|President Moon Jae-in still has a mountain to climb to achieve his goals. / Korea Times file|
By Amanda Price
For any president or world leader there is a point when you need to look over your shoulder to see how far up the mountain you've climbed.
It is a daunting moment. Either there is a sense of achievement as you gaze down at a faraway ground, or a shocking realization that you're not high enough to hurt yourself if you fall.
President Moon Jae-in, halfway through his term, has arrived at that moment of self-assessment.
There is one thing that he will be able to say with absolute certainty and that is, with regard to integrity, he has climbed higher than his predecessors, many of whom were embroiled or accused of being embroiled in corruption and abuse of power.
His immediate predecessor, ex-President Park Geun-hye, is still in prison and, without a presidential pardon, is likely to die there. Moon has certainly climbed higher than that.
By comparison to his predecessors, Moon has been a remarkable president. Were he to be awarded with presidential titles, he would easily receive the following trophies: "The Most Popular President", "The Most Affable President"; "The Most Well-Intentioned President"; "The Most Everyman President"; "The Most Uncomfortable with Fame President", "The Most Family Man President" and "The Most Conciliatory (unless your Japanese) President".
Most agree he is a good man and undoubtedly the most widely respected democratic president that Korea has known.
As Moon looks over his shoulder, only a few will know for certain what he thinks of his ascent. But this does mean we are left in the dark.
The meter by which we, "the people," measure these "top to bottom" distances is determined by "outcomes," or more specifically, the fulfillment of campaign promises.
Had Moon's primary campaign promise been that he would actively and ardently pursue reconciliation with North Korea, or rather Kim Jong-un, even at the expense of the internal affairs of South Korea, then Moon would unquestionably be close to the summit.
This, however, was not one of his promises.
Rather, Moon campaigned on a platform of promises that included a primary focus on eradicating society of its systematized injustices, improving the living standards of all, and rooting out corruption until the government was as transparent as glass.
As corruption, abuse of power and multi-level social injustices were the catalysts that began the inspiring candlelight vigils, Moon shaped his campaign to answer the cries of the people.
Perhaps his most powerful and affecting promise was to share authority and governance with the people. To the masses who had felt unheard, an everyman president who promised to listen, committing himself to act on those concerns was unprecedented.
To achieve both economic and social reforms, Moon and his progressive administration created an impressive and ambitious five-year plan. The cornerstones and foundation of which would be the over-arching principles of democracy and justice.
Those values placed the people of South Korea at the core of every policy. Improving quality of life for all citizens would have a run-on effect, boosting the economy, encouraging population growth, imbuing citizens with a sense of safety and ultimately, leading to greater success in all spheres of life.
Economically, Moon would completely reform "the rule by chaebol" system and create hundreds of thousands of jobs by raising corporate and real estate taxes, and providing vast sums of money as stimulus for start-ups and small businesses. Working conditions, including wages, working hours, gender equality and representation, would change to benefit workers and, in particular, families.
Welfare was also high on the agenda.
"I will implement a tailored welfare system guaranteeing basic income corresponding to people's lifecycle," Moon announced on MBC. By means of safety nets, the unemployed, the impoverished, the elderly and the disadvantaged would be caught before falling into despair.
The rigid educational system would undergo radical reform, reducing the enormous stress on students, creating alternative pathways to success, and making entry into universities based on simple but fair criteria.
The judicial establishment and the Intelligence Agency would undergo all-encompassing overhauls. A monopoly on power, and the rights of citizens not to be spied on, would be achieved by limiting the authority of both institutions.
Moon was determined that this sense of well-being and increased prosperity would only be complete when it was shared with the other Korea.
As a means to create a shared success and cohesive solidarity on the Korean Peninsula, Moon promised to pursue every avenue that would lead to the reunification of the peninsula.
This is not a new policy for a South Korean president. Previous presidents, liberal and conservative, have made the North aware of their willingness to cross borders and begin a new era.
But perhaps what sets Moon apart is that his willingness has grown to resemble obsession. The reunification of the peninsula, and in that vein, appeasing Kim Jong-un and acting as his ambassador, has occupied the bulk of Moon's time as a president ― at times, taking priority over policies more pressing to the people he has pledged to represent.
This is reason for concern as, halfway through his term, the economic policies Moon has implemented have not seen the outcomes that were so confidently promoted.
The Korean economy is in need of rejuvenation before it can begin to reconsider reunification.
Neither radical changes to working hours, an increase in the minimum wage, higher taxes nor convoluted housing policies have led to an economic upsurge or a notable decrease in unemployment. Large numbers of elderly citizens continue to live as if in a Third-world country. The quality of life, so in need of immediate attention, has improved for some, but not enough, and not for all.
The South Korean Financial Service Commission has estimated that the cost of building North Korea's economy would be at least $500 billion. Some say this is a modest estimate and considering inflation and resistance by the regime, the cost to South Korea could be as high as $3 billion over a 20-year period.
For this reason alone, Moon's one-policy priority is more than concerning.
But reunification is not only a financial burden that South Korea is not able to bear at this time, it is also unjust. Unjust for South Korea's struggling families, for the elderly who subsist on so little, for the unemployed living in over-sized wardrobes, for minorities who are yet to be heard.
Unjust also for the North Korean refugees whose lives will be at greater risk if Kim's head-hunters are given free access to them and their families.
But reunification is most severely unjust for those Koreans living under Kim's rule.
To assume that reunification would free or even somewhat alleviate the suffering of North Koreans is to know nothing about the Kim regime. The regime is not a democracy where citizens share in the fruits of their labor, or even in aid sent to them for relief.
Kim Jong-un has never been one to share.
And despite the fact that President Moon's parents escaped North Korea, he seems to be oblivious to the fact that Kim will never, of his own volition, permit any change that might lead to the downfall of his regime, or the exposure of the war crimes he has committed.
The sad irony is that the first human rights president, who was jailed for fighting for human rights, has been silent before the evidence of torture, oppression and murder, choosing instead to appease and placate a murderous dictatorship.
But just as many of Moon's policies at home have not achieved their end, so too are his gratuitous gifts and overflowing benevolence failing to leave a dent on Kim's iron-clad regime.
It would wrong to assume from all this that Moon was the wrong choice for president. For all of his misjudgment and poorly ordered priorities, Moon is evidently sincere in his desire to do what is best for the citizens of South Korea.
George Belsky, founder of GPB Command Strategies wrote: "It must be stressed that sincerity is not mollycoddling or appeasement. Rather, it is the demonstration that the leader is concerned more about the individuals on his team than he is about himself."
Moon Jae-in has the qualities to be such a person.
When Moon Jae-in campaigned for the presidency, I personally believe that he fully intended to fulfill the vast majority of his promises (any leader who assumes he will be able to fulfill every promise is simply naive). When his policies do not deliver outcomes, the deep disappointment on his face is evident, as if the bewilderment of one who sincerely believed that what he was doing was right.
But sincerity without the ability to discern what is most important, to anticipate timing, to understand when your dreams have blurred reality, is a sad and ineffective quality.
Moon made promises that he has time to fulfill.
His promises to be transparent, to share authority with the people and to address with urgency and vigor the social and economic issues that so desperately need his "full" attention, are still before him and still achievable.
Whatever the distance to the top of that mountain, the climb is attainable, the distance undaunting, his support guaranteed … if his focus is right.