By Lee Chi-dong
SEOUL, May 8 (Yonhap) -- This week, President Moon Jae-in is marking his second anniversary in office apparently without fanfare.
His flagship initiative, the Korea peace process, has hit a snag, as the Hanoi summit between U.S. President Donald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong-un in late February broke down unexpectedly.
Data shows that South Korea's economic woes are deepening, with political rifts over his reform measures intensifying.
The president commemorated his first anniversary at Cheong Wa Dae with approval ratings of more than 80 percent, riding on vehement public support palpable in the wake of his April 27 Panmunjom summit with Kim. The ratings have fallen to around 50 percent.
"I feel acutely once again that politics is really difficult," Moon said in a meeting with a dozen elderly statesmen and stateswomen last week.
In particular, he faces the urgent task of reviving the momentum of denuclearization talks, a core element in his pursuit of a "New Korean Peninsula Regime."
Moon, who deserves credit for having initiated the high-profile peace process, is striving to facilitate negotiations between Washington and Pyongyang.
Following a White House summit with Trump in mid-April, Moon said publicly that the time has come to push for another summit with Kim. But there are no reports yet of any formal inter-Korean contact on the matter.
Pyongyang is rather flexing its military muscles anew. Last weekend, Kim oversaw live-fire drills of long-range multiple rocket launchers and a "new tactical guided weapon."
North Korea watchers regard it as a show of displeasure with the attitudes of South Korea and the United States and a warning message to them.
Critics claim that Moon's approach toward the secretive communist nation has failed and that he should change course.
They call for the shake-up of Moon's diplomatic and national security team.
Some experts play down the North's latest demonstration of power, saying South Korea and the U.S. do not need to overreact to it.
"It's not appropriate to overestimate North Korea's threats, now that even if the tactical guided weapon fired this time turns out to be a missile, it does not pose a series threat to South Korea's security," Cheong Seong-chang, a senior researcher at the Sejong Institute, said in an emailed statement.
Adding to concerns is a possible crack in coordination between Seoul and Washington over Pyongyang.
The Moon administration hopes to resume major inter-Korean economic projects, such as the Kaesong industrial complex and Mount Kumgang tour, for leverage to entice North Korea to continue dialogue. The Trump government has emphasized that inter-Korean economic cooperation and nuclear negotiations should proceed in tandem.
A silver lining is strong mutual trust, at least ostensibly, among the leaders of the three sides, who have all reaffirmed their commitment to so-called top-down diplomacy.
In his third inter-Korean summit, held in Pyongyang last September, Kim said, "I am meeting President Moon for the third time, and I feel that we have really got closer."
Responding to the news of North Korea's latest firing exercise, Trump also tweeted that Kim "knows that I am with him & does not want to break his promise to me."
Additional dilemmas for Moon are chilled relations between Seoul and Tokyo over history issues and a continuing row with Beijing over the stationing of an advanced missile defense system, THAAD, in South Korea.
The G-20 summit to take place in Osaka, Japan, from June 28-29 may offer a chance for Moon and Prime Minister Shinzo Abe to produce a breakthrough in efforts to mend fences between their countries.
Chinese President Xi Jinping may also visit Seoul around the G-20 session to reciprocate Moon's trip to Beijing in 2017.
On the economic front, alarms are sounding loud over Asia's fourth-largest economy. It is estimated to have dwindled 0.3 percent in the first quarter of this year from three months earlier mainly amid a slump in exports and facility investment, according to the Bank of Korea.
Criticism and skepticism have risen about Moon's income-driven growth strategy. He indicated no policy shift, though, saying the recent economic trouble is largely attributable to external factors.
He designated three sectors -- non-memory chips, bio-health and next-generation vehicles -- as potential growth engines for the local economy relying heavily on exports.
The liberal president is also confronted with tough political setbacks to his reform plans.
Labor circles are fiercely opposed to the government's push to expand the flexible work hour system.
The main opposition Liberty Korea Party (LKP) has been virtually boycotting parliamentary sessions. It's strongly protesting the ruling party's move to expedite the handling of a set of reform bills designed to modify the electoral system and stop state prosecutors from retaining what it believes to be excessive power.
The government's bill on extra budgets remains pending at the National Assembly.
Moon has proposed a three-way meeting of the government and the ruling and opposition parties to explore ways to break the political impasse. The LKP has not responded to the offer.
Critics accuse the president of lacking determination for cooperative politics, taking issue with his support for state prosecutors' probe into alleged wrongdoing by the two former conservative administrations of Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak.
Moon pointed out that it's necessary to wipe out deep-rooted malpractices in South Korea, while he has formally distanced himself from the move by law-enforcement authorities itself.
"I will never forget the will of the public, wishing for a nation of justice and fairness," he said in an op-ed to be published by Germany's Frankfurter Allgemeine Zeitung (FAZ) daily.
He was referring to the so-called candlelight revolution, weeks of massive nighttime street protests by citizens from late 2016 that led to the impeachment of Park, who was embroiled in a corruption scandal.
Moon has vowed to continue efforts for dialogue with opposition parties and other critics of his policies.
Observers expect political dogfights here to go on for the time being, with the April 15 general elections less than a year away.
If the ruling Democratic Party loses in the polls, de facto midterm elections for Moon, he may become an early lame duck, they said. Moon has a five-year term, and he's banned from seeking re-election under the Constitution.
"Moon's meeting itself with opposition parties is pointless. (The president) should seek genuine communication with them to listen to their opinions and have those reflected in state affairs," Shin Yul, professor of political science at Myongji University in Seoul, said.
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