One of Jae-in Moon’s first promises to the public as a presidential candidate was to clean out the backlog of corruption and irregularities rooted in the previous administrations of former presidents Geun-hye Park and Myung-bak Lee. Both of the previous two administrations had been marked with public protests and downward spirals in approval ratings, with the most recent debacle ending in the nation’s first impeachment.
During the presidency of Myung-bak Lee, there were several major protests in response to the South Korea-United States Free Trade Agreement (KORUS FTA), US beef imports, and the Four Major Rivers Restoration Project. The government’s decision to import US beef despite concerns regarding the then widespread issue of mad cow disease drew criticism from the public, resulting in demonstrations that turned violent due to harsh police crack-downs. Lee’s relationship with businesses in Korea also led to sharp declines in his popularity as he was accused of presenting national projects under the guise of environmental friendliness when he was actually promoting the interests of certain companies. Several other issues such as family corruption, pre-presidency ties to illegal businesses (the BBK incident), and censorship of public criticism marred his presidency. Similarly, during the presidency of Geun- hye Park, the government faced strong public opposition to the replacement of history textbooks in public schools with the government’s own versions. In addition, Park’s presidency was heavily criticized for its lack of communication with the public, election-meddling, mishandling of the Sewol ferry tragedy, and the infamous Choi Soon-sil scandal that led to her subsequent impeachment and arrest.
The accumulated mistrust, frustration, and anger of the people led to the recent election of Jae-in Moon as the 19th President of the Republic of Korea. Even before the election cycle, Moon had consistently criticized the many overlooked and mismanaged problems found in the last two presidencies, and stated that they should be brought to light and duly examined. He especially targeted the prosecutors for failing to do their job and allowing past presidents to ignore the law. To clean the slate, he said that he would review the Supreme Prosecutors Office and form a special team to investigate Geun-hye Park’s scandals to the core and reevaluate some of Myung-bak Lee’s past projects. Moon promised to start anew and make the government more available and accessible than ever before, stating that unity and communication would be his attitude in leading the country.
Although most presidents in the free world do not accomplish all that they promise to the public, there is plenty of reason to have hope. President Moon’s first press conference heralded a significant change from the past as he answered all of the questions given by reporters on the spot and announced that he will personally address the public on important agendas. Within the first few days in office, President Moon repealed the previous administration’s decision to replace history textbooks in schools with state versions and accepted the resignation of the now-former Prosecutor-General Soo-nam Kim. Moon also directed his new senior presidential secretary for civil affairs to reopen investigations into the corruption scandals of Soon-sil Choi, the mishandling of the Sewol ferry tragedy by former president Park, and the irregularities found in the Four Rivers Restoration Project of former president Lee. As the new president, Moon has talked with President Trump regarding THAAD (Terminal High Altitude Area Defense) and DPRK (Democratic People’s Republic of Korea), and has publicly announced his willingness to have a conversation with Jong-un Kim if the situation permitted. Moon has also been praised for eating with fellow Blue House employees in the cafeteria and working to increase contact with ordinary citizens.
However, there are still many challenges within the government that President Moon will have to overcome in order to successfully legitimize his agendas. His political party does not hold the majority of seats in the National Assembly even when accounting for a coalition with the center-left and far-left progressive parties. This could hinder the president’s efforts to pass certain legislations. Additionally, President Moon will have to spend a significant amount of effort and time reorganizing a government that has been functioning with the remains of the previous administration. Nonetheless, the current progress and attitude of the new president signal that there is indeed hope for the nation.
The candlelight vigils that began nine years ago during Myung-bak Lee’s presidency became the symbol for the demonstrations against Geun- hye Park and the symbol for Korea’s peaceful democratic process. On May 9, the candles won, and after almost a decade of mismanagement, the nation finally elected a president who seems to be heading in the right direction. And although there is still a long way to go before there can be any official verdict of the new government, there is newfound hope in the hearts of the people that this new administration led by President Jae- in Moon will sincerely work to fulfill the candlelit hopes of the Republic of Korea.