“Moon Jae-in is worse than Adolf Hitler!” thundered the Reverend Jeon Gwang-hoon, a prominent figure in Protestant religious circles, to a group of visibly astonished foreign correspondents last Wednesday.
“Hitler made bad decisions to promote the benefits of Germans!” the hard-right opponent of the Korean president and a prominent organizer of flag-waving conservative demonstrators added, by way of explanation. “What Moon Jae-in is doing promotes the benefits of North Korea!”
While few sane persons with knowledge of the Third Reich would dream of comparing the president of democratic South Korea with the dictator who launched the world’s bloodiest war and oversaw industrial genocide, Jeon’s hyperbole is emblematic of the soaring emotions that are dredging a deep divide in South Korea’s body politic.
Many of these high feelings swirl around the person of President Moon Jae-in.
It’s about politics, not policies
Every Saturday, thousands of conservatives rally and protest in central Seoul; a hardcore of hundreds are permanently camped outside the gates of the president’s Blue House. Last month, huge numbers – estimates range from the high hundreds of thousands to the low millions – protested both for and against Moon’s government. The issue was the president’s appointment of a controversial close associate, Cho Kuk – whose daughter stood accused of gaining university entrance through familial influence – as justice minister.
That issue has died down, following Cho’s resignation barely a month into his term. Even so, every Saturday, thousands of conservatives rally and protest in central Seoul; a hardcore of hundreds are permanently camped outside the gates of the Blue House.
The right lambasts Moon’s policies – few of which could, objectively, be considered successful. Yet Moon’s ratings, midway through his single, constitutionally mandated five-year term, remain solid: The latest Gallup poll, from the first week of November, found 45% approve of him.
“President Moon’s popularity might not be as high as it was when he was first elected, but it remains a lot higher than most democratically elected officials in spite of his many failures,” columnist and commentator Lee Jong-won told Asia Times.
Korea’s political battleground, it appears, is less about current policies, more about broader political ideologies.
On the policy front, Moon can point to few successes.
GDP growth is stalling: early forecasts for 2% by year-end look increasingly out of reach. The micro economy, judging by the endless imdae (“for sale”) signs posted on shopfronts in multiple Seoul neighborhoods tell their own story.
At the top of the economy, conglomerate reform, a promise of all progressive presidents, has gone nowhere. At the bottom of the economy, consecutive annual rises of 16.4% and 10.9% in the minimum wage, together with a cap of 52 hours in the working week, have been massively criticized by small business groups. In July, facing dire macro numbers, Moon apologized, making it clear he would not continue the rises next year.
Looking overseas, Moon’s flagship policy – upgrading relations with North Korea – is in tatters. With North Korea-US denuclearization talks frozen, Moon’s hopes of being an intermediary have evaporated; his oft-repeated vow to establish a cross-DMZ “peace economy” now looks like wishful thinking.
North Korean leader Kim Jong Un, with whom Moon was so chummy last year, is putting the boot in. He has ordered the destruction of South Korean-owned buildings at a mothballed joint-tourism resort and is ignoring Seoul’s pleas for talks. Pyongyang is also silent on Seoul’s repeated offers of food aid.
Relations with China, Korea’s top trade partner, stagger on. Beijing remains angry at the 2015 deployment of THAAD, a US anti-missile system, on Korean soil. No K-pop acts have been allowed to perform in China since, and Korean game-companies are refused licenses. Major business groups, such as Hyundai Motor and Lotte have also suffered fallout in terms of sales and operations in China.
Relations with Japan have plummeted. After Seoul contravened two bilateral agreements, dating to 1965 and 2015, Japan retaliated with trade curbs. Moon recently reached out to Japanese Premier Shinzo Abe in an apparent effort to repair the damage; it is unclear whether Abe will respond.
Meanwhile, Seoul’s only ally, Washington, is urging it, in unusually frank terms, to reverse its decision to nix an intelligence-sharing agreement with Japan – a weapon Seoul deployed in its dispute with Tokyo.
Still, Moon’s battle with Abe, while diplomatically problematic, may be politically favorable amid a stridently anti-Tokyo populace. “President Moon has used voters’ anti-Japanese sentiment to his advantage,” Lee said. “He was able to deflect much of the voters’ anger over the economy away from himself and aimed it straight at Tokyo.”
Moon entered the presidential Blue House on an ultra-low baseline: He surged into office on a wave of public hysteria aimed at his conservative predecessor as president, Park Geun-hye.
Park herself was the daughter of the late president Park Chung-hee. Many old- generation Koreans revere him as the visionary who lifted South Korea from economic basket case to industrial powerhouse; many younger Koreans lambast his power grab and his authoritarian politics.
The father’s legacy hovered over the daughter’s presidency from day one. Subsequently, Park Junior would be accused of boudoir management – relying for counsel not on ministers or aides, but on crony Choi Soon-shil. Choi not only held no official position, many Koreans believed she had a psychological or even supernatural hold over Park.
Park was embroiled in Choi’s corrupt schemes, which also entangled some of Korea’s Inc’s biggest corporate names, notably Samsung and Lotte.
After millions-strong “Candlelit Protests” resulted in Park’s impeachment, Moon was elected in 2017. He vowed to eradicate “deep rooted evils” – the legacies of authoritarian presidents who ruled Korea prior to democratization in 1987.
This is where the ideological fault line in Korean politics lies.
A long, lingering legacy
Conservatives. predominantly older citizens, laud those leaders for defending the South from communist North Korea, for forging an alliance with hyper-power the United States, for eradicating poverty and for building a world-beating industrial base from nothing.
But many young and/or leftist Koreans see related “evils” as myriad. They consider conservative presidents collaborators with Japanese colonialists; mass murderers of leftist Koreas before and during the Korean War; dictators who suppressed democracy; and mandarins who oversaw the creation, empowerment and entrenchment of a corrupt corporate-government nexus.
This indicates Moon’s key selling point may be less himself, more what he stands against.
“I don’t think Moon is strong,” Kwon Hee-jong, a translator based in the city of Chuncheon, told Asia Times. “[But] his supporters are very strongly and powerfully and loyally entrenched against hardcore conservatives, as they know the malice and evils they have done. It is not far removed in time from our current life.”
Under Moon, both Park and her right-wing predecessor, Lee Myung-bak, ended up in jail, along with most of Park’s cabinet.
Moreover, Since Park’s 2017 downfall, Korea’s right – thought, in toto, holding more seats than Moon’s Democratic Party – has splintered into two main parties, and lacks a clear leader. It is unclear whether they can rally before next April’s National Assembly elections.
Hard right vs hard left
In the heated political climate it is strangely difficult to find experts willing to speak on the record. Two Seoul think tanks contacted by Asia Times declined to comment for fear of appearing partisan.
Radicals and rally organizers on both sides are happier to speak up.
“It is our conclusion that President Moon is coordinating with North Korea to spread communist despotism throughout the country, consuming our rights and limiting our freedoms,” Reverend Kwan alleged. “Moon is set on destroying the relations with our traditional allies, including the United States and Japan….to draw this country closer to continental influences that encompass China, North Korea and Russia.”
On the opposite side of the spectrum, Park Eun-jong, a leftist activist, recently stated to foreign reporters that Korea has a history of “5,000 years of revolution” and believes that right-wing politics are ”like a false religion” that are “brainwashing” citizens. He calls far-rightists “native raiders” descended from historical Japanese aggressors.
Park’s associate Oh Sang-gyu, leader of the Solidarity for Civil Rights Equal Action Movement for Justice System Reform, or SCREAM, claimed to see no negatives in current relations with China or the United States.
Still, more moderate political voices are willing to offer more nuanced analyses.
Mr Clean, Mr Nice Guy
Some former supporters are looking askance at Moon. Student Park Ji-na told Asia Times she was drifting away, ‘because of Cho Kuk.” She continued, “His daughter had issues with fraud. That is not acceptable.”
“The conservatives are gaining strength and momentum,” noted Lee – but added: “The corruption and ineptitude the conservatives displayed [while in power]are still fresh in people’s minds.”
And the right is not shifting stance.
“The conservatives got away with it too long until the [Park Geun-hye] debacle, when it kind of crumbled, the whole structure, and because of that, we got Moon,” said Kwon. “I don’t think there will be any big changes in the status quo until the conservatives learn what they need to and bring meaningful change, but I see none. They cling to their diehard habits.”
And there is a final reason why Moon’s ratings are holding firm – Moon himself. No scandals have yet besmirched him or his family, and in person, the president is affable, well-presented and charismatic.
“Korean politics has always centered around individuals rather than policy positions,” said Lee. ”For all of President Moon’s faults, he remains personally likable.”