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(News Focus) Six months into office, Moon keeps steady hand on reforms

2017/11/10 12:00

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By Song Sang-ho

SEOUL, Nov. 10 (Yonhap) -- Six months into office, President Moon Jae-in is forging ahead with the spadework for far-reaching national reforms despite bureaucratic inertia, legislative constraints and convoluted geopolitics.

With a landslide win in the May 9 by-election, Moon secured a powerful mandate to push for his liberal agenda while moving forward a demoralized country rattled by a massive corruption scandal that led to the March ousting of his predecessor Park Geun-hye.

The new president took office the following day. With little time to bask in post-election euphoria, he immediately launched a wide-ranging campaign to redress graft, power abuses, cronyism, rights violations and alleged election interference by state organs.

The campaign has proceeded by leaps and bounds under the name of "eliminating accumulated ills," but his political foes have denounced it as "political retribution" against two former conservative governments.

"Clearing up accumulated ills and (carrying out) reforms are not an inspection of any sort," Moon said during a meeting with his top secretaries last month. "But they aim to change old practices that have been accumulated across all sectors of the country's powerful state organs, economy and society, so as to build a nation worthy of being called a nation and establish a just Republic of Korea," he added.

This photo, taken Oct. 10, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking during a meeting with his top secretaries at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken Oct. 10, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking during a meeting with his top secretaries at the presidential office Cheong Wa Dae in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Building a country that citizens can take great pride in was the main theme resonating throughout nearly six months of massive candlelight protests that led to the unprecedented dismissal of a sitting president in March.

Hewing to the public calls, the Moon administration has burrowed into a series of highly-charged cases, such as the bungled state response to the 2014 ferry disaster, the spy agency's alleged election meddling in 2012 and the former governments' purported blacklisting of cultural figures deemed critical of them.

The move has gained traction on the back of Moon's high public support. The latest survey, conducted from Monday to Wednesday by local pollster Realmeter, showed nearly 70 percent of South Korean voters approved of Moon's job performance.

But his reform drive has triggered intense pushback from conservative parties and even some from within the liberal bloc.

"The government seems to be engrossed in attacking former governments," Ahn Cheol-soo, the leader of the center-left opposition People's Party, told reporters during his trip to Germany last Friday.

"Did (Moon) grab power to carry out political retribution rather than to ensure our country fares well?" he added.

Such resistance spells trouble for Moon's "cooperative politics" mantra. He needs opposition cooperation in advancing other policy agendas dear to his liberal heart, from a more inclusive economy to a shift from atomic power and reconciliation with North Korea.

The president's Democratic Party has only 121 parliamentary seats, far short of a majority in the 299-member National Assembly. This necessitates support from opposition parties for passing any disputed bills.

Over the last six months, the opposition bloc has flexed its legislative muscle in the parliamentary confirmation process for Moon's nominees for top officials, including his prime minister and ministers of defense, foreign affairs and finance, as well as senior court officials.

Some of Moon's nominations withdrew amid disputes over their alleged past wrongdoings and insufficient job credentials. The failed appointments provided ammunition for the opposition's political attacks on the president.

The main opposition Liberty Korea Party cast Moon's nomination failures as "new ills," demanding that he carry out a major overhaul of the presidential office's personnel vetting process and hold to account those responsible for the failures.

Undeterred by opposition opprobrium, Moon doubled down on his reform drive.

"I will push for changes to ensure that all citizens will not be frustrated by the dilapidated order and practices, and that all of them can be treated fairly and enjoy equal opportunities," Moon said during his state of the nation address at the National Assembly earlier this month.

"I will remove unfair practices and privileges in all sectors of our economy and society," he added.

This photo, taken Nov. 1, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap) This photo, taken Nov. 1, 2017, shows President Moon Jae-in speaking at the National Assembly in Seoul. (Yonhap)

Despite his clear vision for reform, observers have pointed out the need for more effort on the part of the president to explore ways to set the tone for better relations with the opposition-led legislature.

Beyond domestic politics, North Korea's escalating security threats have continued to bedevil him.

Moon has pushed for dialogue and rapprochement with Pyongyang in a shift from the past conservative governments' hard-line position that focused only on sanctions in response to continued provocations.

But his peace initiative has been hamstrung by the recalcitrant regime's unceasing saber-rattling, such as its sixth and most powerful nuclear experiment on Sept. 3 and a fusillade of ballistic missile launches -- all in breach of international resolutions.

What's worse, the North has shown no intention of engaging in cross-border talks, apparently seeking direct dialogue with the U.S. to gain economic and diplomatic concessions.

This has spawned fears of Washington bypassing Seoul in international efforts for Pyongyang's denuclearization. But U.S. President Donald Trump dispelled them during his visit to Seoul this week, saying, "There will be no skipping South Korea."

   Navigating through the volatile geopolitics has also been a nettlesome challenge for Moon.

Over the last year, China has continued to oppose the installation of a U.S. missile defense system in South Korea, suspecting it could potentially target its own military. It has allegedly carried out unofficial economic retaliation against South Korean businesses, which led Seoul-Beijing ties to one of the lowest points in recent memory.

Late last month, the two sides reached an agreement to put their relations back on the "right track," but concerns have lingered that their differences over how to handle a provocative North Korea could remain a source of friction in bilateral relations.

Coordination with Washington over how to curb the North's nuclear adventurism has been another tricky foreign policy challenge for Moon.

Moon's dialogue-centered approach has been seen as being at odds with Trump's tough-line stance, triggering worries about potential cracks in the security alliance. Trump once described Moon's policy as "appeasement," amplifying those concerns.

But observers said Trump's visit this week, which has been carefully choreographed to highlight the solid Seoul-Washington alliance, has helped allay those worries.

sshluck@yna.co.kr

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