07.12.2018 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Moon Jae-in Continues to “Clean House”


Only recently we have published an article describing how Moon Jae-in is strengthening his position of power via a large-scale “clean-up”, and yet one scandal follows after another.

For instance, the act of reforming the police force, sub-divided into the local branch (which will be accountable to mayors) and the religious one (which will remain under the stewardship of the central government), is being threatened with, in the view of may experts, a possible lack of coordination in their work. In addition, ineffective working practices of the local law enforcement agencies are also highlighted considering the fact that they will have additional authority in ensuring public safety in the wake of the reforms.  The author also believes that because of the Korean reluctance to wash their dirty linen in public, the number of crimes swept under the rug will rise substantially so as to keep the statistics in line. And these are the more palatable outcomes of these reforms in comparison to the possibility that corrupt local authorities, with their propensity for domestic sexual abuse, will gain impunity on account of the new system.

On 15 November, the South Korean government established seven criteria that a potential candidate for a leadership role should meet. It will become impossible for a candidate to fill such a post if he / she or their lineal kin are found to have evaded military service; failed to comply with tax regulations; committed real estate fraud; unlawfully changed their place of registration with the aim of attaining financial gains, or plagiarized scientific publications.

This is a de facto attempt to legally enforce what Moon Jae-in had promised on more than one occasion: to prevent anyone who has ever committed even such a minor violation from coming to power. But, despite voicing such views, under the guise of exceptional and extraordinary circumstances, Moon Jae-in has, on several occasions, brought to power people, who had been found guilty of such offences. The latest scandal involved the appointment of the 63-year-old Cho Myung-Rae to the post of Minister of Environment.

Then again, soon, ROK courts will become much more amenable. On 19 November, the meeting of local court representatives, attended by 117 participants, was held in South Korea. The meeting participants essentially demanded that the National Assembly impeach those judges who abused their powers during the reign of Park Geun-hye’s administration when one of the Supreme Court Justices was Yang Sung-tae. He is now suspected of committing abuses of power with the aim of introducing appellate courts within the country’s justice system. It has been affirmed that in exchange for aid with this issue, he ensured that decisions, sought after by the government, were taken during important court session. However, there are no specific instances of unfair court practices as yet. The act of abusing power is in contravention of the Constitution, but the judges voiced very different opinions about this case. On the one hand, impeachment is a high level political tool. Hence, there is an increased chance that the justice system could get caught up in politics, which will enable the leadership to remove all the “inconvenient” judges. On the other hand, there is a need to show South Korean people that their justice system works independently.

It is now time to turn our attention to political scandals.  We recently reported on the sex scandal involving Lee Jae-myung, the Governor of the Gyeonggi Province since June 2018 and Moon Jae-in’s rival during the 2017 presidential election (coming in third after Moon Jae-in and Ahn Hee-jung). Lee Jae-myung either pressured his secretary to have sex with him or did not, with the court ruling at a later date that no evidence had been found to support the claims of sexual harassment. Still he will never again be Moon Jae-in’s opponent.   Aside from the scandal involving the actress Bu-seon Kim, he has also been accused of breaking election laws, admitting his brother into a psychiatric facility against his will by abusing his position, and even having connections to organized crime, but starting in November yet “another bombshell dropped”.

The police came to the conclusion that the author of one of the Twitter accounts, a source of false rumors spread about Lee Jae-myung’s rival for the Governor position, was, in fact, Lee’s wife, Kim Hye-gyeong. She may be charged with breaking election laws and using Twitter as a means to defame. To clarify, since 2013, the Twitter account @ 08_hkkim has been used to publish thousands of political messages supporting Lee Jae-myung and smearing his political opponents, including the deputy Chun Hee-chul and the current President.

But now, let us return to representatives of the ruling party. It appears that Moon Jae-in’s party associates (Ahn Hee-jung, Lee Jae-myung and Kim Kyoung-soo, linked to the “comment-rigging scandal”) are being seemingly “eliminated” one by one by external forces, but this is not actually the case. Both Ahn Hee-jung and Lee Jae-myung were Moon Jae-in’s opponents, but unlike Kim Kyoung-soo, they led independent factions within the party.

I think that Moon Jae-in remembers very well that his party associates played a pivotal role in removing Park Geun-hye from power by taking advantage of the situation in order to impeach her (what these insignificant leaders had failed to understand was that they would lose control over the situation). And this is why he has been trying to “clean house”.

And the final piece of important news: on 21 November, during strikes, organized by unions, Seoul witnessed a wave of protests, which the city mayor Park Won-soon took part in. One of the leading politicians from the ruling democratic party joined the front lines of the protests to oppose Moon Jae-in’s policies in the economic sphere, and even gave a speech supporting union demands.

However, at the time this article almost went to print, the author realized that this was most likely not the last piece of news. Having understood that his prospects were grim, the Governor Lee Jae-myung began his counter-attack by using his “trump card” so to speak. On 26 November, before leaving his home for questioning at the prosecutor’s office (which lasted 13 hours, and we would like to remind the readers that this is “normal” by South Korean standards), Lee Jae-myung posted that he disputed the claims accusing his wife of supposedly posting defamatory statements against Moon Jae-in and his family.  He added that, while defending his own and his wife’s reputation and honor, he also demanded a review of the case of corruption involving Moon Jae-in’s son.

Some South Korean experts interpreted this message as Lee Jae-myung’s demand to immediately leave them alone, or else the facts that he and his wife had published may turn out to be of “life and death” importance to the public. Even during the presidential election, attempts were made to get at Moon Jae-in via his son. The son was not only given a prestigious job posting despite all the rules, but the post also enabled him to receive a 5th grade level in the Korean Civil Service System immediately, in spite of the fact that any other university graduate starts with the minimal ninth level. In addition, it turned out that Moon Jae-in junior was included in the shortlist of candidates after the fact (he received his diploma two days after the hiring process had finished), and the application form was not completed by him.

At the time Moon Jae-in was able to draw attention away from this and the incident was swept under the rug, since, in comparison to other scandals, it did not seem as vital or illustrative of the type of officials who are elected to office. But it would be interesting to see the new take on this situation, and we shall follow its developments as attentively as the “comment-rigging” scandal and any other notorious scandals plaguing the world of South Korean internal politics.

For more information about the issues covered in this article, please see the Russian version of this article.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, Leading Research Fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of Far Eastern Studies of the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.