President Moon Jae-in returned home Friday following a weeklong visit to Thailand, Myanmar and Laos, amid an escalating political row over suspected ethical lapses surrounding one of his most trusted aides.
The Southeast Asian nations rolled out red carpets for Moon, who promised win-win economic cooperation and development aid and publicized a plan to play host to a special group summit with ASEAN member states in late November.
President Moon Jae-in talks with Rep. Lee Hae-chan, head of the ruling Democratic Party, upon arriving at a military airbase in Seongnam, Gyeonggi Province, on Sept. 6, 2019. (Yonhap)
He's now back in "the eye of a typhoon," confronted with a host of thorny domestic issues, midway through his single five-year tenure.
Upon landing at a military airport just south of Seoul, the president received an update on pending domestic issues from his aides and Rep. Lee Hae-chan, head of the ruling Democratic Party.
One of the most pressing tasks is to decide whether or when to appoint Cho Kuk, a former senior Cheong Wa Dae secretary for civil affairs. A National Assembly confirmation hearing for him was held throughout Friday.
Suspicions are rampant over apparent ethical lapses, or even alleged violations of law, by Cho and his family. The allegations include that Cho, a former law professor, and his wife, also a professor, used their authority and personal connections to help their daughter enter coveted schools in South Korea. Related news was a reminder of privileges and prerogatives that influential figures and those vested with power enjoy in the nation, where parents are known for their passion for the education of their children.
A dilemma for Moon and the ruling bloc is that Cho is symbolic of the liberal administration and its drive to reform the prosecution accused of having politically exploited its power. It's one of Moon's key campaign pledges. He worked as a human rights lawyer and presidential secretary for civil affairs himself under the Roh Moo-hyun administration.
Speculation is widespread that Moon may press ahead with the appointment of Cho this weekend, braving ferocious backlash from opposition parties and other critics. Then he's expected to wait for the results of an ongoing probe into the Cho case by state prosecutors.
It would put the parliament in limbo again for the time being, sparking strong protests by the main opposition Liberty Korea Party and minor opposition parties.
During the rest of this year, Moon will likely concentrate efforts on producing concrete accomplishments from his reform drive, revitalizing economic growth and dealing with Japan's export control against South Korean firms. He should solidify support from liberals and attract centrist voters for the general elections next spring, a de facto midterm election.
The latter half of the year is a season for multilateral diplomacy for a South Korean president. This year, however, Moon is expected to skip some meetings abroad and instead place priority on preparing for the two-day South Korea-ASEAN summit to open in Busan on Nov. 25. It will be followed by Moon's separate summit at the same venue with counterparts from the five nations located along the Mekong River -- Cambodia, Vietnam, Laos, Myanmar and Thailand. (Yonhap)