Kyungmin Cho is a Senior at the Elliott School of International Affairs IA studies and is currently the President of Korean International Studies Organization.
The content of this article does not reflect the official opinion of the George Washington University Institute for Korean Studies. Responsibility for the information and views expressed in the article lies entirely with the author(s).
The new era has come. The first female president under the Constitutional history of South Korea has turned into another legacy of the first president to be impeached. With the mounting support rate for the opposition parties, Moon Jae-in triumphantly won the party election, and has stood up as the most prominent presidential candidate. However, his political attitude and populistic approach put himself into question on whether he is apt for successful statecraft.
Moon has used his close relationship to the former president Roh as the cornerstone of his political career where he stands as the representative of the opposition parties. Ever since he stepped into the political arena after Roh’s death, Moon has strived to earn national support with his populistic approach. The problem with this attitude is that he seems to focus on only earning popular support in absence of concrete plans to back his policies. He has made promises to solve the unemployment issue in South Korea by creating 810,000 government jobs. With existing 1.91 million jobs in the public sector, such additions will increase the total number by 40 percent. Regarding the fact that the such increase will enlarge the size of the government, which will not be easily reduced when necessary, a great sum of budget is required to sustain such government scale. Also, the South Korean government cut the pensions for the civil servants in 2015 to mediate the growing national debt. If implemented as Moon planned, the pension system will devour a greater amount of budget to add to the already asphyxiating burden of the nation. Moon implied that through budget adjustments in government spending, he would be able to supply the necessary funding to enlarge government size. Unfortunately, his other pledges don’t seem to give him space to do so.
Moon mentioned the possibility of reducing the mandatory military service term from 21 months to 18 months. This is a great way to mobilize South Korea’s young male generations that have not served or are currently serving in the military into Moon’s support groups. In order to cut the service period while maintaining the same level of national defense, more number of soldiers are required. Unfortunately, South Korea suffers from the low-birth rate that falls short of the replacement rate. With the decreasing number of young male generations, supplementing the demand for more soldiers to carry out Moon’s policy is not viable. Even if this pledge was made in the expectation of decreased demand for large troops due to successful reconciliation with North Korea, Moon must realize that such blind hope may jeopardize 51 million South Korean populations at any time. Furthermore, he promised to increase the military spending from 2.4 percent to 3 percent of South Korea’s GDP. He asserted that this is necessary for a future self-reliant national defense capability after the redemption of wartime operational control from the United States. Even if this increased spending contributes to the more high-tech military modernization to reduce the number of soldiers required, there still rises another need for more troops in management and maintenance work. Here again, Moon did not come up with any concrete plans to supplement the necessity for budget and manpower.
In the context of self-reliant national defense, Moon has been reluctant to deploy THAAD in South Korea. He mentioned in the interview with The New York Times that there is no need to hurry in deploying THAAD, which implies that the deployment may take place in the next presidential term. Moon has been saying that South Korea needs the self-reliant national defense so that it does not get swayed by interests of certain nations, and he believes that saying “no” to the demands from the US alliance is the way to his promised defense system. However, he must realize that the right path toward self-reliant defense is South Korea’s capability to adhere to its best defense interests, not swaying the public by saying arbitrary “no” to the ROK-US Alliance. The deployment of THAAD is under great controversy among South Koreans. Whatever choice he makes on this issue, if he becomes the president, must be made after thorough calculations on how this will fully guarantee the security of South Korea against the threat from the North.
Moon Jae-in has showed favorable attitude in communicating with South Korean citizens. However, it seems like that he has been focusing too much on earning popular support to be elected as a president. Only if he comes up with strategic and concrete plans for his pre-election pledges, I believe that he will be able to earn more support from the diverse groups of voters. He needs credibility for his words.