Human Rights Commission found Park guilty of sexual offenses.

Since 2019, three top politicians including two from Moon’s party lost their posts following sexual abuse cases.

Kim Jong-cheol, leader of the progressive Justice Party, was removed from his position in 2020 after a fellow lawmaker accused him of sexual harassment.

In 2019, Ahn Hee-jung, a former governor and one-time presidential contender, was sentenced to three years for rape and assault of his former assistant. The following year, Oh Keo-don, mayor of Busan, resigned and apologized for sexual harassment. Both were members of the Democratic Party.

The upcoming mayoral polls in Seoul and Busan are tough battlegrounds for Moon’s party as two former mayors had to embrace for callous departures due to sexual offenses last year.

It remains to be seen whether Moon’s party is able to regain the trust of the electorate as the election nears.

A marginal victory or defeat will have the same message — the party of the country’s second Catholic president needs major changes in policies and actions if it aims to retain power in the presidential election next year.

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