With the South Korean economy contracting in the first quarter of 2019 and the negotiations process with North Korea stymied, critics say President Moon Jae-in is now moving to silence criticism in other ways. Photo: Yonhap via AP
Donald Kirk
Donald Kirk

South Korea’s proposed anti-corruption unit is a thinly disguised power grab for Moon Jae-in – and it won’t work

  • If Moon can create a special new agency to investigate corruption, we can expect him to use it against his political opponents, who have been emboldened by his failing diplomatic and domestic policies

The controversy in Seoul over establishing a special unit to investigate corruption deepens South Korea’s left-right divide in a struggle sure to test the country’s democratic system. In his zeal to carry out his campaign pledges and sweeping reforms, President Moon Jae-in wants broader powers to solidify his regime and sublimate conservative voices.

The drive to enhance the president’s powers marks another step in a process reminiscent of how authoritarian leaders seek to solidify their positions and suppress foes. It might seem an exaggeration to compare Moon with Stalin or Mao, but it is not difficult to fear the rise of a system that stifles speech, silences critics and jails opponents.

We have already seen the beginnings of repression in South Korea in the form of strict controls over television networks and intimidation of journalists, publishers and producers. Clearly, the government fears criticism while forcing economic and social reforms, plus pursuing reconciliation with North Korea that’s going nowhere while risking South Korea’s liberal democracy.
The creation of a new elite unit charged with stamping out enemies of the state may be nothing new in world history but it is definitely against the principles that led to South Korea's democracy revolution of 1987 and presidential elections every five years. The country veered away from that schedule in 2016 and 2017 when Park Geun-hye, Moon’s conservative predecessor, was impeached, tried, convicted and ousted in the convulsions of the Candlelight Revolution that led to Moon’s election two years ago.

Now, the government is proposing a special agency or branch as yet another instrument for doing away with the opposition. Surely the pervasive national police and National Intelligence Service can deal with all conceivable violations of the law. Why enlarge the scope of these already formidable organisations? The answer seems to be what every authoritarian leader craves: his own elite force to carry out his will beyond organisations that may not be so easy to manipulate.

Lawmakers of South Korea’s main opposition Liberty Korea Party have their heads shaved during a rally in front of the National Assembly in Seoul on May 2 in protest against the fast-tracking of key reform bills. One proposal would create a new agency to investigate corruption by high-ranking civil servants. Photo: EPA-EFE/Yonhap
Moon and his aides and advisers feel the need to expand their writ in view of mounting opposition to both their domestic and foreign policies. The longer Kim Jong-un stalls on getting rid of his nuclear programme, the less likely it is that Moon’s government will get anywhere with North Korea. A super-force tasked with suppressing criticism cannot disguise the government’s inability to resolve economic difficulties or reverse declining approval ratings.

Authoritarian leaders typically resort to strong-arm methods to guarantee their foes refrain from criticism. Moon’s entire political career rests on his stated belief in democratic principles, but his move to set up what could turn into a special office of loyalist retainers has ominous overtones.

The rationale for such a force is that South Korean society is riddled with corruption, power-grabbing by ambitious unprincipled politicians backed up by vast sources of wealth, making it impossible to govern. Isn’t that how authoritarian, non-democratic governments justify their actions, stripping away democratic principles, regardless of national constitutions, laws and individual rights?

For Moon, centralising power will not be easy. South Korean conservatives may be divided politically but they remain powerful. The Liberty Party holds the second-highest number of seats in the national assembly after the ruling Minjoo (Democratic) Party. The ranks of the Liberty Party extend from business and military leaders to ordinary people who demonstrate in central Seoul on Saturdays, waving Korean and American flags.

Traditional conservatism in South Korea represents a bulwark of business success, defence against North Korea and national unity in a culture often torn by regional and social differences. Some of Moon’s advisers may think they can reweave the fabric of Korean society, but that’s not going to happen. South Korea is not like an African or Latin American dictatorship in which one-man rule is the name of the game.

Such a system exists within a long-range cannon shot of Seoul. Look at Kim, lording over the North, refusing to give up his nukes and missiles, existing as a terrorist threat to his own people and the world. Moon had better give up thinking of Kim as a role model or even a decent human being. The last thing South Korea needs is to descend into authoritarian rule.

Donald Kirk is the author of three books and numerous articles on Korea

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Ominous signs in Moon’s new anti-graft drive