On February 5, The Diplomat ran an article by Tae-jun Kang whose headline asked the question: “Is Moon Jae-in Becoming a Lame Duck?” Noting that presidents of South Korea serve five-year terms and are ineligible for re-election, Kang explained that there’s a saying in that country: “the nightmare of the third year makes the president a lame duck.” As it happens, President Moon, the incumbent, will begin his third year in office in May – and “signs of the ‘nightmare’ for Moon and his government,” wrote Kang, “have already begun to emerge.”
It sounds fatalistic – as if Moon’s “nightmare” were foreordained. In fact, as Kang goes on to explain, Moon would appear to have surrounded himself with a bunch of crooks. There are so many of them that it can be hard to keep track of them all.
One of them is legislator Sohn Hye-won, who is suspected of covert involvement in the purchase of properties that were later officially designated as cultural assets, thus automatically enhancing their values. In late January, in a bizarre effort to prove her innocence, she offered to donate her collection of lacquerware to the government.
Another of Moon’s party hacks is legislator Seo Young-kyo, who purportedly asked a judge to reduce the punishment for a crony’s son accused of attempted sexual abuse. Yet another member of the party, Moon’s economic advisor Kim Hyun-chul, resigned on January 29 over some remarks about South Korean retirees and allies that were deemed offensive.
Then there’s Moon’s daughter, Moon Da-hye, who recently moved out of the country with her husband and children, the supposed reason for which was that her husband had embezzled $2.7 million of a government subsidy received by his employer and left the country to protect his assets from seizure.
Finally, there’s Kim Kyung-soo, governor of the South Gyeongsang province and a former Moon campaign aide, who was sentenced on January 30 to two years behind bars for helping to rig an opinion survey.
As a result of all this, Moon’s approval rating has dropped from a high of over 70 percent to below 50 percent.
In a January 22 piece for the East Asia Forum, Kim Kee-seok, a political scientist at Kangwon National University, was even blunter than Kang. Whereas Kang’s headline ended in a question mark, Kim’s made a firm statement: “Moon’s popularity wanes as South Korea’s economy stalls.” As the headline indicates, Kim, unlike Kang, cited the nation’s faltering economy as a reason for Moon’s declining fortunes. Kim also mentioned the failure of the North Korea peace initiative to bear any fruit thus far.
But Kim, like Kang, also focused on corruption. Whereas Kang itemized the sleazy presidential sidekicks and family members who are dropping like flies, Kim attended not to these specifics but to the general issue of reform.
As Kim put it, South Korean voters who “demanded fundamental innovation of the political system,” including changes in the constitution, electoral process, and judicial system, become “sceptical of the prospects for innovations of this kind as the Moon administration continues to lose golden time.” We could hardly put it better ourselves. In 2017, Moon Jae-in made big promises to an electorate that’s increasingly sick of routine corruption at the highest levels of politics and business – and he’s utterly failed to deliver on them.