Moon Jae-in Dou­bles Down on Un­pop­u­lar Eco­nomic Agenda


SEOUL (Dis­patches) - Moon Jae-in be­gan his sec­ond full year as South Ko­rea’s pres­i­dent with a re­minder of what didn’t work in the first – namely his eco­nomic poli­cies.

The mes­sage came in an un­usu­ally blunt ques­tion from a lo­cal tele­vi­sion re­porter, who used Moon’s New Year’s news brief­ing Thurs­day to ask why he stuck with an agenda that ap­peared to be fail­ing.

The pres­i­dent dug in, say­ing he needed to bet­ter per­suade South Kore­ans his poli­cies were right, not change course.

“I’ve ex­plained why we need our gov­ern­ment’s eco­nomic pol­icy ba­sis, and why it’s im­pos­si­ble to have sus­tain­able growth with­out chang­ing the im­bal­anced struc­ture of our po­larised so­ci­ety,” Moon said. “So, I don’t think I need to re­ply with a new an­swer.”

The episode un­der­scored how South Ko­rea’s slow­ing econ­omy has emerged as a po­lit­i­cal li­a­bil­ity for Moon, even as he’s en­joyed the global spot­light from play­ing peace­maker be­tween US Pres­i­dent Don­ald Trump and North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.

The self-styled “jobs pres­i­dent” has seen his once-sky-high poll num­bers tum­ble, rais­ing the prospect that he could face the same pop­u­lar­ity prob­lems that dogged his pre­de­ces­sors.

Moon, a pro­gres­sive, was swept into of­fice in 2017 promis­ing a re­ver­sal from the con­glom­er­ate-fo­cused eco­nomic agenda of ousted Pres­i­dent Park Geun-hye. But his plan to raise the min­i­mum wage 11% dis­ap­pointed both work­ers who didn’t think it was enough and busi­nesses who said it sti­fled growth.

More than three-quar­ters of the 30 ex­perts sur­veyed by Bloomberg News last month pre­dicted that em­ploy­ment growth would slow this year, in part be­cause of the wage hike.

Moon axed his fi­nance min­is­ter and his pol­icy chief after crit­i­cism that his ad­min­is­tra­tion was send­ing mixed sig­nals on the pol­icy.

Choi Pae-kun, an eco­nomics pro­fes­sor at Konkuk Univer­sity in Seoul, said that the pres­i­dent and his lieu­tenants weren’t con­sid­er­ing how their wage moves hurt their re­lated push to en­cour­age en­trepreneur­ship. “Moon and his eco­nomic aides seem like they’re in de­nial of what ac­tu­ally must be done,” Choi said. In a speech at his news con­fer­ence Thurs­day, Moon out­lined an eco­nomic agenda that was largely un­changed.

He pledged to im­prove the safety net, pro­mote new tech­nolo­gies and fix what he de­scribed as “the worst forms of po­larised wealth and eco­nomic in­equal­ity in the world.”

Still, that may pro­vide lit­tle re­lief to peo­ple feel­ing the pres­sure now.

South Ko­rea last month low­ered its growth fore­cast for 2018 to 2.6% – the slow­est pace in six years. The slow­down has been ex­ac­er­bated by trade ten­sions and soft­en­ing global de­mand.

At the same time, Moon’s ap­proval rat­ing slid to a record low of 44% last month, ac­cord­ing to a Gallup Ko­rea poll re­leased De­cem­ber 21.

That’s down from 83% after his ground­break­ing meet­ing with Kim last year.

More than half of South Kore­ans sur­veyed in an­other Gallup poll last month said that the ad­min­is­tra­tion needed “to fo­cus on eco­nomic growth, rather than in­come dis­tri­bu­tion.”

Moon’s sup­port im­proved in a Gallup poll re­leased Fri­day, ris­ing 3 per­cent­age points to 48%.

Some 44% dis­ap­proved of his per­for­mance.

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