SEOUL — South Korean President Moon Jae-in rode to power last year on a wave of anger over corruption and collusion between the nation’s political elite and the huge family-run conglomerates that dominate the economy.
In January 2017, as he prepared to run for president, Moon called for the removal of the “deep-rooted evil” of the conglomerates, or chaebols, to create a fairer economy.
Now, 18 months into his term, Moon still talks of “democratizing” the economy, but his anger at plutocrats appears to have dissipated. Instead of challenging the powerful chaebols — which include global brands such as Samsung, LG and Hyundai — Moon talks of boosting their “international competitiveness.”
The change has been driven by some factors outside of his control: an aging population, a shrinking workforce and relentless competition from China.
However, it’s also clear that South Korea’s megacompanies have become key partners in his outreach to North Korea.
That impression was reinforced when South Korea’s president brought bosses from the four largest chaebols to Pyongyang in September as part of a large business delegation, effectively enlisting them in his attempt to dangle the carrot of economic development in front of North Korean leader Kim Jong Un.
It’s created something of split image for Moon.
His openings to North Korea won him broad praise. But as his zeal to reform the economy wanes, so does his popularity.
In April, when he met Kim for a historic summit on their shared border, Moon’s approval rating stood at 77.4 percent, according to a poll by Realmeter. In late November, it stood at 48.8 percent, the lowest since he took office. Moon’s numbers later rebounded slightly.
The reason, pollsters say, is largely the economy — with a dash of disappointment that U.S.-led nuclear talks with the North appear to have stalled.
South Korea, once one of Asia’s fiercest “tiger economies,” has lost its roar. The economy is growing by about 2.5 percent annually, and unemployment has risen to 3.9 percent.
Yet, even when Moon tried to shape a fairer economy, it appeared only to breed disappointment from business and labor alike.
A 16 percent increase in the minimum wage and a cap on the workweek at 52 hours — down from 68 — dismayed owners of the nation’s myriad small and medium-sized enterprises. Many of these companies supply parts and components to the big conglomerates and account for 90 percent of jobs in the country.
They feared their already thin margins would be cut to a breaking point by the rise in wages.
Unions are equally angry. Moon betrayed a promise for a larger hike in the minimum wage, they say. Labor leaders also view a move to introduce flexibility on the cap for working hours as a license to exploit workers.
On Nov. 21, the Korean Confederation of Trade Unions brought more than 150,000 workers out for a one-day strike. The unions accused the Moon administration of “joining forces with chaebols” to backtrack on pro-labor policies.
It is hard to escape the feeling that Moon’s mind is elsewhere, his energy and enthusiasm more devoted to his quest to make peace with North Korea than on reforming the economy in the South, critics say.
If so, that could backfire.
Eun Hee Woo, an affiliated researcher with the Graduate School of East Asian Studies at Freie Universität Berlin, argues that Moon’s declining popularity could undermine his support from within his own party. That, in turn, could undermine his efforts to make peace with North Korea.
“In other words, unless Moon manages to dispel his reputation as weak on the economy, the positive developments we have seen between the two Koreas under his presidency may come to an abrupt end,” she wrote for the East Asia Forum.
In fact, there may be a more fundamental reason for Moon’s reluctance to move decisively against the chaebols, argues Park Sangin, a professor at Seoul National University’s Graduate School of Public Administration.
The chaebols are simply too powerful, with their influence spreading deeply into parliament, the judiciary, the media and academia, he said. Challenging the chaebols risks “the possibility of sabotage” against Moon’s leadership, Park added.
This year, the two previous South Korean presidents, Park Geun-hye and Lee Myung-bak were sentenced to 25 and 15 years, respectively, for corruption. But Samsung’s Lee Jae-yong was freed after just a year in detention, while Shin Dong-bin of retail giant Lotte served just eight months in jail on similar charges.
Professor Park says this shows where the real power lies.
“ That’s why it’s difficult in Korea to make any fundamental change — even after the candlelight civil protests, even after the president took the power proclaiming himself as a kind of reformist,” he said.
The chaebols were the heart of the tiger economy’s strength in previous decades, helping to provide the resources that allowed smaller suppliers to grow, and directing the export-focused strategy of “catch-up by imitation” of Japan.
Today, experts say, they stifle the innovation South Korea’s economy desperately needs.
“The economy is blocked by chaebols, and there is no opportunity for innovation, no incentive for innovation,” Park said. “Without fundamental structural change, the Korean economy has no future.”
The man who personified the hopes for reform is Kim Sang-jo, an anti-chaebol activist brought in to head the regulatory Korea Fair Trade Commission. Kim was nicknamed the “chaebol sniper” and was violently dragged out of a Samsung shareholders’ meeting in 2004 after asking about bribes paid to politicians.
In government, Kim is less outspoken. He now says the chaebols are “the core of our nation’s competitive power.” Rather than break them up, he wants to create incentives for voluntary “behavioral change” by amending competition law and launching investigations into cases where chaebols are suspected of breaking existing laws.
“The Moon government came following the candlelight revolution” he said. “My job is to finish the revolution by evolution.”
Min Joo Kim contributed to this report.