March 11, 2022
SEOUL – By the time this article is published, the National Election Commission should have already announced the winner of the 2022 presidential election of South Korea. The new president will take office on May 10 to lead a nation that offers him many tasks that have grown heavier during the past five years of the Moon Jae-in administration.
My first advice to the president-elect, with sincere wishes for successful governance, is that he had better change, as quickly as possible, his self-concept from representing a single political organization to serving a body of over 51 million people of great diversity.
This rather difficult mental exercise is related to his primary task of reassembling a nation that is split by ideological lines and social classes, and even by gender and generation — further aggravated during the presidential race. And this new mindset is required for his inevitable homework of tackling the legacies of the past rule.
Under Moon’s administration, the two previous Presidents Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak were imprisoned, mainly on corruption charges. Park was granted special amnesty at the end of last year but Lee remains in a suburban Seoul correction house on a 17-year sentence. Four former chiefs of state intelligence and nearly 100 other former senior officials were jailed under Moon’s campaign of “clearing past evils.”
The new president will be pressured by his helpers and civic groups to do his own clearing of the past too. But he is most likely to follow in the misery of his predecessors unless he makes extraordinary efforts to cut the vicious circle in this republic’s recent history. If he chooses “tolerance” as the main philosophy of the new government, the new president could help start a new tradition of ensuring the peaceful retirement of former heads of state.
President Moon earned a relatively high approval rate of around 40 percent during his final year of rule from his rock-hard base of left-wing support. Meanwhile, he faced widespread distrust for general incompetence in administration, extreme partisanship in high-level appointments and pro-labor, anti-capital economic policies. Belatedly, he corrected his most unpopular energy denuclearization program and extended the phase-out timetable.
The pandemic rages on and the new administration will confront the crucial question of how to “compensate” for the financial losses people were forced to suffer under the government’s social distancing measures. The choice between universal cash handouts and selective compensation was one of the core issues in the presidential campaign, but both camps competitively raised the volume of relief funds, disregarding fiscal rules. Now with a sober mind, the new administration will have to pare it down, braving complaints.
Five years is not a very long time — actually too short to try and accomplish the many projects that party strategists indiscriminately put together as campaign pledges in order to please all conceivable social sectors and interest groups. For their part, wise voters have already been trained in previous elections not to expect the new ruling force to carry out every item in their platform. After all, most people had cast their votes without knowing or closely examining campaign promises.
The transition committee will open its office in the usual place near Cheong Wa Dae. The people will begin to assess the new government with names the panel will announce as candidates for the first Cabinet. The list will tell us how the new ruling force seeks to fulfill its vow of national reconciliation by recruiting trustworthy people regardless of political backgrounds. The new president will be able to exhibit his leadership style by adjusting his own choice with the committee’s recommendation.
When the committee sets up the priority order in domestic and foreign policy projects, it can best serve the president and the nation by relentlessly crossing out unrealistic and impractical items from the dossier of party-level commitments. On the other hand, an overly ambitious transition committee can draw criticism when its members go out of bounds by interfering with the original business of government ministries with a mistaken understanding of its preparatory mission.
The issue of urban housing was a key subject of contention in the presidential race. Again, the new administration is advised to dump the promise to provide decent apartments at affordable prices for the young working class, which simply is impossible. Just doing the opposite of what the past administration had tried may be the best way to bring down apartment prices, which nearly doubled in Seoul under Moon’s rule.
For organizational reforms, the No. 1 target is the 1-year-old Corruption Investigation Office for High-ranking Officials, which deserves to be abolished. Established to exclude politics from law enforcement, the CIO has proved to be a servant of politics. The problem is whoever in power would find such an agency useful and resist any initiative for a change.
Candidates offered to vacate the grandiose presidential mansion in favor of using a downtown office in order to be closer to the people. This is a laudable idea because Cheong Wa Dae is not suitable for a working president, but has so much unnecessary space that deprives its resident of a sense of reality. Moon made the same promise, but swallowed it without proper explanation.
What is urgent is improving relations with Japan and strengthening the alliance with the United States. South Korea’s entry into the Quadrilateral Security Dialogue, which currently includes the US, Australia, India and Japan, is desirable. Moon’s aides indicate that South Korea has not been requested to join, but US sources say that it was Seoul that asked Washington not to invite it to the regional security framework.
Last but not least, we would advise the president-elect to forgo a fancy inaugural speech. His hourlong address in the National Assembly Plaza ceremony on May 10 is likely to contain a bunch of rosy promises his speechwriter assiduously collected from his campaign pledges.
Five years ago, South Koreans heard President Moon remark in his inaugural speech: “You will live in a country that you have never experienced before … In the Democratic Party administration, opportunities shall be equal, the process shall be fair and the result shall be just.” People recited these words whenever they witnessed instances that denied what their president had prophesied.
We don’t want the solemn words of the presidential inaugural speech to be used as a sarcastic joke anymore.