28 January
Written by Elliot Waldman

South Korean President Moon Jae-in began the year in dire need of a pick-me-up. His approval rating dropped to a record-low 37 percent last month as voters faulted him for failing to contain a third wave of COVID-19 and moving too slowly on vaccinating the population. Soaring housing prices and a damaging scandal at the Justice Ministry added to his government’s woes.

Seeking a turnaround, Moon used the occasion of his New Year’s address to the nation on Jan. 11 to outline an ambitious, forward-looking agenda. He announced a phased rollout of free vaccinations for all South Koreans starting next month, promised new measures to cool down the real estate market, and said he would work to fully implement his “Korean New Deal,” a $138 billion initiative to revitalize the economy by boosting the digital and green sectors. As if that wasn’t already a full plate, he also pledged a final push toward “a major breakthrough in the stalled North Korea-U.S. talks and inter-Korean dialogue.” A week later, he expanded on these issues and answered questions on other topics at an extensive press conference.

Those public appearances have paid some short-term dividends, as Moon saw his approval ratings rebound this week, surpassing 40 percent for the first time in two months, according to the Korean pollster Realmeter. But he will now need to live up to the high bar he has set for the remainder of his single five-year term, which expires in the spring of 2022. And none of the far-reaching plans that Moon articulated in his New Year’s remarks will be easy to fulfill.

Unsurprisingly, the recovery from COVID-19 topped the list of priorities. South Korea has handled the pandemic more effectively than most other countries, and national approval of Moon’s response fueled a landslide victory for his Democratic Party in legislative elections last April. His approval rating topped 70 percent shortly thereafter.

But then the coronavirus began to spread more widely in November, and daily new cases hit record highs the following month, just as the first vaccinations were being administered in Western countries. Moon’s critics were quick to ask why South Korea wasn’t doing the same, despite having procured enough doses for the entire population. The government initially said it was prioritizing safety over speed, but now expects to start inoculating its citizens in late February, with the goal of achieving herd immunity by the fall—a tremendous logistical feat.

Even as the pandemic worsened in December, Moon had what was arguably the most consequential month of action in his presidency. His Democratic Party, which holds a comfortable majority in the National Assembly, passed a huge raft of some 130 laws that touch on virtually every aspect of society. They included key measures to reform the powerful prosecutor’s office, expand labor rights and restructure South Korea’s giant corporate conglomerates—all important issues for Moon, who came into office in 2017 promising to address high rates of wealth inequality and create a more level economic playing field.

Many South Koreans, however, point to out-of-control inflation in the housing market as a sign that Moon has failed to live up to his progressive promises. Home prices in Seoul have risen more than 50 percent since 2017—faster than anywhere else in the world—putting homeownership out of reach for much of the population. The causes of the spike include an inadequate supply of affordable housing and an increase in the total number of households as more South Koreans choose to live alone. Easy-money policies aimed at mitigating the economic impacts of the pandemic are also pushing up prices, as low interest rates encourage more real estate investment.

Moon has set a high bar for the remainder of his term, but none of his far-reaching promises will be easy to fulfill.

At last week’s press conference, Moon said he is planning “extraordinary” new measures to increase the country’s housing stock, with the details set to be announced before next month’s Lunar New Year holiday. But the government has already implemented a slew of polices over the past year to make homes more affordable, to no avail. Some new rules that were intended to lower prices by tamping down on real estate speculation, such as tighter restrictions on mortgages, have backfired by making it more difficult for middle-class citizens to purchase homes.

Several high-profile scandals in Moon’s administration have also fueled perceptions of a rigged economic system. South Koreans have been particularly captivated by the case of Cho Kuk, a former top legal adviser to Moon who served briefly as justice minister in 2019 before resigning due to allegations that he had improperly secured academic and professional perks for his daughter. It was a stinging blow to many of Moon’s supporters given his promises of a fairer deal for the middle class. Cho is currently on trial for charges that include bribery and document forgery, and his wife was sentenced last month to four years in prison in connection with the case.

Before his downfall, Cho was advising Moon on one of his key political initiatives: long-overdue reforms of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office. South Korean prosecutors are unique in having sweeping powers not only to indict suspects, but also to launch and conduct investigations—tasks that are handled by police agencies in most other countries. The system is a relic of Japanese colonial rule that was kept in place during South Korea’s postwar military dictatorship and never truly reformed even after the transition to democracy in the late 1980s. Successive chief prosecutors have faced criticism for being too close to the president’s office and for soft-pedaling investigations into high-level malfeasance.

But in seeking to depoliticize the office, Moon has invited further controversy. In July 2019, he announced the appointment of Yoon Seok-youl, a lawyer with a reputation for independence, as chief prosecutor. At the time, Moon praised his pick as “a man of integrity who’s not swayed by pressure from power,” and encouraged him to pursue investigations without fear or favor. Yoon was evidently happy to oblige, launching a series of probes into Cho and other officials in Moon’s administration.

Following Cho’s resignation, his successor, Choo Mi-ae, locked horns with Yoon in a protracted power struggle that culminated in her unprecedented decision last month to suspend Yoon for two months due to alleged misconduct. Choo announced her resignation at the same time, in an apparent bid to ease the political pressure on Moon over the chaos at the Justice Ministry. But Yoon, who denied the charges against him, returned to work just days later, after a court granted his motion for an injunction against his suspension.

Despite the political drama, Moon has scored some victories in his quest for prosecutorial reform. In early 2020, the National Assembly passed legislation reallocating some of the prosecutor’s investigative powers to other agencies. And one of the many laws passed last month authorized the creation of a new, independent body called the Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials. Moon welcomed the measure, but he will need to tread with extreme caution to avoid the perception that the new agency is just another political tool.

Moon has an even trickier needle to thread on his signature initiative to reboot diplomatic engagement with North Korea. He has expressed optimism at being able to work with U.S. President Joe Biden on this issue, telling reporters last week that Biden’s inauguration provided “a turning point to newly start U.S.-North Korea dialogue, South-North dialogue, to inherit the achievements that were made under the Trump administration.” But Biden’s foreign policy advisers have suggested they will take a more cautious approach to North Korea than Donald Trump, who upended decades of U.S. strategy by meeting directly with Kim Jong Un, three times. Recent signals from Pyongyang also suggest that the regime there is more devoted than ever to developing its nuclear and ballistic missile programs, making any near-term progress unlikely.

Looking ahead, key by-elections are scheduled for April in Seoul and Busan, South Korea’s two largest cities. Those contests will be important political bellwethers, as the main opposition People Power Party tries to mount a comeback after years of disarray. If the Democratic Party underperforms, it could add to the already stiff headwinds Moon will face during his final year in office.

0