How would history remember Moon administration?

How would history remember Moon administration?
President Moon, five years ago

With the new President to be sworn in next week, it would be a good time to reflect on the Moon administration’s legacy.

President Moon himself seems to have been thinking about this a lot these days:

[E]very Korean president has had their share of accomplishments and failures. Some presidents seem to have more shortcomings than advantages. Others have been held accountable legally and historically.

Meeting with the Blue House press corps, April 2022

In his last cabinet meeting on Tuesday, the first thing Moon mentioned as his administration’s accomplishment was overcoming the 2019 semiconductor trade skirmish

My [a]dministration’s five years were a time to overcome national crises by fully mustering government-wide capabilities and a process of making even greater progress while turning crises into opportunities. Against Japan’s unjustifiable export restrictions, we have strived to attain self-sufficiency in our materials, parts and equipment industries, thereby solidifying the foundation for “a nation that cannot b[e] shaken.”

Opening remarks for his last cabinet meeting, May 2022

I have my doubts whether South Korea’s semiconductor industry really overcame the aftermath of the trade dispute but let’s just note how big it was for him to kick Japan’s ass and move on for now.

Populist nature

In fact, Moon’s Japan policy shows the nature of the administration, by which I mean Moon and the Minjoo’s 86 generation politicians, very well. 

A democracy that only follows the public sentiment […] has little room for considering other country’s core interests as it uses nationalistic sentiment and rage for its political basis. […] Moon administration’s Japan policy was a typical case of a bad foreign policy by a degenerate democracy that [Graham] Allison worried. (translation mine)

Han Ji-won. President’s Challenges (대통령의 숙제). Seoul: Hanbit Biz, Inc. 2022.

Han is known as a Marxist political economist, but he sounds more like the Scottish enlightenment thinkers in this book. His analysis of the question of democracy and economic development is spot-on, and I’d recommend this book to every Korean watcher who can read Korean.

Another jewel from his book on Moon’s minimal wage policy:

Surprisingly, the minimum wage has increased proportionately with the gap between the positive and negative in the public opinion polls. In 2017 when the positive led by 17%p, the administration increased the minimum wage by 16.4%. In 2018, the gap was 1%p, and the minimum wage was increased by 10.9%. In 2019 it was -28%p, and the minimum wage increased by 2.8%. In 2020, it was -31%p and the minimum wage increased by 1.5%. […]

How the Moon administration decided on the minimum wage shows the nature of the administration. It’s the belief that the public opinion is the democracy and superior to the scientific truth.

Han Ji-won. President’s Challenges (대통령의 숙제). Seoul: Hanbit Biz, Inc. 2022.

As I mentioned before, this is why Moon maintains his popularity among a particular portion of the nation.

History will remember the Moon administration as the first populist administration in the Sixth Republic of Korea. While every administration had a trace of a populist approach, the Moon administration had no philosophy of its own on how to run a country other than relying on public opinion.

The term philosophy may sound grandiose. Let’s say then something you think you need to push ahead for the nation’s greater good even though you know the public wouldn’t like it. For the late President Roh Moo-hyun, it was the ROK-US FTA. (More on why Roh, infamous for his anti-Americanism, changed his mind later)

Even the Park administration dared to reform the pension schemes, but the Moon administration remained silent on the unpopular but necessary reform. 

Instead, Moon catered to his supporters’ ressentiment

It is well known that his housing policy that revolved around punitive taxations and prohibitions—reflecting people’s frustration rather than consideration on how to tame housing prices—fueled the price surge.

There’s no reason to believe his prosecutor reform, conceived by the death of President Roh and propelled by the fear of the Minjoo oligarchs for their safety after Moon’s term, would prove otherwise. 

It is less known that the Moon administration tried to do a similar thing with the media. This administration will also be remembered as the most antagonistic towards the press.

Can Korea get beyond where Japan and Italy failed?

While Moon praises himself for establishing “a nation that cannot be shaken,” South Korea finds itself at a crossroads. According to Han, one leads to the paths of the United States, Canada, and Germany and the other one to the paths of Italy and Japan.

Han says he began to write a book on South Korea’s democracy after studying the Maddison Project.

Two things grabbed my attention while looking at the GDP per capita data of the G7 nations. One was that those of Japan and Italy went lower than South Korea’s. The other was that the two countries stopped climbing up and began to fall at the economic level South Korea achieved in the 2010s (GDP per capita $30,000). The two countries went through corruption, the downfall of the establishment, the proliferation of populism, and missed the right moment to reform the economy amid the failure of democracy. I thought it was similar to South Korea under President Moon Jae-in.

Han Ji-won. President’s Challenges (대통령의 숙제). Seoul: Hanbit Biz, Inc. 2022.

The current presidential system has a severe defect: the President’s authority to run the nation is too vast without ample checks and balances. Arthur Schlesinger’s imperial presidency is more suitable for the South Korean system. 

For example, a president can name whomever they want as a minister without Assembly’s blessing. However, historically the former presidents tried to respect the Assembly, and it was very hard for a ministerial nominee to be appointed with strong opposition from the Assembly.

Moon’s disrespect to the customary was extraordinary. While President Lee Myung-bak appointed 17 ministers without the Assembly’s adoption of a confirmation report, Moon has appointed more than 30 without. 

When asked about this by Sohn Suk-hee, Moon answered bluntly that it is “legal.” Either he was ignorant of or disregarded that unwritten democratic norms are equally essential to protect democracy.

We have seen the erosion of democratic norms under the Moon administration. Another example is the 2019 revision of the Public Official Election Act. The ruling Minjoo passed the bill despite the opposition protest while it had been a norm that any amendment of the election law shall be passed under an agreement with the opposition since 1987.

Crumbling democracy leads to longer economic crises, Han argues, since both the market and the government can’t reform the rent-seeking elite, which is the chaebol groups and the employees of these groups and the public sector in the case of South Korea.

The imperial presidency goes well with the elite. They are few, so mediating a conflict of interests is much easier than in more democratic governmental systems. So often chaebol heirs rubbed shoulders with the President, and the President didn’t dare to cross mammoth trade unions.

Thus the ultimate challenge of the President of the Republic of Korea is not only to reform the elite that is already causing scleroses in the economy but to reform the presidency itself toward a more decentralized system, like a parliamentary one.

Would the next President, Yoon Seok-yeol be different? Well, it’s the system, not the person.