Posted : 2018-01-12 15:44
Updated : 2018-01-12 17:28

Does everybody love the President?

People pass the electronic board celebrating the 66th birthday of President Moon Jae-in at a subway station in downtown Seoul, Friday. / Korea Times

By Oh Young-jin

A conservative newspaper reporter faced a firestorm of online criticism for making a "wrong" statement during President Moon Jae-in's Jan. 10 New Year news conference.

"Any article critical of the President triggers angry, emotional responses from your backers," a vernacular Chosun Ilbo daily reporter said. "Would you tell them to stop them so the reporters will be able to write without any fear?"

President Moon replied that he had his share of critics as a politician and told the reporter not to pay too much attention to them.

Then, articles the reporter filed to his paper's website and Naver portal were bombarded with tens of thousands of criticisms _ some telling him to stop whining. "We may be critical of you as a reporter as you are of the President," and "Why do you ask the President to stop citizens' protests of your paper?" were the tenor of the postings.

True, there is bad blood between the liberal president and the conservative paper.
But it may show more to come _ a populist dictatorship in the making, if not already one.

Moon has enjoyed high popularity since his May 2017 inauguration _ approval ratings having rarely gone below 70 percent.

That number includes Moon's fierce supporters and more benign brand of liberal-minded supporters, together with conservatives who are disillusioned by the incompetence of President Park Geun-hye, a conservative leader who was impeached, removed from office and is being tried for corruption and sundry other charges.
Candlelight protests are under way for the ouster of President Park Geun-hye in this undated photo. / Korea Times

Also helping Moon is the opposition in total disarray, led by Hong Joon-pyo, a throwback from the dictatorship era of Park's father, the army general-turned-president, Park Chung-hee. Hong is petty-minded enough to be a Trojan horse that would sabotage any conservative comeback.

So there is no opposition to speak of that will give checks and balances to the President. That has been made possible by his populist agenda, and its successful application could only embolden him more.

Moon ordered a review of the Korea-Japan agreement signed in December 2015 on "comfort women," former Korean sex slaves forced to serve at Japanese military brothels during World War II.

The review hit an "emotional chord" with the public but strained ties with Japan further and raised a credibility issue on the international stage. The review found the deal wrong but decided not to go back on the agreement.

The Moon government raised a big fuss over the defense deals with the United Arab Emirates (UAE) that are said to contain Korea's obligation to provide military support for the Middle Eastern country if it asks for help.

Korea and UAE exchanged top-level envoys but the government didn't disclose what transpired.

"Taegukgi rallies" are to counter calls for the impeachment of President Park Geun-hye. /Korea Times

Then, its decision to deploy the U.S. Terminal High Altitude Area Defense (THAAD), an anti-missile battery, was managed in a way to generate a great deal of noise. So was the process of pushing for exit from the nation's reliance on nuclear power for its energy needs.

All these cases fit the same pattern.

They are all bequeathed from previous administrations. The comfort women agreement is the work of the Park government; the UAE deal part of a package for President Lee Myung-bak to sell nuclear reactors worth billions of dollars. The THAAD deployment dates to Park's rule. Nuclear power was bolstered by Park and Lee.

So they are all from previous conservative governments and Moon's attempts to reverse them are part of his founding and ultimate frame of rule _ liquidation of past ills.

That frame is based on a very exclusive foe-or-friend principle that can identify with regionalism, once called the mother of Korea's ills, and "candlelight vs. Taegukgi" ideological division.

But what distinguishes the Moon rule from other brands of populism is the adroitness by which it is applied. In all cases, the Moon administration has pushed the envelope to the point of just discrediting the predecessors' policies but stopped short of scrapping them altogether. In the process, the public has been given a sense of progress _ justice being done belatedly and fairness given a new lease on life.

There is no denying that the previous administrations have done wrong, as with any government. Holding those accountable for the wrongdoings is a right and necessary thing to do.

Governance is about running the nation, and justice and fairness are only half the job. So far, the Moon government has done well with that half but at the risk of settling old scores.

The concern is that the discredited opposition and distrusted media would only enable the popular president to bypass them and indulge himself in the job he is good at.

If one is not convinced about the populist nature of it, just check out how the government gave up its decision to ban bitcoin and other cryptocurrencies for speculation in a matter of hours, succumbing to a flood of petitions Thursday.

Will we go down the populist path of Argentina or Brazil? Or are we having a fleeting case of vertigo?

Oh Young-jin ( and is the managing editor of the Digital Korea Times.