November 3, 2022
SEOUL – With deepest grief for the victims of the Saturday night disaster in Itaewon, I just wish for the political peace that followed the tragedy to last longer, although it is feared to be brief.
After the right-wing conservatives retook power from the leftists with the thinnest margin ever in the March presidential election, South Korea’s ruling and opposition parties have been engaged in a war of attrition with increasingly virile words of incrimination while the nation faces worsening economic and security problems.
President Yoon Suk-yeol, 61, is struggling with an approval rate barely floating at the 30 percent mark for the past six months as his Cabinet appointments failed to earn public trust and his economic policies were slow to show results. Lee Jae-myung, 57, the unsuccessful opposition candidate, meanwhile, confronts the prosecution that is trying to nail him down with multiple criminal charges, including bribery.
If he is found guilty with a punishment heavier than a 1 million won ($714) fine, Lee will immediately lose his National Assembly seat and will be disqualified from running again for president.
Parties clash in the least productive legislature over all major policy matters; on how to help the poor, what to do about North Korea’s nuclear and missile threats and whether to further ease regulations on enterprises and real estate. People are confused and divided by their individual interests, while they are sharply split on their moral judgment of the top leaders on either side.
Regrettably, what did dominate the recent parliamentary inspection of the administration was an allegation introduced by an opposition lawmaker that President Yoon and his protege, Justice Minister Han Dong-hoon, spent a summer night in a posh bar with a group of lawyers from Seoul’s largest law firm. The topic has proved to be a groundless rumor, but no apology was made, and the opposition seemed content at having hardened their unity under the ruling party’s counterattack.
Then there was the unprecedented opposition boycott of the presidential 2023 budget address last week. President Yoon spoke about what his administration would do next year with taxpayers’ money to an Assembly chamber that was less than half full, as all 169 members of the Democratic Party of Korea emptied their seats in protest against what they called “oppression of the opposition” by the ruling party.
Lee Jae-myung has been indicted on a single charge of violating the election law for lying in public, but more serious allegations include his involvement in a large-scale housing development scandal in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, where he served as the mayor. Some of his closest aides have recently been arrested in connection with the case. But the ghastly fact is that since the investigation began last year, three associates of Lee committed suicide and the fourth was found dead in a motel.
Deceit has been the word that dogged the opposition leader from early on in his political life. His indictment stemmed from his claim during an open debate that he was not acquainted with one of the four dead, Kim Mun-ki. His accusers collected pictures showing him boating and playing golf with Kim during his tour of Australia. Investigators are also looking into Lee’s alleged part in bribery by the Doosan Corporation in the form of its contribution to the Seongnam FC soccer team owned by the city.
Almost half of South Korea’s electorate must have listened to the tape of Lee’s heated argument with his brother’s wife over a family dispute which contained unspeakable and unquotable expletives that analysts believed should have cost him at least a million votes in the last election. Lee is undoubtedly an able lawyer and an ingenious administrator. But in the eyes of many Koreans, he lacks the personal integrity required of a national leader.
Lee’s rise to prominence from a small town lawyer to the mayor of Seongnam and to the governor of Gyeonggi Province was truly phenomenal. His twisted left arm from an injury he suffered as a juvenile factory worker is evidence of the hard times he experienced in his youth and of his strong pursuit of societal success. This led him to be not too discriminate about good and bad means to achieve set goals. Messy episodes have been exposed when he challenged for the highest office.
Apparently in order to remove Lee’s legal drawbacks, the party knocked off its internal rule of disqualifying members facing criminal indictment from taking the party leadership. His successful run for an Assembly seat against objections from inside the party after his narrow defeat in the presidential election was seen as an attempt to protect himself with the privilege of parliamentary consent required for the arrest of a lawmaker.
Observers are counting down the number of days before the prosecution issues a summons to Lee for whichever criminal charge is convenient for them to apply, while the relationship between South Korea’s ruling and opposition forces continues to aggravate. Some warriors of the opposition Democratic Party have recently spoken of President Yoon’s impeachment for economic missteps and diplomatic blunders, which are echoed in weekend demonstrations at Seoul’s Gwanghwamun Square.
Ugly confrontation between pro- and anti-government crowds are repeated at the center of the capital city, while the police have so far managed to prevent physical clashes. Yet President Yoon, who has been posting ex-prosecutors to powerful government offices, shows no sign of easing his likely hopeless drive to tame the aggressive oppositionists with the claws of the law.
The right-wing government and the leftist opposition in control of the Assembly have only sped up on a collision course. The denouement in this democratic republic will come in the next parliamentary election 1 1/2 years from now, and hopefully not before that. If South Koreans have become rather impassive to North Korea’s military threats — consisting of frequent firing of missiles into near and distant seas and an impending nuclear test — complaints are growing of rising prices, diminishing jobs and the wearisome political war.
But the real problem seems to lie in the people themselves, who are being increasingly divided by generations, regions and even genders these days. They are allowing themselves to be pawns of polarized politics. Until Yoon Suk-yeol and Lee Jae-myung change, things will not improve in this country.
Kim Myong-sik is a former editorial writer for The Korea Herald. – Ed.