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Moon Jae-in Takes a Different Path to Change in South Korea


By Hwan Kang

When Moon Jae-in was elected after former President Park Geun-hye was impeached, Koreans expected major policy makeovers. Indeed, the Moon Administration is trying to meet expectations by addressing some of Korea’s long lasting problems by announcing progressive measures such as an increase in the minimum wage and regulating the real estate market. However, Moon is also showing he is different from other politicians not by tearing apart Park Geun-hye’s legacy entirely, as some other progressive politicians have promised, but rather by utilizing part of it to his advantage.

One of former President Park’s main priorities was her “Creative Economy” plan, which aimed to promote economic growth and create jobs by fostering imagination, creativity and technology. This was the basis for hosting many startup contests and funding new startup centers that were supposed to inspire young minds to create new businesses. However, not only did the “Creative Economy” turn out to be a major flop with no definite results, it became a center of many embezzlement and bribery allegations in relation to Choi Soon-sil and her co-conspirators. The scandal also left the Korean public with a very bad impression of startups, causing many startup centers to face funding cuts and endangering new ventures.

In his 5-year policy roadmap, which was announced last July, Moon promised to continue the governmental support for startups despite the bad publicity, while promising a thorough investigation into allegations against the previous administration. He is planning to revamp government support for startups to boost the economy and create jobs in preparation for the “4th industrial revolution.” He even showed that he is going to prioritize startups by changing the name of the ministry charged with handling small business issues from the “Ministry of SMEs” to the “Ministry of SMEs and Startups (MSS).” The words may have changed, but the core startup policy remains pretty much the same as the “Creative Economy.”

Similar to Google or Paypal, it was startups such as Naver, Kakao, and numerous game companies that became surprising contenders against the chaebol conglomerates, always pushing the market to make way for new technology that the chaebols have overlooked. However, because the chaebols were so deeply rooted in the Korean market, SMEs and startups usually did not have a chance to grow into larger businesses themselves. Instead, they opted for big buyouts by the conglomerates, which in turn benefited huge companies even more. The reason the “Creative Economy” became a huge disappointment was that people thought it would finally be a big break for startups, many of which just want to continue developing what they have created. To those people who worried the new government would abandon the venture sector altogether, Moon’s plan may sound more refreshing than making any other changes.

Another policy that has remained steady through the transition between administrations has been the issue of the Terminal High-Altitude Aerial Defense (THAAD) system. Originally, the THAAD deployment created a significant amount of controversy, as it was pushed through by the Park administration without much open debate. It caused an uproar from South Koreans who believed there was some sort of sketchy arrangement behind the deployment because it happened to coincide with the Choi Soon-sil scandal. Additionally, concerns about possible electromagnetic wave pollution near the deployment site, on top of severe economic retaliation from China, also added to the growing anxiety. Each presidential candidate in the May election after Park’s impeachment put forward different positions on the deployment of THAAD, with progressive parties mostly leaning toward cancelling the plan.

Moon, who avoided giving a definite answer to the THAAD problem for a while, eventually decided to proceed with the “temporary deployment” this September and put an end to the indefinite delay. Just as could be expected, this decision was met with variety of mixed emotions from the South Korean public. Some from the progressive side, such as the Justice Party, criticized Moon for his apparent breach of trust, saying the Democratic Party had switched sides. According to Gallup Korea, the approval rate for the President took a slight hit, decreasing from near 80% to 70%, with his disapproval rate rising slightly as well after the announcement.

However, considering that the percentage of people who agreed to the deployment has remained steady within the range of 50%~57% dating from when Park announced the plan in July 2016, to two months into Moon administration in July 2017, one could guess that it was not the deployment itself that people wanted to change in general. Rather, their problem was with how the government handled the whole ordeal. This is a main point of contrast between Park and Moon – the former made little room for talk with the people while Moon at least took the time to consider an environmental test before making a decision. This becomes more evident when Gallup asked people what they thought about Moon’s decision to temporarily deploy four THAAD launchers –  72% replied it was the “right choice,” while 14% thought it was a “bad choice”.

South Koreans wanted change from the status quo and they picked the candidate who promised to deliver it, but the game is still far from over. Change can mean many things, from a complete reversal to minor alterations of existing policies. The Moon Administration is still in its early days and will need to decide what kind of changes would best benefit Korea. Koreans should also keep tabs on where the government is going so the country can head for the direction that people had intended when they impeached the last president.

Hwan Kang is currently an Intern at the Korea Economic Institute of America as part of the Asan Academy Fellowship Program. He is also a student of Seoul National University in South Korea. The views expressed here are the author’s alone.

Photo from the Republic of Korea’s photostream on flickr Creative Commons.

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