“From Dissident To President”: An Assessment Of President Moon Jae-In’s 5-Year Term
Part 1: Domestic Affairs
The 2017 Presidential Elections in South Korea marked the end of an almost decade-long conservative rule. The new President was Moon Jae-in, a left-leaning former human rights lawyer who was once imprisoned for his participation in pro-democracy protests (BBC, 2018). Moon achieved electoral remarkable wins: he gathered 41% of the total votes in an election with the highest turnout in the past 20 years and won more than 50% of the votes among the 30-49 age group in a traditionally conservative society (The Economist, 2017; Kwon, Boykoff and Griffiths, 2017; Phippen, 2017). Additionally, Moon achieved a 17% point lead over the runner-up, in a total of 13 Presidential candidates (The Economist, 2017; 박 [Park], 2017). At the end of his Presidency, Moon had the highest-ever approval ratings for a South Korean President at the end of their term, standing at 45% (Choi, 2022). Nevertheless, none of that translated to long-term gains for his party, the Democratic Party of Korea, as it lost not only two major cities in the 2021 by-elections, Seoul and Busan but also, and perhaps most importantly, the 2022 Presidential elections to the opposition’s People Power Party (Lee, 2021; Seo, 2022 ).
The chasm between maintaining high approval ratings and the loss of the elections highlights the need for a critical assessment of President Moon Jae-in’s 5-year-long rule, one based not only on his key campaign pledges but also on unforeseen circumstances such as the COVID-19 pandemic.
Fig. 1: Presidential elections voting turnout in South Korea between 1987 and 2017.
Source: 조 [Jo], 2017.
Campaign pledges and outcomes
President Moon Jae-in was elected following the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye due to corruption allegations (Park, 2017). Faced with a nation in turmoil, shaken by the presidential scandal, soaring housing costs and a growing generational divide, President Moon promised to be “President of all the people” and tried to implement much-needed change in South Korea’s domestic and foreign policies (Hotham, 2017; Denney, 2017). Starting with his domestic commitments, President Moon promised ground-breaking reforms. However, five years later, it appears that little work has been done in the areas where change was needed the most.
Unemployment, work hours, and minimum wage.
Faced with climbing unemployment rates, he pledged the creation of 810.000 jobs in the public sector, focusing on teachers, police officers, firefighters, and caretakers in nursing homes. The objective was to help with the country’s growing elderly population and to provide incentives that would churn out an additional half a million jobs in the private sector (Rossi, 2017; Seo, 2017). Yet, in June 2017, a month after Moon’s election, the unemployment rate stood at 3.8% (KOSTAT, 2017). By January 2021, it had reached 5.7% and in January 2022 it dropped to 4.1% (KOSTAT, 2022). Despite the government’s efforts, the supplementary budgets and the stimuli checks, the pandemic took its toll on the country’s economy. The number of irregular workers increased and the combined number of new jobs stands at a mere 130,000, with the country’s six biggest chaebols (재벌, family-owned conglomerates), KT, Samsung, LG, SK, Posco and Hyundai Motor, promising an additional 179,000 in the next three years (Korea Herald, 2021; Shin, 2021; Stangarone, 2021; Yoon, 2021).
Even though these employment targets were not met, President Moon delivered on two other key work-related promises regarding long work hours and low minimum wage. The 68-hour week is a chronic problem in South Korea’s workforce. To combat this, in 2018, President Moon established a 52-hour-maximum workweek (40-hour-week + a maximum of 12 hours for overtime) in larger companies: Nonetheless, this measure excludes 2 in every 5 employees based on sector, company size and labour market status, excludes 2 in every 5 employees, and is still frequently flouted by both employers and employees (Haas, 2018; Hijzen & Thewissen, 2020). Moon has also been consistent in his promise to increase the minimum wage, as, in all fairness, all his predecessors had done. As shown in Figure 2, the minimum wage has increased every year, despite the slowdown triggered by the pandemic. Additionally, while the government decided on a further 5.05% increase for 2022, with the new minimum wage reaching 9,160 won per hour, it is still 840 won shy of President Moon’s campaign promise (Ko, 2021).
Fig. 2: Minimum Wage in South Korea from 2016 to 2021. Source: Ministry of Employment and Labor, n. d.
Finally, President Moon promised to curb household debt and implement measures to help young people become homeowners (Seo, 2017). While he imposed taxes on owners of multiple properties (Choi, 2020), South Korea’s household debt stands at a grand 103% of the GDP and real estate prices have almost doubled since 2017 (Cho, 2022).
It is undeniable that the administration fell short of its promises to help aspiring homeowners and relieve the burdens of unemployment, especially between 2017 and 2019. Yet, given external factors at play, such as the COVID-19 pandemic, it would be unfair to blame the Moon government for the shortcomings of the 2020-2022 period. Nonetheless, curbing the long work weeks in a nation where being overworked is the norm (Kwon and Field, 2018) was a significant victory of the Moon presidency in domestic affairs.
Fight against corruption
Among the reforms President Moon promised to implement were drastic changes in the operation framework of the chaebols, especially after the financial scandal that led to the impeachment of his predecessor.
Prohibiting the passing down of generational power within the chaebols, putting an end to the pardons on chaebol-related financial crimes, increasing regulation to break off the chaebol rule of the corporate landscape and establishing a “National Integrity Committee” against corruption: these policy proposals seemed to resonate with voters (Seo, 2017). Despite representatives of the conglomerates judging the chaebol-related suggested legislation as “overregulating”, the newly-introduced pieces were passed by the National Assembly on December 9th, 2020. In doing so, they theoretically limited the power of the most influential families in South Korea (Kim S., 2020; Kim S.-y. , 2020; Kim J., 2020). A few days later, the National Assembly passed a bill approving the establishment of the Corruption Investigation Office of High-ranking Officials (Song, 2019).
In the same vein, Moon declared the need for transparency in the appointment of government officials and the increased independence of the Board of Audit and Inspection (BAI). To fulfil this promise, in 2021, he nominated Choe Jae-hae, an experienced auditor from within the BAI, as head of the Board. This made him the first-ever Director to have experience working on the Board in 73 years (Kim S., 2021).
Nonetheless, scandals were one of the key features of President Moon’s term; for example, earlier in Moon’s term, in 2019, Justice Minister Cho Kuk, Moon’s personal choice, had to quit only after a month of assuming office. The government’s housing agency, directly influenced by the President and thus the Democratic Party, was at the centre of a scandal related to profits deriving from government-funded housing development projects, even after Choe, another of Moon’s choices was made head of the Board (Choe, 2021; Harris and Lee, 2022).
Lastly, after consecutive spying allegations against the National Intelligence Service (NIS) (for example BBC, 2014; Denney, 2015, Park, S. S., 2017), Moon promised to redirect their efforts to exclusively overseas-related duties, therefore increasing the jurisdiction of the national police in terms of intelligence services (Seo, 2017). Consequently, in December 2020, the National Assembly passed a law limiting the jurisdiction of the NIS to counterintelligence, counterterrorism and intelligence-gathering related to North Korean affairs, taking away, by 2024, all rights to conducting investigations related to domestic politics (Shim, 2020).
From a legislative point of view, the Moon administration pushed for bills that would lay the foundation for increased transparency in the private and public sectors. However, in reality, all efforts were marred by continuous scandals that hindered progress.
Fig. 3: Effigy of former President Park Geun-hye during an anti-government rally demanding the resignation of the president in central Seoul on November 30, 2016.
A President for all the People
Aiming to bring the Presidency closer to the people, President Moon promised to move the working part of the Cheong Wa Dae (the “Blue House”, the residence and office of the President) from a secluded place behind the famous Gyeongbok Palace to a central building in downtown Seoul (Seo, 2017). However, when President Moon moved into the Cheong Wa Dae, he kept it both as the official residence and the Office.
President Moon has long advocated for a constitutional amendment that would change the presidential mandate from a single 5-year term to a four-year term with the option for re-election, promising to hold a referendum in 2018 (Rossi, 2017). Despite President Moon signing the corresponding bill, the opposition boycotted the voting process by not attending the plenary session, leading to the conclusion of talks on constitutional reform (강 [Kang], 2018; 고 [Koh], 2018; 이 [Lee], 2018). Last but not least for domestic affairs, President Moon had announced he wanted to shorten the mandatory military service from 24 to 18 months, as well as increase the payment that the soldiers receive (Seo, 2017). While the first part of this promise was never fulfilled, the wages of the conscripts almost doubled, yet they remain far behind the country’s minimum wage (Choi S.-y. , 2020).
Looking back to his campaign, President Moon made a total of eleven key promises on internal matters: to create more jobs, increase the minimum wage, reduce working hours, curb the power of the chaebol, reform the BAI and the NIS, establish a committee that would investigate corruption in high-ranking politicians, to move the Presidential Office, to change the 5-year Presidential term, to shorten the military service and to increase the wages of the conscripts. Out of the eleven promises, he delivered on six.
Moon’s term was path dependent on the history of South Korean political and financial affairs as chronic problems remained unchanged, and the few steps forward were either the minimum expected or relatively ineffective. Political and economic scandals were common occurrences and crucial problems for the younger generations were not resolved. While he induced change on the anti-corruption front and can be credited with the reduction of working hours, he was unable to bring forth a Constitutional reform regarding the Presidential term, a reform characterised as “public demand” (강 [Kang], 2018). Yet, the biggest paradox might be that he was counting on the chaebols for new jobs while simultaneously imposing legislation to reduce their wealth and power.
In the end, according to analysts, treading the usual path when having promised the sky was enough for the voters to turn their back on Moon’s Democratic Party and elect the opposition candidate as the next President (Choon, 2022; Lee J.-m., 2022; The Strait Times, 2022). Nevertheless, whether it is due to the lack of alternatives (Jung, 2020) or because the people truly trusted him, Moon remains the most popular outgoing President in the country’s history.
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