In central Seoul on Saturday, hundreds of thousands of protesters, many clutching battery-powered candles, clapped and sang in support of President Moon Jae-in and a campaign by his government to combat corruption through justice system reforms.
Less than 50 metres away and separated by police, a smaller group of opposition protesters, numbering in the tens of thousands, loudly lambasted the president as a “commie” and a “traitor” and called for his removal from office.
While drawing crowds that are smaller in number, a growing series of rallies and protests from opposition groups in recent weeks — sparked by the president’s controversial choice of a new justice minister to carry out the reforms — have dealt a blow to the Moon government.
Together with the country’s slowing economic growth, the protests have driven Mr Moon’s approval ratings down to their lowest since he became president in 2017, casting a shadow over the ruling Democratic Party of Korea’s hopes of maintaining its lead in parliamentary elections in April next year. This, in turn, will make it harder for the president to deliver on his election promises, which aside from reforming the justice system include engaging in peace talks with Kim Jong Un, the North Korean leader, to denuclearise the Korean peninsula.
“This will lead to a messy election in April 2020 that will further complicate Moon’s ability to take the initiative with North Korea,” said Leif-Eric Easley, a professor at Ewha University.
Pressure has been building on Mr Moon since August when he nominated Cho Kuk, a former law professor and his close aide, for justice minister — a role tasked with handling the politically charged reforms of the prosecutorial system.
The prosecutors’ office has long faced criticism for being at the nexus of political corruption in South Korea. Critics allege it was used as a political tool by former conservative governments to target dissenters.
Mr Cho, a former presidential secretary for civil affairs, has been the main architect of Mr Moon’s judicial reform plans, including the establishment of a new agency dedicated to investigating corruption among high-ranking officials.
However, an investigation by state prosecutors into Mr Cho’s own family, including claims that his daughter received academic favours, has hijacked public attention.
In recent weeks prosecutors have searched dozens of properties associated with Mr Cho’s family, and spent hours combing over the contents of his own home. Mr Cho himself has not been accused by officials of any wrongdoing. He has apologised for academic perks given to his daughter but has said his family has not done anything illegal.
“The scandal has made me wonder what kind of justice and fairness the current government stands for,” said Choi Won-eung, a 67-year-old businessman in Seoul. “Isn’t prosecutorial reform all about political neutrality? Then, why is the government meddling in the current probe against Cho?”
Mr Moon has maintained that Mr Cho, a strong advocate of judicial reform, is the right person to overhaul the justice system. And Mr Cho has vowed to complete “irreversible” reform of the system.
While fuelling outrage against the government among the opposition, the prosecutors’ aggressive investigation into Mr Cho’s family has further galvanised calls among Mr Moon’s supporters for reforms. Prosecutors have denied there is any political motive behind the probe.
“The investigation seems excessive, making us doubt the prosecutors’ intentions,” said Song Mi-kyung, a 54-year-old housewife
Still, the resurgent opposition has highlighted broader challenges facing the government.
Mr Moon’s efforts to engage North Korea have been deadlocked for much of this year with Pyongyang refusing to meet the South Korean side and resuming frequent ballistic missile tests. Working level talks earlier this month between North Korea and the US failed to herald any major progress towards North Korean denuclearisation.
The government in Seoul is also forging ahead with its biggest expansionary budget since the global financial crisis as South Korea’s export-driven economy battles headwinds from the global economic slowdown, uncertainty over the US-China trade war and a diplomatic spat with neighbouring Japan.
All of this means Mr Moon will have his work cut out for him if he is to save the ruling party from defeat in next April’s elections, analysts say.
“The deepening political division is a clear burden for Mr Moon, midway through his presidential term, which could lead to a ‘lame duck’ situation [after the 2020 election],” said Kim Man-heum, the head of the Korea Academy of Politics and Leadership, a Seoul-based think-tank.
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