24.06.2022 Author: Konstantin Asmolov

Moon Jae-in’s Under Siege

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On May 10, Moon Jae-in, who has completed his five-year term as president, left for his small homeland in Yangsan City, Gyeongsangnam-do Province, 420 kilometers south of Seoul. Arriving at the station, the ex-president said that he was returning to his village of origin, as promised, and intended to live an ordinary life, looking after his pets, farming and attending church.

However, the escape into political oblivion did not work.

On May 15, Moon Jae-in complained about the noise, swearing and anti-intellectualism that disturb the peace in his city, and on May 31 he filed a complaint against four demonstrators from three different conservative NGOs who, since he moved in, have held loud rallies against him using loudspeakers and profanity in front of his house. They were accused of insulting and defaming Moon by disseminating false information in a repetitive and profane manner, as well as violating laws against rallies deemed to endanger public safety.

Judging by the published videos of these rallies (lasting more than three weeks), they have indeed “exceeded the acceptable level of democratic protest”, especially as the noise and curses hit not only Moon, but his innocent neighbors as well.

What adds to the difficulty, however, is that the main rally organizers are not classical conservatives, but organizations that bring together relatives of those who have died from side-effects of vaccines like Astra Zeneca with many undesirable effects, including increased blood clotting, from which quite a few people have died. The problem has been traced, the vaccine has been replaced, but the dead cannot be brought back.

Of course, the most interesting thing for the author is the reaction of the incumbent authorities, as the behavior of the Moon administration in similar situations is still fresh in the memory: the country is a democracy and the people (or rather the “right” NGOs) have the right to express their opinions. The Korea Times also recalled in this context that when, some five years ago, protesters shouted for months outside former President Lee Myung-bak’s home, calling on the authorities to arrest him immediately, most Democratic Party lawmakers remained silent or even encouraged such rallies. Calls to “crush the rat” only began to subside when it became clear that Lee would be arrested.

In the present case, however, President Yoon Suk-yeol expressed concern from the outset and said that rallies in front of former President Moon Jae-in’s house should abide by the law.

On June 3, police imposed a ban on two rallies in front of Moon’s house and a nearby public hall in Pyeongsan-dong village (Moon’s immediate home).  The men were intent on holding rallies at 13 locations in and around the village for a month until July 1. Reported locations for the rally include a noodle restaurant and Catholic churches that Moon and his wife once attended and are likely to attend. According to the police, 55 residents of Pyeongsan-dong village have so far lodged complaints about the noise from the demonstrators, and 10 of them have even submitted a medical certificate stating that they have undergone psychiatric treatment.

On June 10, the police said they would ensure rallies and demonstrations in front of the former president’s residence, but that illegal activities would be strictly suppressed. Strict action will be taken against activities such as noise exceeding permissible levels and infringement of the peaceful privacy of local residents.

The Democratic Party, which retains a majority in parliament, first simply tried to ban such rallies, citing “privacy concerns”, but when they were directly rebuked for double standards, proposed a bill banning protests within 100 meters of former presidents’ homes.

On June 8, 15 MPs from the Democratic Party of Korea, to which Moon belongs, proposed a bill to revise the law on demonstrations to ban inciting hatred against a particular group or individual during speeches or inciting violent acts during protests. This is the first such move in South Korea to restrict freedom of speech because of hate propaganda. In addition, while the current law provides that authorities may ban protests that “seriously affect the privacy of residents”, the new option would include “noise and insults that may infringe on the personal rights of others,” and the repeated playback of fear-inducing sounds and videos or the display of relevant photos could be banned.

Apart from that, since June 14, some 20 liberal activists affiliated with the YouTube channel Voice of Seoul (the same one that became famous for its pre-election smear campaign on the president’s wife) have rallied in front of Yoon Suk-yeol’s house, demanding his apology.  Picketers used loudspeakers, drums, gongs and metal cymbals, playing songs or recordings of loud shouts and abusive language from anti-Moon demonstrators. They have vowed to continue their rallies in front of Yoon’s house 24 hours a day until the anti-Moon rallies are stopped. But Yoon just shrugged, saying: “it’s people’s right under the law, so I won’t make any comments.”

However, rallies are by no means the most serious threat to the former president. On the one hand, so far the flywheel of political revenge has not yet been set in motion – many expected the Ministry of Justice, which is run by one of Yoon’s close associates and a man the Moon administration has been very active in trying to imprison, to order an immediate search for dirt or to appoint a special prosecutor. But no such instruction has been given yet. On the other hand, the ROK Prosecutor’s Office has opened investigations into a number of key figures in the Moon Jae-in government, accused of abuse of power and negligence in the performance of their duties. They include former Minister of Justice Cho Gook, former presidential chief of staff Im Jong-seok, former secretary of the presidential administration for anti-corruption Park Hyoung-chul, former head of the Blue House special inspection team Lee In-geol, former Foreign Minister Kang Kyung-wha, and former Minister of Land, Infrastructure and Transport Kim Hyun-mi.

It is now worth remembering the whole range of techniques like the “silent request” that Moon’s lawyers used to imprison Park Geun-hye. If Yoon’s lawyers have the same level of political cynicism, it will “turn out” that Moon could not have been unaware of the corrupt activities of his friends and associates.

Minister Paik Un-gyu, who is accused of forcing the heads of several state-owned energy-related companies to resign while in office only because they were appointed under Park Geun-hye, stands out on the list.  The story has become widely known as the “Ministry of Industry blacklist.” For this reason, back in 2019 the Conservative Party lodged a criminal complaint against Paik, former deputy Minister of Industry Lee In-ho and three other senior ministry officials, but due to opposition from the Blue House and pressure from prosecutorial leadership, the investigation was dropped.

This also includes accusations of manipulating information to close the country’s second most important nuclear power plant, when under Moon’s wish to get rid of nuclear power, data on the plant’s efficiency was falsified and it was shut down, causing serious damage to the state.

The investigation is believed to be based on a Supreme Court ruling against former Minister of Environment Kim Eun-kyung, who was sentenced to two years in prison for a similar abuse of power before Yoon Suk-yeol took office.

Prosecutors questioned Baek Un-gyu on June 9, requested a warrant for his arrest on June 13 and the court has now started hearings on the matter.   As noted by the media, the prosecution’s request for an arrest warrant for Paik suggests that it has received substantial evidence of abuse of power. This is important because such forced resignations have taken place in ministries dealing with education, science and technology, as well as unification issues, while the forced resignation of high-ranking officials is not possible without instructions from the presidential administration. This is quite consistent with “interference in public affairs.”

Then, on June 9, 2022, former minister of health and influential liberal commentator Rhyu Si Min was sentenced by a court to a fine of 5 million won ($4,000) for defamatory comments made several years ago about Minister of Justice Han Dong-hoon when the minister occupied the position of senior prosecutor and was a key aide to Yoon Suk-yeol.

Rhyu was charged back in May 2021 for alleging on his YouTube channel in December 2019 and in a media interview in July 2020 that the Han-led Anti-Corruption & Organized Crimes Department of the Supreme Prosecutors’ Office had illegally accessed his personal bank account.

That said, one should not think that the witch-hunt is only going in one direction.  In 2020, the popular right-wing YouTube channel Hover Lab, run by former MP and lawyer Kang Yong-suk, alleged that a private equity fund run by Cho was dealing with money invested by the Chinese Communist Party and that his children were driving an imported luxury car or were involved in a school violence case. Cho and his two children filed a lawsuit, and on June 10 the court ordered the channel to pay 50 million won to former Minister of Justice Cho Kook and his children for spreading false rumors and defamatory statements, and removing the disputed videos from YouTube.

It seems that Moon Jae-in will not have a quiet and peaceful old age and, as in the case of Lee Myung-bak, the reason may not be political revenge, but rather his real wrongdoings.

Konstantin Asmolov, PhD in History, leading research fellow at the Center for Korean Studies of the Institute of the Far East at the Russian Academy of Sciences, exclusively for the online magazine “New Eastern Outlook”.

 


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