The Extraordinary President

South Korean President Moon Jae-in’spresidency has been extraordinary on several terms. It did not just mark an electoral win with the largest vote share and the quickest transition period in South Korean political history, the first instance of a Liberal acceding power in a decade  but also a novel experiment with Social democracy in a country with a prolonged history of right wing authoritarian regimes. As Moon prepares to bid adieu to the Blue House forever (as South Korea’s Constitution restricts the Presidency to a single term of five years), it is important to reflect on his stint as the 18th President of South Korea.

The Man

Born to refugee parents who fled from North Korea during the Korean War (1950-1953), Moon’s childhood was stricken with poverty as his parents tried hard to make ends meet. He had to stand in queues for hours to receive rations of corn and milk powder distributed by Catholic Churches. Moon grew up to become a political activist fighting for freedom and justice at a time when the authoritarian regime of Park Chung Hee trampled all democratic values promised in the Constitution to pave his way for a lifelong Presidency. His first protest against the regime was in 1969 when Park tried to amend the Constitution and grant himself a third term.

In 1972, the year Moon entered the College of Law at the Kyung Hee University, Park launched his notorious Yushin Constitution which not only banned all forms of political expression including opposition parties, but also dissolved the Parliament and the Judiciary. Like thousands of young students across South Korea, Moon was at the forefront of pro-democracy protests where he met his college mate and future wife, Kim Jung-sook. He was eventually arrested and expelled from the University.

In 1980, he passed his bar exams and finished second at the Judicial Service and Research Institute. He opened a law firm with his friend and another future President, Roh Moo Hyun, through which they provided legal aid to people who could not afford lawyers, particularly factory workers. The two future Presidents actively participated in the 1987 Pro-democracy protests which brought the epoch changing transition to democracy in South Korea. Roh entered politics while Moon chose to stay back in Busan and continue as a lawyer.

Roh became South Korea’s 9th President in 2003 and Moon joined as his close aide, earning the sobriquet “Shadow of Roh“. Roh’s government fell short of the high expectations of the people and disenchanted Moon from politics as he realised he was not fit for public life. However, it was with Roh Moo Hyun’s suicide in 2009 owing to allegations of corruption against him, which were later unfounded, that Moon decided to hold his mantle. Roh’s death did not just shake Moon to the core but South Korean progressives at large who looked towards an uncertain future as the Grand National Party led by Park Geun-hye (former dictator Park Chung hee’s daughter) gained momentum.

Moon contested the Presidential elections in 2012 and lost by a slim margin to Park. However, he won the seat from Busan and entered the National Assembly.

Park’s regime was outlined with gross corruption and repression; however, the worst was yet to come. As she neared the end of her term in October 2016, it was revealed that she not only  actively let an unelected civilian named Choi Soon-sil intervene in political and security issues but also incorporated his economic benefits in her policies. This enraged the South Koreans and a new popular movement called the Candlelight Movement or Chot bul (촛불) emerged. In a country of fifty million, nearly fifteen million hit the streets in peaceful protests to remove Park from office and install a democratic rule. At the forefront was Moon, who had opposed Park’s father 47 years back in a similar fashion. Park’s impeachment was supported by two-thirds majority in the Parliament, confirmed by the Constitution Court in early 2017.

Elections took place as planned in March 2017 and Moon Jae-in won with a massive 41.1% vote share, the largest ever in South Korean history. He assumed office the very next day, becoming the President with the quickest transition in South Korean history.

Grave Challenges

Moon’s support base was predominantly formed by the country’s disenchanted youth. The term ‘Hell Joseon’ (헬조선), which highlighted the plight of South Korea’s capitalist society marked by high unemployment rates, long working hours, discrimination against non regular workers and massive income inequalities, became increasingly popular during 2015. On the home turf, he was faced with the challenge of curbing unemployment, reviving the stagnating economy, levelling inequalities as well as  restoring democratic ideals.

Internationally, he had to rebalance relations with not just an increasingly hostile North Korea but also China, the United States and Japan.

Domestic policies

On Economy

Moon pledged to create more jobs to counter unemployment. He promised to create 810,000 jobs in the public sector, starting from 12000 jobs in the Civil services in the second half of 2017. He planned to create 174,000 civil service positions in national security and public safety; 340,000 in social services and to convert  300,000 non regular workers into permanent employees. Moon’s first appointment after getting elected was with non regular public sector workers of Incheon International Airport when he promised to grant them permanent appointments.

Moon severely criticised the close State-family owned business conglomerate (called Chaebol (재볼)) nexus which he promised to weed out. He pledged to bring in a cumulative voting system that would make it easier for minor stakeholders to place their preferred candidates on the boardroom if they come together. He promised to keep away the Chaebol from sectors better suited for smaller firms and build a transparent system by reforming the top 10 Chaebols. He planned to revamp the ownership structure of the Chaebols and take firm action in embezzlement cases against businessmen as well as illegal transfer of power within their family.

Corruption was a major issue for Moon not just as a pro-democracy activist and human right lawyer but as a close aide of Roh who had suffered deeply due to false allegations of embezzlement.

Moon promised to clean the deep seated irregularities left by the decade-long conservative and corrupt regimes of Lee Myung-bak (2008-2013) and Park Geun-hye (2013-2017). He aimed at setting up a special committee to push for confiscation of illegitimately earned wealth of both Park and Choi. He also promised a probe into the Four River Refurbishment project commissioned during Lee’s regime. Furthermore, he pledged to probe into cases of corruption against high level government officers.

People’s President

In his inaugural speech, Moon pledged to relocate the Presidential office to Gunghwanmun in downtown Seoul and promised to be the President who would be  closely linked to his people and not isolated from them.

Struggling with financial difficulties in his early life, Moon realised the importance of social safety nets and their lack in South Korea. In 2017, OECD ranked South Korea  among the worst performers in terms of expenditure for social welfare.

Flaring income chasm between the rich and the poor has created a Sampo generation (삼포세대) who struggle hard to survive and have to give up on courtship, marriage and children as a result. For the past years, South Korea has been facing a downward trend in both marital and fertility rates. To counter this, Moon promised to provide state accommodation and quality jobs to newlyweds. He also promised to expand state run creches, set up village schools, extend parental leave and double the leave pay.

Moreover, he promised to provide financial subsidies to Koreans of all ages. Parents with children upto 5 years of age were promised monthly subsidies worth ₩100,000. ₩300,000 of monthly subsidies were promised upto 8 months to young unemployment people aged 18-34 years and ₩300,000 were promised to elderly aged 65 and above who form the bottom 70% of the income bracket.

Moon also promised to implement a welfarist approach in medical care and expand medical insurance coverage. A separate facility for elderly patients suffering from dementia was also promised.

Reforms in education have been a top priority for Moon. He promised to expand the existing state supported tuition subsidy to both preschool and highschool. He also planned to diversify the school curriculum by letting students choose the electives of their interest instead of studying compulsory subjects. Moreover, he promised to simplify the university entrance procedure so as to increase the number of students in higher education.

Claiming himself to be a “Feminist President“, Moon recognised the lack of women’s participation in the workforce and the wide pay gap among male and female employees. He promised to not only support women entrepreneurs but also provide them good quality jobs and equal wages. Moon refused to support LGBT rights and openly opposed homosexuality.

Working closely with workers for decades, Moon claimed to represent their demands in his election promises.  In fact, the country’s largest umbrella labour union endorsed his campaign. He promised to create a joint platform for workers, managers and the government to negotiate on labour demands. Moreover, he promised to reduce working hours, raise the minimum wage to ₩10,000 by 2020 and appoint irregular workers as permanent employees.

Moon Jae-in also promised to curb pollution due to minute dust particles and pledged to collaborate with China in this regard. He also planned to halt Lee’s controversial Four Rivers project which is alleged to have led to deteriorating water quality and promised to restore the rivers to their natural state.

On Democracy

Being a leader of the pro-democracy movement that enabled South Korea’s historic democratic transition and continuing democratic consolidation, Moon was viewed as the champion of democratic values by many. He promised to reduce the extensive executive powers of the President, who currently stands as the second most powerful President in all of Asia after the President of Kazakhstan, certainly the most powerful when it comes to functional democracies. 

Apart from promising an internal probe into corruption cases against prosecutors and judges, He promised to scale back the monopolistic authority enjoyed by the state prosecution and hand over their ordinary investigative duties to the police. Moreover, Moon pledged to restrict the National Intelligence Services from collecting domestic personal data.

Foreign relations

Moon’s foreign policy revolved around mending relations with both China and Japan, which deteriorated over the installation of THAAD  and of Comfort Women respectively.

North Korea was accorded a special place in Moon’s diplomacy. Unlike his predecessors, Moon did not just realise the importance of dialogue in achieving denuclearisation of the Korean Peninsula but understood cooperative relations between the two nations in a much deeper  way. Hence, he promised to negotiate with Pyongyang on the lines of Kim Dae-jung’s “Sunshine Policy”.

Dubious Legacy

Moon’s Presidency has received mixed reactions.

In terms of employment, the “Jobs President” has not been able to keep his word. In July 2021, the minimum wage was raised to ₩ 9,160 which ruffled feathers among both labour unions and business circles. While the labour unions wanted the minimum wage to be over ₩ 10,000, the businessmen wanted it to be below ₩ 9000. It has also badly affected small businesses which find it hard to employ part time workers. His critics have also labelled his policies as ‘anti-business’ and hence, detrimental to economic growth. Moon granted regular contracts to 9,785 non regular employees of Incheon International Airport within 7 months. The workers of the Korean Railway Corporation fired in 2003 strikes were also reinstated.

However, his decision to regularise non-regular workers has created fissures within the working class as those who were regularised through long periods of service and examinations saw the easy regularisation of the ones with more than 9 months of service as a form of reverse discrimination.

As promised, Moon brought in reforms to curb the power of the Chaebols. The weight of their vote to elect their auditor has been restricted to 3% which loosens family control over the business. Apart from widening the scope of non-family members entering the business, the new laws also allow an independent probe into unlawful business transactions with Chaebol affiliates. Working conditions still remain poor as demonstrated by the October 2021 protest by workers donning the costumes of the popular Korean drama Squid Game to highlight their precarious situation.

Moon’s government passed several housing laws to bring rising real estate prices in the Seoul metropolitan region under control but it has only created hurdles for those below 40 to purchase houses as the prices continue to skyrocket. The Citizens’ Coalition for Economic Justice revealed that 42 governing party legislators own two or more houses and earned huge profits as a result of rising real estate prices, bringing the intent behind the laws under question.

The “Feminist President” has performed well but still lags in terms of achieving a 50-50 gender representation in government where South Korea performs better than the United States with women forming  22.2% of the government. A major roadblock to reaching the 50% mark is the lack of qualified women candidates for both higher level government jobs and politicians.

Though Moon quickly formed committees to investigate  embezzlement allegations against Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak, his own image has not remained untarnished. In January 2019, his public relations manager was charged with a two and a half years of imprisonment over manipulating social media to build a favourable opinion of Moon. His Justice Minister Cho Kuk has also come under fire for corruption allegations.

The 2021 Anti-Corruption and Civil Rights Administration report enlisted the Ministry of Land, Infrastructure and Transport as the most corrupt ministry, with the Korean National Police Agency, the National Tax Services and the Ministry of Food and Drug Safety performing only marginally better.

Moon’s environmental policies have also remained dubious. In October 2020, South Korea declared to achieve carbon neutrality by 2050, the realisation of which remains under question provided that 40% of its electricity generation depends on coal with only 6% is  dependent on renewable resources. Seoul’s emission targets remain weak and its Green New Deal is more about economy than the environment.

Moon’s Presidency has also failed to live up to his past record of democratic and human rights defense. His government has been accused of abuse of power on several tangents, including reducing the National Assembly to its ‘law passing agency’ where it dominates all 17 of its standing committees. The Moon administration has also circumvented all subcommittee reviews and other consultative procedures as required under the National Assembly Act.

The Supreme Prosecutor’s Office (SPO) has also been brought under the government’s complete control. The head of the SPO, Yoon Seok-youl, who prosecuted corruption cases related to the Moon administration, has also been harassed on charges that have been unfounded. Moon and his Party have remained silent on sexual harassment allegations against their local government heads including Seoul Mayor Park Won-soon.

On the foreign policy front too, things have not been satisfactory. South Korea’s relations with both China and Japan remain rocky. Moon’s agenda of crafting an independent foreign policy has also failed as it continues to tilt towards the US.

Moon’s policy to negotiate with North Korea too has met a tragic end. Hopes were high when Moon met his North Korean counterpart Kim Jong-un at Panmunjom in April 2018. Several crucial issues related to cultural and economic cooperation were raised as the two leaders embraced each other and walked hand in hand.

It seemed serious commitments on denuclearisation of the Korean peninsula were underway when US President Donald Trump met Kim in June 2019 and became the first US President ever to step foot in North Korea. However, all hopes shattered when the Hanoi Summit between Washington and Pyongyang broke down over the issue of unconditional denuclearisation and lifting of sanctions. Pyongyang bombed the Kaesong joint liaison office it had established with Seoul to further cooperation and severed all communication lines. Relations have been strained since then. Moon however did not leave hope.

At the COP 26 meet in Glasgow, Moon called upon North Korea to join Seoul in a joint reforestation campaign but received no response. A fleeting moment of hope came in December 2021 when both sides agreed to call an end to the Korean War (1950-1953), which without a peace treaty, continues in principle. However, North Korea’s rapid missile launches in January 2022 and its claim to restart ‘all abandoned activities’, which might indicate nuclear tests, have hit the relations to an all time low and Moon has drawn considerable flak for ‘appeasing’ Pyongyang by calling for peace.

Covid 19

Moon’s Presidency also encompassed the extraordinary times of the Coronavirus pandemic, the severity and expanse of which took the whole world by surprise. Up until December 2020, South Korea presented the shining model of pandemic control. It was one of the first high income economies to reach pre-pandemic levels and death rates remained low. The miracle was possible because of its “three-T strategy” i.e. early, frequent and safe testing; effective contact tracing and treating patients by segregating mild cases to government monitored centres. South Koreans were also provided with medical kits including oxygen saturation measurement devices and thermometers. Seoul managed well without a stringent nationwide lockdown.

However, cracks soon began to appear in the healthcare infrastructure with the advent of the highly infectious though less deadly Omicron variant as infection rates reached the million mark in February 2022.

The new “select and focus strategy” has been criticised for abandoning people under 60 who are now expected to obtain medical kits at their cost, creating problems for the poorer citizens.

As noted, Moon leaves behind a dubious trail of legacy. For some, he gave way too much than desired; for others, he didn’t do enough. While his views on homosexuality and silence on harassment charges against his aides are disheartening and disturbing,  it must be pointed out that most of his shortcomings stem from South Korea’s liberal democratic and capitalist economic structure. With decades of authoritarian rule including nearly three decades of quasi military dictatorship, South Korean democracy still lies on the lower end of the continuum of democratic consolidation. Governance remains authoritarian, Parties remain weak and Human rights are frequently flouted as abuse of power continues. The capitalist system structurally favours Chaebols to the extent that any attempts at curtailing their power  ends up destabilising the economy. The fissures between the workers too point to a weak collective consciousness as a result of decades of authoritarian rule which furthered a rigorous agenda of workers’ suppression to achieve economic growth.

This applies to the issue of Gender inequality too. The continuation of a blend of  Confucian codes of chastity and feminine morality along with militarist ethos has restricted progress to a small pool of qualified female leaders. The dominant view against homosexuality can also be located in the militarist ethos.

Toeing the line set for it by the United States since its inception in 1948, choosing a foreign policy completely aloof from Washington is a step too radical for the Republic of Korea to achieve, that too in a single term of five years. Moon’s efforts to negotiate with Pyongyang however, have been the most remarkable. Even in failure, he cannot be blamed for not trying. His legacy would last as not just a  fleeting attempt at crafting out a social democracy on a soil with a long tryst with authoritarian regimes but more so as a reminder of what political and economic flaws South Korea retains and how they must be corrected through structural changes. So how does Moon Jae-in go down in history? Till the historians of tomorrow present a better insight, as an Extraordinary President.

Cherry Hitkari
Cherry Hitkari
Non-resident Vasey Fellow at Pacific Forum, Hawaii. Cherry Hitkari is an Advisory Board member of 'Tomorrow's People' at Modern Diplomacy. She holds a Masters in East Asian Studies specialising in Chinese Studies and is currently pursuing an advanced diploma in Chinese language at the Department of East Asian Studies, University of Delhi, India.