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[News Focus] Will President Moon change major foreign and economic policies during remaining 2 years?

President Moon Jae-in talks about the countermeasures against the novel coronavirus. (Yonhap)
President Moon Jae-in talks about the countermeasures against the novel coronavirus. (Yonhap)

SEJONG -- The next presidential election will take place in two years, possibly on March 9, 2022. After that, there will be a two-month period in which a president-elect leads a transition committee before President Moon Jae-in’s term expires at midnight May 9.

That means Moon has about 24 months to determine what his legacy will be, political commentators say.

The Moon administration came to power on the strength of massive candlelight vigils in late 2016, when former President Park Geun-hye was at the center of an influence-peddling scandal involving her confidante Choi Soon-sil.

Numerous polls showed that Moon enjoyed wide support during the first year of his tenure, in 2017 and 2018. Even many right-wing voters supported his active efforts to pursue inter-Korean dialogue and root out corruption.

The Seoul-Pyongyang and the Pyongyang-Washington summits buoyed his approval rating to 70-80 percent, and the 2018 PyeongChang Olympics also increased his popularity.

But more and more people have grown frustrated by the lack of progress on the promised dismantlement of North Korea’s nuclear facilities, as well as the deadlock in talks between North Korean leader Kim Jong-un and US President Donald Trump.

Right-wing politicians and citizens have criticized Moon for paying too much attention to the North and for what they consider his “submissive” attitude toward both the North and the US. The US presidential election, slated for Nov. 3, 2020, is expected to determine the fate of the inter-Korean talks.
 
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)
(Graphic by Kim Sun-young/The Korea Herald)

Domestically, economic affairs have been the Moon government’s Achilles’ heel since the third quarter of 2018, when his approval rating started its downward slide. The figure is now around 40 percent.

Though the administration allocated significant funds for job creation in its annual budget, and also gave it high priority in a supplementary budget drawn up later, unemployment among young people remains high as the policy created mainly public sector jobs and benefited people in their 60s or older.

Furthermore, drastic minimum wages hikes in 2018 and 2019 have increased the labor cost burden and threatened self-employed businesspeople and small businesses led by those their 40s and 50s. Some analysts say this deprived people in their 20s of part-time job opportunities.

The nation’s export performance was lackluster, showing negative growth throughout 2019, and private consumption showed little improvement in the wake of diminished job security and higher household debts yet meager growth of disposable income for the middle class.

Additionally, Moon’s real estate polices have infuriated people who do not own apartments in Seoul. A series of property speculation countermeasures have fanned housing prices in the city to an all-time high even as people questioned their efficacy.

Many high-ranking public officials have owned apartments in districts where housing prices skyrocketed.

In terms of education and social inequality, people demanded justice and transparency during the latter half of 2019, when a scandal emerged around former Justice Minister Cho Kuk and allegations that his daughter enjoyed unfair advantages in school admission procedures, first for a university undergraduate program and later for medical school. At the same time, many people questioned the Moon administration’s decision to eliminate elite high schools.

Nonetheless, the majority supported Moon’s push to establish a Senior Civil Servant Crime Investigation Unit, a core element of his prosecution reform initiative. The related bill passed in the National Assembly in late 2019 and the new law is slated to take effect in July 2020. Commentators assess this legislation as one of Moon’s most substantial achievements as president despite the tough backlash it incurred from prosecutors and some conservatives.

This year, public anger is growing again over Moon’s health and safety policies amid an outbreak of COVID-19, a respiratory disease caused by a new coronavirus from China.

“If the virus had originated from Japan, President Moon would have shortly issued a total ban on entry of Japanese to South Korea,” wrote one sarcastic commenter.

North Korea, despite being a close political ally of China, has closed its borders to visitors from the Chinese mainland. Similar entry bans are in effect in Indonesia, Singapore, the Philippines and Taiwan, where many ethnic Chinese live.

In contrast, as of Feb. 23 at 11 a.m., South Korea was still admitting travelers from China, with the exception of Hubei province, of which Wuhan is the capital. COVID-19 has spread across South Korea and cases have been reported in all eight major cities, including Seoul and Sejong, as well as nine provinces, including Gyeonggi and Jeju.

By Kim Yon-se (kys@heraldcorp.com)

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