The future framework of South Korea’s national security is being carved out by US President Donald Trump, the whimsical leader of our closest ally, and Kim Jong-un, the young dictator of an aggressive adversary, in a tete-a-tete in Hanoi, Vietnam. Frustrated over their position as powerless bystanders at this crucial moment, South Korean politicians are clashing over irrelevant matters.
One of the top issues involves the government’s plan to destroy weirs built across major rivers 10 years ago. This is just one aspect of the current leftist ruling bloc’s attempts to erase the legacies of past conservative administrations on ideological grounds and to strengthen power. Current disputes extend even to historical interpretations of past political upheavals, beyond economic and security problems.
One ongoing dispute is related to the centennial of the 1919 nationwide anti-Japan independence movement. The Moon Jae-in administration and its supporters are trying to define the Republic of Korea government as having originated from the government in exile established in Shanghai, China, by people who fled from their homeland under Japanese occupation.
The reason they are going back a century in search of the roots of power is to deny the legitimacy of the Syngman Rhee presidency installed in 1948 by UN-supervised elections in areas under the control of US forces. The generally pro-American right has naturally resisted this historical onslaught, while ordinary citizens deplore this useless argument.
But the conservatives then faced embarrassment when three lawmakers of the main opposition Liberty Korea Party hinted at the possibility that North Korean agents played a part in the 1980 Gwangju Democratic Uprising, a significant event in Korea’s democratic development. Leftists now have a good chance for counterattack, and the strife has continued.
Meanwhile, in Hanoi, 3,000 kilometers to the southwest, President Trump and Chairman Kim are holding their second summit to decide on matters such as what reward the United States will offer North Korea in return for its pledge of denuclearization and missile dismantlement.
President Moon has to be content with having arranged their direct negotiations, but he may already feel the weight of economic burden Seoul may have to shoulder under a deal reached by the two.
Whatever the outcome, the Moon administration is likely to say that the joint statement to be issued in Hanoi reflects Seoul’s wishes.
In addition, the South Korean president will probably ask for a truce among political parties here so the nation’s military and civil communities will be able to readjust their posture to build a formidable common front to cope with the security situation unfolding on the Korean Peninsula.
However, he cannot expect a positive response from opposition parties if there is no shift in the course his administration has taken over the past two years. The opposition will not listen, and conservative media will remain antagonistic, as long as Moon and his associates hold on to their defective growth strategy, their alliance with organized labor and unfriendly approach toward businesses, among other contentious issues.
Moon replaced the head of Statistics Korea last year, after the office produced figures that did not reflect the success of the new administration’s initial economic policies. Last week, the same organization announced a quarterly report on national income distribution, which revealed a 37 percent fall in the average earnings of the lowest 20 percent income group from a year before, compared with a 10 percent rise in the top 20 percent. This offers proof of the failure of the current administration’s “income-led growth” policy, actually a tax money giveaway scheme.
Another ongoing dispute is related to nuclear power. Korea Electric Power Corp. reported a 5 trillion won ($4.5 billion) loss in 2018 after recording significant annual profits for the past six years. Industry insiders attributed the performance to a steep rise in oil prices and increased purchases from private generators due to the scorching heat last summer. However, analysts pointed to the reduced production scale by nuclear power plants as the main cause for the sudden shift to operational deficits in the national power monopoly.
During a summit with Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi last week, President Moon was earnest in his request for opportunities for Korea to participate in India’s nuclear power plant projects, boasting of Korea’s superior technology especially in the area of nuclear safety. Moon’s ambivalence, shown in his overseas sales efforts for the Middle East, Europe and now India, while his government pursues anti-nuclear energy policy, has drawn harsh criticism from the local media and internet commentators.
Closing down nuclear power plants one by one, President Moon is taking a risky path in the misplaced belief that his anti-nuclear stance helped him earn many votes in the 2017 election. Similarly, his government is determined to destroy dikes in the four major rivers, in an effort to carry out another key election pledge. Three weirs in the Geum and Yeongsan Rivers have been chosen for the first phase of demolition.
Opinion surveys revealed an almost 50-50 balance in support of and against the closure of nuclear power plants and the demolition of dikes. About 20 trillion won ($17.9 billion) was spent on the construction of dikes and embankments along the four major rivers. That huge amount of taxpayers’ money is about to go to waste when all the weirs are removed in pursuit of the president’s environmental beliefs that at least half the total population opposes.
Farmers who need the weirs for irrigation have protested in front of the Environment Ministry in Sejong City. Despite the opposition, Democratic Party leader Lee Hae-chan last week spoke of his dream of “holding power for a century” -- an update from his previous prediction of 20 years in power.
He may be counting on the lasting effects of foreseen peace on the Korean Peninsula, which he would probably attribute to the efforts of his party and administration. He might also have taken into account the mistakes of opposition parties, such as those by the three Liberty Korea Party lawmakers who undermined the Gwangju Uprising.
On the other hand, onlookers may predict a much shorter time in power -- far below 20 years -- upon reviewing the achievements of the Moon administration to date. By Kim Myong-sik
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. -- Ed.