Stars Align for Moon

South Korean leader is riding a wave of unprecedented popularity as he expertly navigates a complex political landscape

It is difficult to point to a recent picture of South Korean President Moon Jae-in in which he is not beaming.

This should not be surprising. Be it hosting an A-list North Korean delegation to the Winter Games, successfully navigating perilous diplomatic waters between China, Japan and the US, or benefitting from a domestic opposition that is in utter disarray, the sun is shining upon Moon.

The liberal politician, a former special forces soldier, ex-human rights lawyer and key aide to the late liberal president Roh Moo-hyun, assumed office after his second presidential bid in May 2017, when he won the snap election called following the impeachment of conservative rival Park Geun-hye (currently on trial and in detention) in March of that year.

Bright outlook for Moon

Moon is a masterly people politician who never tires of taking selfies with fans. His popularity has taken two minor dents this year after his government’s moves to ban Bitcoin trading and promote an inter-Korean women’s ice hockey team proved unpopular among youngsters. But his support base remains massive.

“Right now his popularity is at one of the all-time highest for a South Korean president – over 60% support is unprecedented,” said James Kim, a research fellow who studies public opinion at the Asan Institute. “Things are looking good for him.”

He is the master of the political landscape. His Democratic Party has 121 seats in the 300-seat National Assembly, while the conservative opposition is close behind, with 117 seats. But the conservatives, since Park’s ouster, have been in disarray and are facing a leadership issue, which is not expected to be resolved until later this year.

The only plebiscite this year – in July – is local elections, which cannot dent his power on national policy-making power. On the streets, anti-Moon demonstrators – the predominantly elderly “flag protesters” – are winning little traction. “There are ongoing protests against what he is trying to do, but they are a minority voice and are not getting articulated in the media or the National Assembly,” said Mike Breen, author of ‘The New Koreans.’ “They are Christian/conservative/anti-North Korean/pro-Park Geun-hye, so are not really denting Moon’s popularity.”

Korea’s government appoints the heads of terrestrial broadcasters, so Moon may confidently anticipate positive TV coverage. The privately-owned conservative print media lost much of its reader base last year when it turned against Park. While right-wing dailies are sniping at some of Moon’s key policies – notably, his moves to reign in the power abuse of conglomerates and promotion of a minimum wage – they are critics only. “None of them are proposing alternatives,” Asan’s Kim said. “It is not constructive.”

This lack of effective political opposition, combined with ineffectual protests and media criticism, grants Moon a clear political run in which to push through his agenda, until National Assembly elections in 2020.

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