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(EDITORIAL from The Korea Times on June 5)

All Headlines 07:29 June 05, 2017

President needs to fight 'my-way-or-highway' temptation

President Moon Jae-in has an 84 percent approval rating, the highest among all presidents at this stage of their terms. The previous best of 83 percent was held by the late President Kim Young-sam, often called by his initials, YS. In the same Gallup poll last week, Moon's ruling Democratic Party of Korea (DPK) recorded support of 51 percent - beating the combined number of the three opposition parties by 17 percentage points.

With his high personal popularity and strong party backing, Moon, who won 41 percent of the ballots cast in the May 9 snap election, could make light of opposition parties and push for his liberal agenda unilaterally.

However, he would do so at his own risk and that of the country.

First, it is against the democratic tenet of checks and balances, which he promised to realize by embracing the opposition parties in dialogue and as consulting partners.

Second, his popularity should be put into perspective. True, his efforts to do away with formalities conventionally wed to the highest office of the nation has been greeted well by the people. But those high numbers for him and the DPK are much owed to the relief people feel for the absence of leadership after a traumatic experience caused by his disgraced predecessor, Park Geun-hye, who was impeached for corruption, removed from office and is now on trial.

This collective sense of relief is owed as much to the endorsement of his current job performance as to the high hopes people pin on him for future governance.

Thirdly, popularity is as collapsible as a house of cards. Many leaders before him were taken for a roller coast ride. An attempt to stay on the climbing part is bound to lead Moon to adhere to sugarcoated populist policies, and that is not good for the nation.

Already, there have been some signs. Moon browbeat the opposition into accepting his nominee for prime minister, Lee Nak-yon. Facing objections in the confirmation process, Moon didn't bother to call up the detractors but breathed down the neck of the weakest link in the opposition front, the People's Party, which represents Honam or the Jeolla provinces. Honam residents voted overwhelmingly for Moon over the regional party's candidate Ahn Cheol-soo, with the president's popularity well over 90 percent.

Moon is now asking for a supplementary budget to hire civil servants as part of his campaign pledge to increase the number of decently paid jobs. Even liberal experts argue that Moon's plan for adding 174,000 jobs to the already bloated payrolls of the government, which comes with runaway amounts of budget to cover their general pensions, is unrealistic. Moon's plan for the conversion of non-regular workers appears troublesome for excluding the opinion of employers. In this confrontational atmosphere, it remains to be seen whether his team of anti-chaebol economic aides will implement his distribution-oriented agenda.

Also worrisome are Moon's moves with the United States, Korea's key ally. The alleged "smuggling" of components for a U.S. missile interceptor has not been adroitly handled, leaving Washington room to take offense. Also his hints at dismantling the unpopular Korea-Japan agreement on comfort women or sex slaves under Japanese rule could have been made more subtly. These moves may score well domestically but can entail serious consequences that may strain the alliance and alienate the U.S.

The Moon government should keep reminding itself of the humbleness and modesty it has promised as the successor to the participatory government led by his mentor and friend Roh Moo-hyun. Also its amateurism and populism should be kept to a minimum.

The difference between confident and authoritarian governments can prove paper-thin. So is the difference between a popular and unpopular government. The YS government started with support of 83 percent, the previous record, after the clean-up of the preceding ones led by former generals, but ended as one of the worst for bringing about the currency crisis in the late 1990s.
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